Like any keen athlete, we’re always looking for ways to raise our game. New training methods, new gadgets, new ways to compete… we’re open to anything that will make us better tomorrow than we were yesterday.
We had an opportunity recently to combine all the above in one project for a client that asked us to take a successful programme of leadership development workshops and deliver them online.
This is a new training method to us. We’d not done anything in the virtual space before. It involved new gadgets: in this case the WebEx Training Centre platform. And we were attracted by the opportunity to experience some relevant virtual experience so we could think about competing in this space, crowded though it is.
I’m happy to say our experience was a successful one, but it was not an easy ride. We’ve pulled together four lessons for anyone considering entering this virtual world, to help you learn from our mistakes.
Lesson 1. Don’t go for gold
You’ll need to limit your ambition; do not think you can achieve the same effect with the same material as in a conventional face to face workshop.
We were asked to shrink a dynamic one-day curriculum, itself a condensed version of a successful two-day programme, into a virtual workshop lasting no more than 2 1/2 hours. This presented us with a philosophical decision: should we cover more material in less depth, or less material in greater depth? To answer this, we looked at the objectives of the workshop from the participants’ point of view as well as the limitations of the virtual medium.
We opted to cherry-pick the best bits of the one-day curriculum and sacrifice flow and continuity. Like choosing only the action sequences from a blockbuster movie and screening them sequentially without worrying too much about the interconnecting narrative that binds them together as a story.
The limitations of the medium are important; plenty of content that works well in a face to face environment does not work – or needs some serious adaptation – to work in the virtual world. While the simplest course can be simply to miss out anything that you think won’t work online, we had one or two pieces that were essential and which necessitated workarounds.
For example we’re big fans of TetraMap®, a learning model designed to improve team cohesion by helping people understand themselves and others better. A successful TetraMap workshop includes the TetraMap Instrument; participants answer a series of questions with alternative responses that help to reveal their default preference or style.
Without a bespoke app or online tool (it’s in the works but not yet ready) WebEx has no way of handling the instrument. We worked around it by defining the characteristics of the four style preferences and asking participants to choose the one they felt most described them.
In practice this worked well enough. We sacrificed the sense of self-discovery we enjoy when the instrument is used in a live workshop, but we felt that the inclusion of TetraMap was so essential to the content of the curriculum that we could not help but include it.
Lesson 2. It’s a team sport
We’ve heard of one-man-bands delivering successful workshops from the comfort of their own homes, but now that we’ve tried it, we don’t believe it. We wisely engaged the services of Intercall, a team of producers and engineers who know their way around the WebEx platform and are in constant touch throughout each workshop.
So when we sent people into virtual breakout rooms and they inadvertently deleted all our carefully prepared instructions, the Intercall team were on hand to alert us so we could dive in there and sort the group out.
They also do all the moving around – putting participants into breakouts and making sure the technology works. This allowed us to focus on what we know best: delivering great learning content.
We would not consider giving a virtual workshop in future without a team alongside us. And while we can’t recommend Intercall highly enough and will employ them for future engagements, we understand that other producers are available.
Lesson 3. Train hard. Race easy
All sports require practice. Team sports require team practice. Clive Woodward has a mantra: T-CUP, which stands for Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. It’s applicable here. Things will go wrong. We need to practice things going wrong so we know how to cope with them.
Know what you’re going to do when you’re expecting 30 participants and only six show up. Know how to deliver your content when two thirds of participants find that their firewalls prevent them attending via the weblink, limiting them to audio participation only. Know how to replace content in breakout sessions instantly when it is removed or defaced.
All of the above happened to us across a series of five workshops. Having practiced and scenario-planned and shared best (and worst) practice as the sequence of workshops progressed, we built confidence to make changes on the fly without compromising the outcome.
Lesson 4. Vary your game
2 1/2 hours can pass quickly for presenters but it can drag for participants who, seated at busy desks in open plan environments, can find their attention wandering.
We countered this by keeping every topic short; a series of sprints through materials we’d normally reflect upon in a group situation, but which we delivered in the virtual environment as a series of headline thoughts.
For materials we used one or two slides only and followed each topic with a poll or a breakout or some other form of feedback. Participants soon got used to this cycle: learning, small group or individual conclusion-drawing followed by sharing their work. This kept them focused; with the help of our virtual producers monitoring activity levels, we were able to make sure that every participant participated.
So now we’re experts! Not really. But we’re eager to improve and now have a solid base from which to do so.
As long as we keep our ambitions in check, recognise that together we’re stronger than we are on our own, understand the value of hard training and are happy to remain flexible and adaptable, we’ll be good at this. And it’s worth the effort, because it allows us to deliver something of the Promontory experience to those who for whatever reason, can’t make it to our physical workshops.
From our client’s point of view the workshops were a success because they brought high quality learning to a geographically diverse group, enabling outliers within their organisation to enjoy some of the same experience as their centrally located colleagues.
Judging by the responses from the delegate surveys and from Intercall’s diagnostic attendance/attention data, attendees found it useful, informative, entertaining and relevant.
Of course the proof is in the pudding, but having created a critical mass of expertise, ambition and confidence through a combination of on- and off-line workshops, we are looking forward to seeing our clients’ performance improve and also to our next opportunity to offer more of this blended learning approach in the future.