Across the board, in-person leadership development events at organizations and universities are being cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis. For many people on both sides—giving and receiving training—these communal sessions were the preferred way to get to the next level. For the rest of the year, at least, at-home digital courses will have to suffice. I suspect that once people learn how to leverage the digital world for learning, they won’t want to go back to how it was.
I began teaching virtual classes eight years ago. My colleague, and the founder of the Mentora Institute, Columbia Professor Hitendra Wadhwa, created the first online course offered by a major business school 10 years ago. We’ve been hard at it ever since.
There are three surprising lessons we’ve learned:
Digital formats make it easier to apply the science of learning and behavior change
The ultimate purpose of most learning is not just to experience a new idea but to leverage it to think or behave differently. But this rarely happens. A moment’s introspection will highlight how little you likely have retained from college, for example. I ask people at events how many of them don’t remember most of what they learned in college, and people routinely just laugh as almost every hand goes up. Doctors finish residency and often complain they were not trained for what they need to do. Lawyers graduate law school and can’t try a case. A degree in management does not make you a good manager. Everyone knows learning happens on the job. It’s the old 70-20-10 rule–70% on the job, 20% from people we know, and only 10% from formal learning. We shrug our shoulders. It’s the best we can do, right? No, it’s not!
The solution is to give people numerous opportunities to practice the application of their learning in the contexts they will see on the job. No one ever learned to play piano by reading a Harvard Case Study on Mozart and discussing how to arrange notes. We should not expect it from leadership development either. As with piano, for leadership you must isolate the skills and mindsets in need of practice, help people build expertise with each, and then put those skills and mindsets together into meaningful leadership behaviors. We call this “MicroPractice.”
Research shows that repeated practice, with immediate feedback, opportunities for course correction, and in the kinds of contexts that a person will likely encounter is necessary to train the brain for real behavior change. Moreover, to achieve lasting mastery, the learner should return to the same concepts and skills multiple times across different days, weeks, or months. Each time they should seek to regenerate and synthesize what was most important, actively, not passively, and should build on what they know by adding new complexity to their expertise. This should be personalized, based on the learners’ progress and needs.
This generally doesn’t happen at in-person events. However, there is a model for this kind of learning–the flight simulator used to train astronauts and pilots, and it is highly effective. In a digital environment, it is possible to create a leadership flight simulator, which learners can engage with repeatedly over time. As one executive put it “it’s great to have many small opportunities for this kind of digital practice. I believe that I have accumulated substantial theoretical knowledge. Now I need to convert it into practice, and these digital simulations really help!” It is much more difficult to program MicroPractice and longitudinal, personalized development into an in-person event.
Digital formats let you focus the majority of your resources on the stuff that matters
Let’s look at time and money. Anyone who has traveled for an in-person learning event knows that a lot of other work gets put on hold. There’s the travel time, the time at the event, the administrative time—coordinating travel and submitting expense reports, and the time that seems to just vanish. Let’s say a one-day event puts each attendee two days behind on other work. Costs can vary tremendously, depending on the distances and levels of seniority of those attending. But let’s take a conservative estimate of $1,000 per attendee for all travel expenses. That lost day of productivity and that $1,000 per attendee are simply not part of the equation with digital learning. For an organization seeking to train 500 people, that’s half a million dollars and 500 days of productivity.
Imagine what would occur if you were to dedicate those 500 days to practicing the application of concepts and skills in the kind of leadership flight simulator I described? The power to actually change behavior back on the job would be extraordinary. In the words of one executive who engaged in this kind of training, “the ability to employ some of the learnings on a day-to-day basis in the workplace and then reflect on them while completing these exercises through [an] app has been incredibly powerful.” The gap between what is possible digitally in that respect and what occurs with in-person events is staggering.
The benefits of in-person events can be achieved with digital programs
For the sake of argument, consider three of the top benefits of in-person events. For each one, it is likely you’ve said or heard “there’s nothing like in-person”—they are highly engaging, provide opportunities for pairs or small groups to workshop important issues, and help form a sense of community.
In-person events can certainly be highly engaging. Some speakers are electrifying. However, some videos and radio programs are also electrifying. As a trainer or educator, you have to get to know the medium. Furthermore, I would challenge the idea that in-person events are more engaging by default. Many require people to sit all day, fighting exhaustion and a wandering mind. The reason is those trainings seek to pack in the most content they can in the time allotted because of the high cost of travel. Digital learning does not face such constraints, so it can be spread out into chunks that are easy to handle as a learner.
The second challenge—how to workshop issues in pairs and small groups—has largely evaporated with improved technology, with platforms like Zoom so readily available. They have useful solutions for audio, video, text, polls, slides, whiteboards, breakout rooms, and so forth. There is some housekeeping to do to make sure your audience is familiar with the technology. But a few minutes is plenty.
Finally, a sense of community forms when people go through something together, get to know one another personally, come to value the individual contributions of all members to the whole, share a common set of customs, and are focused on shared goals. Psychology research is clear that these factors matter. These are issues of curriculum design, and give people a chance to speak with one another. In some ways, a digital platform is superior for these purposes, as it is easier to ensure all members of a group have a voice.
If your digital learning primarily consists of passive content (i.e. most of what you will find on content aggregators) then I would agree that in-person events are far superior. But why at this point in history, should we accept such compromise?
I would argue that for almost any benefit previously assigned to in-person training, the reason for the gap between in-person and digital is not a fundamental chasm but is an issue of design.
Is there a place for in-person training in the future?
Yes, and we continue to see value in running such programs in the future. In-person training confabs offer a great opportunity to connect socially with colleagues. Getting the chance to attend the best trainings can be viewed as a coveted reward. And in-person events can be a welcome break from other forms of work. However, it would not make sense to continue to run them as before. They should be augmented so as to be as valuable as digital learning. The simplest ways to do so are to add-on a digital journey or executive coaching over time to accompany an in-person event. But the event itself can also be enhanced to leverage the science of learning in many of the same ways as are more naturally done in a digital environment, such as by weaving MicroPractice into the program.