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Which topics are most suited for the live virtual training format

This week’s Secret L&D manager is German and has been working for one of the big management consulting firms for 13 years. She is part of a virtual L&D team responsible for internal training solutions for a global group of analysts, specialists, and managers across multiple time zones. In our previous interviews she has shared how and why her organization got started with live virtual training solutions, and what they have learned along the way. In this post she shares more of her experience and looks forward to the future of virtual delivery.

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Which topics have you learned work well virtually and which haven’t taken off?

As I mentioned earlier, we first used the live virtual delivery format for what we could call hard skills. This included technical skills and software training. Training on Excel, PowerPoint etc. We then used virtual delivery formats for training where there were a lot of tips, dos and don’ts. For example, how to build effective slides and engage your audience. If the training is about showing something directly and then facilitating a conversation about this, then virtual training actually works very well.

We have also had really good experiences with softer topics too. Many of our leadership programs are now delivered virtually. For example one of our management development programs has a kick-off webinar, two one-one-one coaching sessions and a wrap-up webinar —all facilitated virtual—as standard elements, plus during this journey the participants meet for a two-day residential workshop. The feedback from our managers is that this is one of our most popular and successful programs.  We also have a lot of softer topics where working virtually is part of the training goals. For example, “Presenting in a virtual environment” or “Leading virtual teams”.

One big challenge or obstacle in a virtual space is how to build up trust. You have so many things which are lacking in a virtual space which are usually vital to building up trust with someone, right? This could be the immediate reaction to the other’s physical presence – smiles, body language, eye contact, even smell – anything. We’re all humans and we react to one another’s presence. But what happens when there isn’t a physical presence? Tackling this kind of virtual training topic in a virtual training environment makes absolute sense.

Are there some topics that you’d never wanted to go virtual with?

That’s actually a good question. Some training concepts are not at first glance suitable, but over the years I have learned that it is really a question of design. The technology does have limitations, but this is continually improving. I would say the obvious ones that don’t transfer as easily to a virtual deliver format easily are those programs where there are a lot of role-plays required. It’s difficult when the softer expressions, body language etc. are important training elements. But even these can be approached in different ways.

It depends on the situation, the participants’ situations and our training goals. When I want to adapt communication, soft skills, leadership training, etc. for a virtual context I think it’s possible to do that training or program also in a virtual setting. In fact, I will say that it makes a lot of sense to do it virtually as this is the manager’s reality! Yes, it can be difficult with topics like assertiveness, difficult conversations, giving feedback etc.  On a tiny little screen, their body language is not really visible. I don’t know what their legs are doing, but I can see what their shoulders are doing, and maybe their arms, hands and face – and this is reality. If it’s leadership in a virtual environment or difficult conversations in a virtual environment, the virtual training setting works perfectly.

If you’re trying to practice something you only ever do face-to-face with people, then it’s not as strong but it still can work. I can only think of a couple of our programs which maybe aren’t so suitable for virtual delivery, but it’s really only a few.

Do you see a change in the way you’ll be using live virtual training in the future?

Yes and no. I think there’ll be a shift in L&D generally, and also inside our firm. On the one hand, we don’t want to fully give up on the residential trainings because it’s still a very different experience and people really do like them. You are spending maybe three days with each other, rather than three hours online. It is completely different – you get to know people, you have a different level of peer exchange, you establish defined accountability partners etc. If you are meeting in person you also talk more broadly about things which are happening in the business and topics which are very sensitive things. Often this is outside of the training, too. In these longer residential trainings, you often build friendships with colleagues that are important for the rest of their working life. It’s a different experience.

On the other hand, the internationalization of our people and company means we are finding that the people who require a certain skill and want to develop it are not actually based in the same location. Bringing people together for classical face-to-face training is certainly a cost question – but also a time and environmental one, too! I think virtual training will expand because of these factors. There is of course an additional benefit – it is also good that people from different countries, with different work styles and different backgrounds have more chances and opportunities to exchange ideas and approaches.

So, from the human side we certainly still want that people meet each other in person – but really it’s a question of the topic and taking everything into account. I expect virtual training will increase because of the benefits it offers when done well. It makes a lot of sense when you have a topic which can be actually broken down into modules, and where it doesn’t matter if you have a week in between modules (or maybe a week in between really helps!).

