Are your developers expenses or assets? Technically, the accounting department and the IRS have an answer for that, but here's what I'm talking about: An expense is something that you throw money at and it depreciates in value or is consumed until it's done. A good example would be papers and staples. You shell out money for paper and staples, and they eventually run out, but what are you going to do? The company needs paper and staples so you have to pony up the expense. An asset, on the other hand, is something for which you pay now, and expect future benefits or returns. In other words, think investment. It's not just tossing money out the window, it's (eventually) getting something in return for the initial cost.
So with our simplistic analogy, investments are only good if they grow and provide a bigger future return. You have the choice of viewing your developers as a necessary expense, or viewing them as something that with a little investment, will provide greater future benefits for the organization. But in order for that to happen, developers need to grow in skills. When hiring, the best developers I've gotten are the really passionate ones who eat, drink, and dream code. They spend a ton of their own time researching and collaborating and growing their skills. But realistically, not all developers are like that. It works out mostly if you have single guys and gals who have that level of interest in coding and architecture and probably little else to get in the way barring the prospect of a nightly raid in Warcraft. But for the rest of society, you have parents and people with other adult responsibilities that demand inordinate amounts of time and energy outside working hours.
And that gets us to the crux of today's post - exposure. You don't necessarily have to send developers to really expensive training in order for them to grow. The key factor is exposure. Exposure to techniques, technologies, practices, bugs, workarounds, etc. The more exposure the better. For the devs who do little else in their free time, they are getting that exposure through books, articles, online forums, collaboration projects, and many other avenues. But for the devs who can't really afford to do all that (or as much), the only exposure they really get is what's in front of them 9 to 5 - which is to say, little or nothing at all that will help them grow beyond what they already do. And here's where I encourage managers to allow their developers to surf the web, be active in tech forums, contribute to a collaborative project, blog, and otherwise get the type of outside exposure they can only get online *on company time*. Sure, you have to limit it and make sure it's appropriate, but even a half hour a day can help to vastly improve their exposure to new tips and tricks, technological features, practices, and feedback they would have otherwise never gotten. Try it and see if this doesn't provide better benefits than forcing them to go heads-down in the project code 8+ hours a day.