The classroom based training course has been the mainstay of management development for decades – and for good reasons. The model is simple, allowing a group of colleagues with similar needs or aspirations to learn together, swapping ideas and learning from an expert course leader. Classroom training is an efficient and cost-effective way of building skills and knowledge within an organisation.The formal structure mirrors that of familiar learning environments like school or university and as a result people feel comfortable with this way of doing things.
However, classroom training has its limitations too. Until recently there has been no way to avoid the logistical problems associated with getting a group of participants to clear their diaries on the same day and to travel to the same venue for a training session. On top of that, their availability needs to fit with that of the course leader and the venue. And training days are effectively write-offs in terms of participants’ daily work. A day out of the office on a training course can be costly.
The Impact of the Internet
The internet revolution seems to have touched almost every aspect of our daily lives. Everything from the way we do our grocery shopping to how we socialise with friends has been transformed in ways that would have been unimaginable only a generation ago. For those under 40 it’s hard to imagine how people did their jobs before email came along in the 1990s.
Increasingly people are linked together in vast global networks via technology. Rather than interacting only with a small set of people who work around us, we are able to communicate instantaneously with others no matter where they are on Earth.
The Arrival of Virtual Training
In the last few years new multimedia online meeting technologies have arrived and been developed to a high level of refinement. They makes it possible for groups of people to meet in private online ‘spaces’ to share ideas, experiences and information.
From the point-of-view of training, this offers big opportunities for companies with dispersed workforces. It means that people with similar needs, no matter where they are based, can participate in the same training courses without the need to travel across or between countries to sit in the same room.Â It also means there’s no need to book a venue.
A skilled facilitator can use flexible technologies like WebEx, Adobe Connect or GoToMeeting to deliver interactive workshop-style training sessions in which participants can collaborate, discuss ideas and learn from their expert tutor and each other. Nowadays there is little that can be done in a classroom that can’t be replicated online.
Virtual training differs from other forms of online learning in that it deliberately sets out to replicate the best features of classroom courses. It’s focused on interaction and engagement, with delegate numbers kept low so everyone has a chance to contribute. It’s a far cry from the pre-recorded videos or mass attendance webinars that proliferate on the web.
What virtual training can offer above all else, however, is convenience. Colleagues can learn together in bite-sized sessions designed to fit around their work. They don’t need to travel or book hotels, and training administrators don’t need to book a venue. The impacts on the bottom-line can be significant.
Another big advantage of virtual training is that HR and training managers can retain a much greater level of control over quality and content by auditing sessions from their desks. This is especially valuable to globally dispersed organisations with central HR functions.
The Future and Virtual Training
There is no doubt that – like many aspects of our lives – the way we do training will be transformed by internet technologies. Already many large and successful companies are moving to a virtual training model, and where they lead others are following.
The economies and convenience of virtual learning are also attracting pioneers from formal educational organisations such as universities and schools. Virtual courses are seen as offering the hope of democratising education, enabling lower fees and a wider reach than traditional courses.
As a new, tech-savvy generation continues to enter the workforce virtual training is becoming an ever more natural and familiar way to learn for modern workers. The organisations that recognise this have a significant advantage over those that retain one foot in the past.
Neil Baxter is co-founder of Libero Learning and MD of Cambridge Executive Development, a traditional, face-to-face training company.Â