Today, virtual delivery is being integrated into all of our approaches. All stand-alone residential training events will also have maybe a virtual kick-off call, some exercises in between, virtual coaching calls afterwards, and virtual wrap-up meetings afterwards etc. This leads to a blended learning journey so people can integrate training into their work life and transfer what they have learned. It is easier to incorporate virtual delivery into our everyday work life.  I believe it will become more and more usual.

Lessons learned: making live virtual training work for our business

This week’s Secret L&D manager is German and has been working for one of the management consulting firms for 13 years. She is part of a virtual L&D team responsible for internal training solutions for a global group of analysts, specialists, and managers across multiple time zones. In our previous interview she shared how and why her organization got started with live virtual training solutions. In this post she shares more of her experience on how to deliver virtual training solutions well.

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Based on your experience over the last five years, what advice would you give a fellow L&D manager who hasn’t organized virtual delivery before and is planning on trying it?

If this is your very first move into live virtual training, I would suggest you start with a hard skill. Something which is more about skills than behaviours, for example software tools, processes etc. I would then search for a pilot group. For me a good pilot group is a group who will give you clear and balanced feedback. You should invest some time in preparing the pilot group. See it like setting the scene in terms of change management. People will probably be very sceptical and may even complain. You want to help them build an open mindset and help them understand why this move to virtual delivery is a good idea for them and the organization.

If this is the very first time you’re trying live virtual training then make the time to go and talk with people one-on-one and win them over. People don’t understand actually how “live”, interactive and fun, live virtual training can be. They might be thinking about e-learning or webinars where they just listen for half an hour. You want them to appreciate that this is live and that they will be expected to contribute in the same way as if they were in the same room as the facilitator. Tell them it’s not going to be a passive and boring experience, just pick up the phone and say “Hey John, you’re suggested for this training, we have this really cool format on WebEx, and it will be working like this and we’ll get you a really good headset and this will be really fun. You’ll meet people from Brazil and from Russia and ….”. Then see what you can do to help them be comfortable with the technology. Think about setting up a WebEx call with them beforehand and show them what WebEx looks like, how it works, how you’re going to use—and a few tips on making it a good experience, like finding a quiet place for the training session without people listening in, without background noise etc.

You want to light a fire in them. You want them to talk about the pilot session to other people and say at the very least, “Hey, actually that was not too bad!”

What advice can you share on designing and delivering live virtual training?

First of all, I would also invest in finding a fantastic and experienced virtual facilitator. You want the participants to connect with them and the training and leave with a positive experience. You can either look for an external vendor or learn-as-you go internally.

If you are going external you want to find an external partner who knows what they are doing and can guide you. If I use our example of working with you at Target Training, when we first spoke, and you asked me “Do you want a producer or not?” I knew that you knew what you were talking about.

Why do you feel a technical producer is so important in virtual training?

There are many people who don’t know what a producer is and what a producer’s role is. For me the technical producer is actually a key part of virtual facilitation and this is often forgotten.

The producer takes care of the technical part and if you use a producer, you can leverage all the functionality available in the virtual training tools, like breakout rooms, polls, whiteboards, combining whiteboards and summarizing them, letting people share output from the breakout rooms, managing technical glitches, etc. There are so many things that can be leveraged so easily. When this is covered by a producer then the facilitator can actually focus on facilitating – the human part of it!

Using a trainer and a producer works very well and everyone knows exactly know who is responsible for what when they have glitches. A producer means fewer distractions. It’s really a key thing for me to have a seamless experience and I wish that producers would be standard. I am a big fan of that.

What do you think makes an effective virtual trainer?

Being an effective trainer virtually requires different approaches. Let me share our first experiences. Prior to deciding to make this jump to virtual delivery, we had of course built up over the years a large pool of trainers and training companies who we worked with company-wide. This pool had a lot of experience with us and there were also a lot of alumni amongst them. We decided to invest in them and their development and help them learn to deliver live training virtually. They knew our company, they knew our people and they knew what our firm is all about. This key learning part was completely covered.

