Training crisis? Get management to open the purse strings.

I often consult with organizations to set up staff training programs or in-house training programs for large software rollouts. During these engagements, IT managers, CIOs, CEOs and others constantly complain about their IT staffing crisis. Yet when training or human resource groups request money to improve employee skill sets or to set up boot camps for new employees, it is these same managers who either say "no" or offer only very small budgets. The truth is that the so-called "IT staffing crisis" at many companies could easily be solved if senior management would simply loosen the corporate purse strings and provide training groups with the dollars they need.

So why are managers so resistant to training budget requests? Whether they want to admit it or not, some managers still see training as a luxury that takes time away from development. Some even think that sending employees to training classes is equivalent to giving them a vacation. Other managers simply don't have training as a very high priority on their budget list. For example, I recently spent nearly five months working with the CFO of a large manufacturing company trying to get a budget approved to create a training program for her staff to learn a new ERP package. During this time, staff members continued to struggle with the new software. It was only when order entry fell significantly behind that we were able to garner the attention of senior management.

Why does this happen? Time, mostly. Creating a training program requires significant planning, as well as the foresight to gather and analyze the needs of employees. The majority of corporate managers are caught up in the day-to-day operations of the company, leaving them little time for strategic thinking regarding training. Another major problem is that training managers and developers often don't have the skills necessary to sell management on the need for training. This is precisely why training managers, HR professionals and IT staff managers must learn how to sell training to senior management in a way that makes management want to open the purse strings.

Six steps to obtaining management dollars

It is never easy to convince management that training is necessary, and it's especially difficult to convince them to spend the time and money on establishing a formal training program. To sell management on a training budget, try these six basic steps.

1 Find an executive sponsor. Without someone at the top to back the training program, it will almost certainly fail. An executive sponsor knows the political landscape and can guide you through the potential landmines. This person also has the ability to lobby and champion your cause among those who can fund it. To get an executive sponsor, you must first cover your potential exposures and be aware of management concerns.

2 Know the issues. One major issue with training programs is management and organizational education. The training team must never assume that everyone knows what the training is about. In addition, employees must be educated to understand the relevance of their training to business issues. There must also be a clear respect for budgets. Training programs do not come cheaply; therefore, everyone involved must clearly understand how the money will be spent and what the payback will be.

That brings us to the biggest issue of all — cost. Where will the money for the program come from? Will the training team be budgeted from a central pool or will it be funded from the software rollout project? If it is funded on a project basis, who will maintain the materials? These are all questions that must be answered before the presentation to management.

3 Find out how management thinks. The process of selling management on the idea of a formal training program for a software rollout has a number of steps, but the constant in the process is continuous communication. If you understand the various communication styles of senior managers, you can customize your approach. What projects have they funded or killed? Do those projects have anything in common, such as a weak project plan or a vague scope? To get this information, talk to staff members who have worked with each of the managers you must sell to. Find someone who knows a lot about each manager's work and communication style, and who might even have some insight into their pet peeves.

4 Find out what management thinks. Some managers don't think much of formal training programs and don't want to put the money into the infrastructure necessary to build one. To find out what their beef is, ask questions — lots of questions! What do they think of training and training programs in general? What are their issues with training? What problems do they see with the program? What experiences (good and bad) have they had with training programs in the past? One effective way of persuading senior managers to back a training program is to emphasize the value it will have to them personally. Find out what their needs are before you do a general presentation. You probably won't end up being all things to all people, but you may be able to meet almost everyone's basic needs. Interview managers extensively to get their concerns incorporated into the sales document.

5 Get to their peers. Like all professional employees, senior managers are concerned with how their peers perceive them and what they are thinking about. If possible, find executives or senior managers at other organizations that have sponsored efforts like yours. This gives your executive the opportunity to talk with people at their own level who have experienced this training effort — it also indicates that you've done your homework. If you can find an organization in the same industry as your own (manufacturing or banking, for example), your sponsor will then have some foundation for backing your effort because they will be able to point to success at similar organizations.

6 Sell, sell, sell. To be able to sell something, you must believe in it. If the person you're selling to thinks — even for a minute — that you're hesitant about the program, their enthusiasm will dry up. You must also sell to people at all levels of the organization. Try to find people in your organization who want the training you're offering. A common groundswell of support can be very helpful to your cause. If senior managers are hearing needs from their staff, and you can meet those needs at a reasonable cost, you have a pretty good chance of succeeding. If you must, take a course to improve your sales abilities.

One little-known fact about selling is that it involves more listening than talking. My father has been in sales for more than 40 years. I used to marvel at how he could build rapport with a customer so fast, while talking so little. Years later, he told me that by listening he could adapt his sales pitch on the fly. The point is that the more your customer tells you, the more you know about their needs. By listening carefully, you can gather the needs of the largest number of people and then customize your program to meet those needs.

There is an old sales adage: Nothing happens until someone sells something. Providing management with the information they need — what the training program is about, how it will benefit the company and employees, how it will be paid for — can result in more training dollars being pushed your way. This money buys training programs that improve the productivity of IT staff, reduce turnover and provide new hires with solid, useful skills. A winning situation for any organization.

About the Author

Charles H. Trepper is CEO of The Trepper Group, a Minneapolis-based consultancy.