associate director Huthwaite International
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Is virtual training the answer?

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20th Jul 2015
associate director Huthwaite International
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Well, is it? David Freedman isn't sure it's the panacea L&D make it out to be. 

Ever since I started talking to L&D, HR and sales directors about the virtual classroom or campus – around eight years ago – I’ve had to clarify what I meant. Surprisingly, that need to distinguish virtual training from the more familiar elearning hasn’t diminished much in all that time. Corporate audiences have become familiar and comfortable with various forms of distance learning, online learning, blended learning, webinars and webcasts. But as any trainer knows, learning requires them to draw answers out of the student and to construct a convincing and lasting model that actually works, rather than just to cram students' heads full of facts or theories. And you can only do that in a live, multi-directional, highly participative setting. 

Traditionally, that setting has been a room with four walls, a beamer, a flip chart, a pile of boiled sweets and about a dozen eager students. But the question that software giant SAP asked a few years ago was: “Can you deliver those same courses virtually?”, as it was their declared policy to receive all their specialist outsourced training in the remote classroom. As SAP saw it, being able to train staff anywhere, reducing travel costs and consuming less of employees’ valuable time, would be a net gain. But if it were as simple as that, you might have thought virtual would be the only training channel today. In fact most companies remain attached to the traditional setting. Why?

My view would be that the technical and experiential issues are not difficult to overcome, with a great deal of instructional design expertise and careful consideration of what the student-trainer relationship needs to be. The challenges lie elsewhere. For training programmes that are very content-rich and practice-intensive, it is very difficult to re-write (and shorten) them for the virtual environment. Also, making sure that all the delegates log-in to every virtual session on time, undistracted by what’s going on in their offices or at the next desk, is much harder that ensuring people are present in a separate training venue for two or three consecutive days. This combination of factors has meant that the promise of replacing the physical classroom with virtual (as distinct from elearning) hasn’t been realised to any great extent in the world at large, so the L&D culture hasn’t changed yet. 

"So, whether virtual training is the answer rather depends on the question. Will it ever be a straight replacement for highly behavioural face-to-face training? "

The real value has come in supplementary sessions, before or after the main training event. It’s worth getting a dozen people to a hotel if they’re going to be there for three days, immersing themselves in a skill set. But if half of the cohort (equally dispersed and busy) want to practise asking a particular kind of question of a particular type of prospect, then the virtual environment is often the right one.

Also, getting key learning messages across to senior managers who need to bless the wider training project before it starts and demonstrate familiarity with the concepts and terminology, but who are never going to be part of the main audience, lends itself very well to the virtual space. They experience true training (not just an explanatory presentation) in the form of a self-contained and edited version of the full programme. That way L&D can demonstrate its capability and relevance, they can get a true flavour of what the rest of the organisation is about to experience, and the minimum of expensive executive time has been expended.

And customising role plays – bringing together sales managers to work alongside the trainer/facilitator to co-author buyer/seller scenarios – has proven to be another natural use for virtual. Here you can explore the knowledge and behaviours to the extent that it is necessary to design the scenarios with them, even if you are all in different places or even time zones.

We’ve found that sessions such as these (in addition to the occasional full-length event) have more than justified the investment in the technology and the content redesign. Quite possibly, when the culture changes further, the main course will be virtual more often, rather than just the starter and the pudding.

But there is a wider point governing the gains and losses in a digitally-driven training world, pointed out in the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Annual Report 2015: “With any training or professional education that capitalises on the availability of digital innovation, and is aimed at today’s 20- and 30- somethings, the challenge remains to ensure that training retains both verified attainment and a human dimension. Being shown the mechanics of driving a car on a simulator is quite different from getting behind a wheel.” How much more so in selling skills?

“Digital developments are welcomed,” says the report, but “they shouldn’t be allowed to dilute core business skills, like speaking in public, managing meetings and the ability to sell. Millennials who are fluent in digital skills can sometimes lack some of those core business skills. People still buy and sell substantially on the basis of what they think of people.” Virtual training design must always develop, not bypass, human communication skills.

So, whether virtual training is the answer rather depends on the question. Will it ever be a straight replacement for highly behavioural face-to-face training? Possibly, especially where there are insurmountable physical or economic barriers to convening a traditional training event, and if the people delivering the training have constructed a truly bespoke method of creating an interactive learning experience taking full account of the attributes and limits of the technology.

Does it have an important role to play in overcoming distance and availability obstacles, and reinforcing learning on specific topics, in short, focussed bursts? Most definitely. But wherever it is used, the mantra for anyone delivering the training is: remember the human dimension. 

David Freedman is associate director at Huthwaite International. He has worked for Huthwaite International for 13 years, helping many of the world’s largest companies to improve their sales performance and strengthen their negotiation skills

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