We decided to invest in them and their development in three ways – training them, learning by doing, and giving them constant feedback about really excelling in the virtual space. When we started with live virtual delivery, we said, “Just give it a try and let’s talk after 1 or 2 sessions about how they were delivered”. Our experience was that not every trainer can or wants to make the jump, and that is ok.

When I think about the better experiences I have had with facilitators, like your colleagues, what they all had in common was their ability to do a remarkable job in really building up trust quickly. They knew how to engage others and help people open up. I have also seen them play a lot with the pace which is so important. Generally, in the virtual training environment, people (myself included) tend to be talking much faster than they would in a classic residential training. Slowing the speed down really helps a lot, but if you are the facilitator it can at first feel kind of awkward and unnatural. The virtual facilitator can’t always see the other person and then there’s a delay and you feel as if you are talking into a black hole. But talking too fast is far worse as the participants feel they can’t contribute and are being pushed through the training as quickly as possible.  For me an effective virtual trainer can adapt their pace and play around with it. And the supreme discipline for me personally is when a facilitator can use humor in a virtual setting and makes participants laugh.

How much virtual training is delivered by your own trainers and how much by external partners?

I would today it is 60 – 70% by externals and the remainder by internal trainers. We have developed our own internal train-the-trainer programs for virtual delivery. This is delivered by those pioneers who were basically there at the beginning. We offer a “train the virtual trainer” program to our internal trainers. Our experts benefit from the experience, tips, tricks and advice the facilitators themselves learnt over time. They learn about designing and delivering virtual training.

Do you see a difference regarding training design in virtual training?

Yes, it’s absolutely different! Make sure you think carefully about the training set-up and format. For virtual training, the training design and the training materials need to be approached differently. In terms of training design, ask yourself what actually makes a face-to-face training successful and how can I apply this to the virtual training design? You certainly still want a lot of exercises, so the training is engaging. And, as the learners’ attention span is much shorter virtually, you might need to play more with timing and move fluidly between trainer inputting to discussions and then to exercises.

And a final question – how large would you recommend the groups should be for live virtual training?

It very much depends on the topic. For topics which require interchange of more sensitive things, for example soft skills or anything about teams or leadership, we say five to six people per group with seven being our absolute maximum. For what we call” technical trainings” I think we can accept a few more because the exchanges, discussions and conversations aren’t as important. For these kinds of topics our maximum is 15.

In the 3rd and final part of the interview the Secret L&D manager shares her views on which topics are best suited for virtual delivery and how she sees the future of virtual training.

 

 

 

How and why we got started with live virtual training in our global firm

This week’s Secret L&D manager is German and has been working for one of the big management consulting firms for 13 years. She is part of a virtual L&D team responsible for internal training solutions for a global group of analysts, specialists, and managers across multiple time zones.  In this post, she talks about the need for virtual delivery, the challenges, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
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When did your organization start delivering training virtually?

When I joined our L&D team four years ago, our department had already been offering live virtual training for about a year. Not everyone in the company was actively using it yet so we were kind of pioneers. The background behind our decision to introduce virtual delivery was that we had, and have, a big group of people who are spread across the world in different countries on different continents. There are people in hub locations, and these hubs are also spread across the world, and there are people who may belong to the same department but are located in some very remote locations.

The training challenge here was that if we used the classical way of offering what we call “residential” face-to-face training to all these people, we would have exceeded our budgets by far. And still we wanted to offer everyone a fair chance of having the same training options as their colleagues. We were actively looking at which trainings could be held in a virtual space and this is clearly linked to which trainings are actually most suited, or most easily converted, to virtual delivery.

We started with so-called hard skills like slide writing, using PowerPoint, Excel etc. but we then also quickly moved into other soft areas too. We were keen to make this move as the virtual approach allowed us to make a continuous learning journey out of a “one-off training” and enabled implementing learning into every-day life – this is clearly the biggest advantage.

So how quickly did you move into delivering live virtual training solutions for soft skills training, leadership development, etc.?

I think fairly quickly actually. Until about six years ago there weren’t any soft skills or leadership training programs for my global group at all because the group was just being established. The first training initiatives were the classical format – residential trainings of one to three days. However, within a year, a live virtual delivery format had been established and then it moved forwards fairly quickly. Nowadays we have a 50/50 split – half is virtual, and half is residential.

