Many large companies struggle to find the right balance between face-to-face and virtual leadership development. As remote work becomes more common, online training not only reduces travel expenses and helps to accommodate time zone and schedule differences, it also allows for some of the same immersive, hands-on learning that classroom environments provide due to technological advancements. Still, many online and virtual alternatives lack the quality and rigor of successful face-to-face training programs.
For business competencies such as leadership and business acumen, shifting training online is an especially difficult challenge. Leadership development is not simply about knowledge acquisition. It involves mindset and behavioral changes that require peer-based learning environments, action-learning projects, and other social and experiential learning methodologies that are hard to translate from traditional to virtual classrooms. For higher-level cognitive skills, the optimal environment may be a hybrid of self-paced online courses, webinars, and a face-to-face component.
Why Move Online?
Before translating a leadership curriculum to an online format, it is important to ask “Why?” Circumstances that may support going virtual include:
An increasingly global workforce operating in virtual teams
A significant increase in the number of learners
A shift in learner demographics and expectations (Generation Z, etc.)
The reasons for moving training online determine what type of online or blended environment most effectively supports both the learner and the company needs. For example, if the primary reason for a move to online learning is a tight budget, more emphasis on self-paced online courseware may be called for.
To support learners in an asynchronous environment, the learning design needs to include milestones and clear completion requirements. This may mean formal assessments, but this is as much for the learner’s sense of progress and accomplishment as for the company to verify training completion. Including interactive touch-points and other check-ins can also contribute to a heavily asynchronous program’s success.
A move online to adapt to the evolving needs and expectations of the post-internet workforce could also include some state-of-the-art online business competitions that require less frequent check-ins and handholding.
Pros/Cons of Classroom Trainings
For many companies, face-to-face training is as relevant as ever. In-person training allows participants to grow a peer network, build cohesive teams, and hone collaboration and communication skills. Body language and eye contact, not to mention the many opportunities for informal activities afforded by face-to-face events, contribute to deeper relationships with peers. Only within environments of trust can emerging leaders give and receive the authentic, supportive feedback required to identify personal leadership blind spots.
Classroom training, of course, can be cumbersome to schedule and execute, not to mention costly in the short run. But before finalizing a move online, L&D leaders are well advised to weigh the tradeoffs.
Pros/Cons of Virtual Trainings
There's skepticism about whether virtual training programs are as effective as face-to-face environments, but there are certainly situations when virtual training can be just as effective. And although webinars keep travel costs down, the benefits are not necessarily exclusively financial. The two key non-financial benefits to virtual training are:
The virtual training environment increasingly matches what leaders face each day on the job. Even when learning objectives are not directly related to virtual team management, learning alongside remote peers is yet another opportunity to practice working in a virtual team. This is doubly true when the learning design involves a team activity such as an action learning project or a simulation. Instructors can explicitly or implicitly reinforce insights about good virtual team behavior, even within curricula around business acumen or marketing.
Virtual programs can more easily be spaced out across a longer time period, and shorter bursts over a longer time are better for retention and behavior change than training interventions concentrated into full days. The reason for cramming learning into training days has always been economic, and not that it is a particularly good way to learn. Virtual programs – e.g. programs in which 90-minute webinars are spaced out over several weeks – allow for reflection and consolidation.
A difficulty of virtual programs is that they rely heavily on functioning technology to succeed. Technological hiccups can negatively impact the program quality as perceived by participants, as well as their overall experience. Therefore, greater measures must be taken beforehand to ensure all technology components are secured.
The Hybrid Solution
In many cases, implementing a hybrid of both in-person and virtual training provides the most value. Perhaps your company has an annual retreat during which participants can kick off a training program in-person. Subsequent sessions can be delivered virtually. The hybrid model enables relationship-building up front, and then offers flexibility, long-term learning consolidation, and cost savings.
Training methodologies and learner expectations are co-evolving in response to new technologies. Face-to-face seminars, asynchronous online resources, and instructor-led webinars each have a place in leadership development, and going virtual is not all about cost savings. Regardless of what mix makes sense in your environment, preparing the future leaders of your company is an investment that will create long-term value.
Still not sure which method is best for your company? Abilitie’s team of experts is happy to discuss your needs and goals to determine which approach is right for you.