Understanding how ineffective virtual training contributes to employee learning loss and deeper risk exposure
The 11th of March 2021 marked a year since the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic and even after a year of change, businesses around the world are still learning to adapt to a remote and socially distant workforce. Despite the initial fears after changing working processes overnight, many businesses have discovered that remote working may bring significant, long-term benefits.
Business training is one of the things that companies could not indefinitely postpone. Knowledge and skills requirements constantly evolve and talent moves on. Plugging that gap is a constant activity and as such, lends itself to forces for optimisation and improvement.
Face-to-face instructor-led training was abruptly terminated, forcing organisations to hastily ramp-up virtual training methods like webinars and the squeezing of traditional classes through the pinprick lens of cheap webcams. Before the pandemic, businesses were already attempting to introduce virtual training as a way of attacking travel costs and emissions numbers. Whilst companies can easily put positive numbers around these things, the same can not be said for increased training effectiveness.
Which brings us to the question; “Does shifting your established face-to-face training into an online session with a remote expert behind a webcam, really count as an effective adaptation of your employee skilling challenge?”
Remote learning is not one size fits all
In a recent teacher survey by McKinsey, teachers around the world mentioned that, although they had different styles and standards for teaching, remote learning was no match for a classroom setting. Even though remote classes had after a year of experimentation, issues such as a lack of resources and learning support, remain a difficulty for students and teachers alike.
For the teachers that took part in the McKinsey survey, the ones that taught at publicly-funded schools and had more limited resources, gave remote learning an average global score of 4.8 (out of 10), whilst their counterparts that worked for privately-funded schools, which typically have superior resources, averaged at 6.2. A similar pattern can be seen with businesses and their upskilling efforts.
The pandemic accelerated the need for the workforce as a whole, to become adept in an increasingly complete digital ecosystem. Business processes, transactions, interactions and risks are occurring entirely within a wholly synthetic domain and peoples’ nuanced ability to recognise contextual changes and take appropriate actions, are lagging behind. Virtually training a workforce is a complex problem on its own. Doing it rapidly and without preparation adds to the challenge.
Accessibility and limitations of technology
One of the many benefits of having our teams working under one roof was the ability to provide shared, accessible resources for most employees. Now that we are all working from our own spaces, using fragmented or self-provided resources, leads to far greater unevenness in skills maintenance.
Companies have made extensive use of webinar programs to keep staff informed and up-to-date but they are unable to do much about the cognitive environments people have to work in. This is not just to say that home-life can contain many distractions. Businesses also have culpability by expecting people to be trained, whilst they are simultaneously exposed to email notifications, instant messenger requests and the need to complete work tasks. The danger of suffering burnout from working longer hours in isolation is very real.
To overcome this overload, there are already a number of software robot add-ons, looping video backgrounds and advice sites that help you to fake your online presence in meetings. The end result is no effective training and a growing gap between company and staff, who is something akin to a monstrous Pavlovian experiment, learn to provide indications that they are engaged, whilst their mind is really in another place.
Online training is fundamentally asymmetric, allowing one person to address potentially thousands of others at the same time. But if you are on the other side of that asymmetry, nothing is personal or specific to you
You aren’t addressed, engaged, your opinions aren’[t sought, you aren’t obliged to devote focused cognition to solving any problems. Your job is to merely to soak up the information being announced and what you do with it is up to you. That’s a bit like a perfect recipe for inducing inattention.
As has been found in countless sports stadia in the last year, as long as there’s enough people on the pitch to kick the ball about, it doesn’t really matter if there are more people in the stands, or not. Online training can be like that; the game goes on and it doesn’t obviously matter whether you’re really participating.
Employee buy-in to learning
Employees should have a clear idea about the intended purpose of the training and why it is relevant for them to take. This is especially important in the field of risk, where many staff get by using generalised concepts which seem to be good enough for them. Sometimes, deconstructing bad ideas is an essential step before replacing them with better ideas. Help staff to trust the training by explicitly stating what it is trying to achieve. They should feel that their active participation matters; both to them and to the organisation.
There’s more to training than a great voice
Some musicians are phenomenal in the recording studio but terrible on stage; the opposite can be true with training. Successful face-to-face instruction doesn’t always translate into successful online instruction. There are some trainers who excel in face-to-face environments. They have wonderful camaraderie with the trainees, are great at thinking on their feet and have depth of knowledge and anecdotes that benefits everyone present. These people can be likened to jazz musicians riffing off the crowd’s responses.
But in the more distant, scripted and structured format of online delivery, of recorded sessions, they feel constrained and detached. Constructing meaningful training content, planning learning schema, building conceptual frameworks of understanding, designing in moments for reflection or cognitive processing… these require deep empathy. Without the constant ongoing body language and verbal feedback, these more intuitive trainers are at a loss.
When it comes to developing eLearning, this skills gap becomes even more pronounced. A specialist training role is that of the Instructional Designer, whose job is to interface between people who set training objectives, work with subject matter experts and those who develop final content. The Instructional Designer chunks up the learning experience into helpful pieces, plans the most effective learning methods, imagines interaction activities, ensures adequate testing, repetition and practice exercises. Going back to the music recording analogy, this person is more like the producer/sound engineer combination – they provide a huge amount of shaping into what the final recorded sound comes out like. Online training needs instructional designers to provide intentional learning experiences for remote staff.
Calculating the cost of ineffectiveness
Companies seem to have a pretty clear idea of what it costs to train an employee, but can rarely state the potential cost of not providing effective training.
Many organisations see training as an expense and not as an investment. In addition, Covid uncertainties caused non-essential and discretionary budgets to quickly evaporate. For the Chief Risk Officer who appreciates the need to have a purposeful organisation risk culture, this creates a larger problem: how to justify risk awareness training, risk skills building, how to increase meaningful participation in risk framework activities?
In large part, this problem has already been sold to the organisation in that it has funded the existence of an ERM programme and dedicated staff. A mature ERM programme will have set out a process and assigned roles and responsibilities to be fulfilled at each process step.
Many risks have been analysed and costed. It is not a large stretch of quantification skills to be able to calculate how ineffective risk management performance, at each of those role and responsibility settings, could increase the likelihood of a risk materialising, or having worse consequences than if it were being ably managed.
Aggregating the costs of that additional exposure can be used as a basis for justifying expenditure on risk training activities. One of our clients has been able to calculate that deepening and professionalising the skills of their workforce in the area of risk management, will allow them to redeploy a significant number of people into new roles. The cost of creating bespoke, high quality eLearning courses has been in their opinion “the bargain of the century”.
Online training offers a convenient solution for remote workers. For such programmes to be successful, the subject, the facilitator, the supporting technology, and even the trainees must be carefully considered and balanced, to take full advantage of the strengths of this format and avoid pitfalls that could result from its weaknesses.
Navigating these choices can be tricky. Sometimes external expertise can add value. Risk management can be a technocratic domain, yet its effectiveness is delivered by shaping that most human of ideas – risk culture. A positive, purposeful risk culture drives risk management effectiveness, an idea which is fundamental to the existence of ERM as a system of working.
Every organisation should have on their register of risks (however it is named), the idea that “ineffective risk management activities” is an inherent risk. The realities of remote working that Covid has brought about should be a trigger for this risk to be reviewed and prevailing assumptions about training need to be challenged. Instead of businesses backing away from perceived non-essential expenditure on training, they should be paying attention to how well they are monitoring learning losses. Risk departments need to be clear-minded about how remote working is depleting the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to carry the intended risk culture. This risk is slow to happen and can arrive at a tipping-point before its consequences are recognised. Putting-off action in this area should be done on an informed basis, rather than by inattention.