What have you learned along the way about organizing live virtual training?

We should split this question into the organizational part and the delivery and facilitating part — but we have learned a lot in both areas! Starting with the organizational side, as with residential training, too, we learned we need to block time with people, and in virtual training these time slots need to be convenient for multiple time zones. Then we needed to find a suitable and reliable tool of course. WebEx was rolled out globally in our company around this time, and we were very happy – it works well with only a few exceptions when people have a poor internet connection. Everyone has the same technology; everyone has the same starting point. This is actually a really big help.

We also learned that there is a difference between delivering the classic virtual training session and what we call a blended virtual format. Let me explain; we had training where everybody was in a different place behind their desks. What we also successfully tried is, for example, having ten people in Boston who wanted to do the slide writing training, and we also had four people in Munich, and three people in Madrid. In some locations we have dedicated video rooms—this means people are sitting on one table and in one corner of the room there is a TV screen and camera. The group in Boston sees the other groups in Munich and Madrid and the other way, too. The facilitator is live in Boston, so one of the locations does have the advantage of having a live facilitator in the same room – but the participants in the other locations have colleagues with them, too – and everyone can see everyone. So when it comes to exercises this “being in a room with colleagues” does have a really big advantage. Colleagues are motivating and challenging each other, and of course we shouldn’t ignore the benefit of group pressure when it comes to participation and focus. People are not checking emails or multi-tasking because there are other people sitting in the room in the same training. And we could offer training to locations where there were too few people to have a face-to-face training.

We did something similar for a “writing proposals” project with a sales team in the Far East. The trainer was in one room and everybody else was in another room. It can work really well.

Absolutely! If the room is set up properly, this comes close to recreating a live residential training. Of course, logistics-wise there can be some difficulties because you first of all have to have a certain number of learners in each office and then people of course change plans last minute etc. But this is similar to the challenges of classical residential training. We also had to book all those video rooms, so they were free at the same time etc. Then an important client meeting comes, and the team is thrown out; so logistics-wise that’s a little bit hard, but we found solutions. In general, the approach worked very well, and the learners said they had a really positive group learning experience.

When you made your first moves into live virtual delivery was there any resistance from people? For example, did you have people wanting to stick with the classic face-to-face training approach?

Of course – and to be quite honest there still is! Often people still frankly ask “Hey I’ve been invited to this virtual training. Is there a live residential training instead?” This is natural because many people prefer to go somewhere else to be really focused, meet people, limit interruptions etc. It’s a much more intense experience, let’s be honest. There was a lot of resistance at the beginning and we still get it sometimes. However, I would say it quickly became accepted – mainly because people have had very positive experiences with virtual training, and they have then shared their experience with others.

This is where we come to the absolute need for good virtual facilitation skills. When we started moving into live virtual delivery, we already had a strong pool of trusted facilitators. Many of them were external vendors who were brilliant in the residential live facilitation, but facilitating virtually is so different. I’m thinking back to a workshop I attended myself on “Virtual Facilitation” run by the American Talent Development Association. This trainer was a radio moderator and he gave tips and tricks on using your voice to make virtual training more engaging. One thing he said—that I have never forgotten—was that facilitating in a virtual environment feels completely awkward. It’s really like being a radio moderator. It feels like you are talking to yourself and you aren’t getting any feedback. He said you need to embrace this, and to accept the silence. You will feel super awkward at first. But people need you to act as a guide. When you ask a question, you have to wait until an answer comes, and you still have to smile into the camera—even if there is no one immediately responding. This is a big change and challenge for many facilitators. And just as with face-to-face training, space and time to think is important. It is just that the time feels longer and different in a virtual training world.

In the early days we invested in our internal facilitators. They got training on how to really adapt to this virtual training context because it requires very different tools and very different styles of facilitation. We also had to train long-term and trusted external vendors on what we needed.

Not every trainer can or wants to make that change – it’s a question of personal preferences. And of course, some trainers are much better delivering training face-to-face than virtually. It’s really a totally different skill.

 

 

In our next blog post this Secret L&D manager share more of her experience and advice on making virtual training a success