Last month, I was invited to a meeting in Chicago with a group of senior executives from a large manufacturing firm with plants and offices all around the world. When I arrived, I learned one of the executives was trapped in Canada.
“This will be a good chance to use our video conferencing technology,” the CEO explained.
He then pushed a few buttons, and the missing executive popped up on a large screen at the end of the room. The meeting started, and it wasn’t long until the fast-paced discussion we had anticipated was under way.
That is, until the guy on the screen interrupted — everyone paused while he caught up. Throughout the meeting, he had to stop us to clarify, ask us to describe the presentation we had but he didn’t or have someone repeat something because he hadn’t caught it in the rapid-fire conversation from which he was removed.
The executive in Canada began to serve as more than a mild annoyance. After a while, sensing a growing animosity for what he was doing to the dynamics of the meeting, he finally begged off the call, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
The Cart Before the Horse
At the end of the meeting, the training director took me to his office, where he showed me his latest invention, an e-learning tool that was going to “transform the training world as we knew it.”
The new tool turned out to be a user-paced e-tool that essentially put an old-fashion workbook onto the computer screen. When you took tests, it tallied up your score and brought them to the screen with a musical, animated flourish, and each time you chose a challenge or demonstrated a competency, it would take you down the route that best suited your needs.
Could a workbook do that? Nope. But the content was about as stimulating as a workbook.
At the end of the day, I quickly went across town and met an old classmate who had invited me to dinner. No sooner had we sat down to eat than he opened up his laptop and showed me his latest training tool, a training game his development team had invented.
Through the use of clever cartoons and a “learning pistol” that you fired at key times, you learned about the history of the company. It was designed to help new employees get a feel for the company’s long history and traditions.
It was at once entertaining and completely unnecessary. The company had obviously hired clever game designers, but the whole activity essentially shared two ideas that could have been communicated in a much faster, easier and cheaper format.
As I sat in my hotel that evening, I couldn’t help but think that Thomas Edison and his fellow inventors would have been mortified. Throughout the entire day, I had suffered at the hands of technology. The technology, of course, wasn’t to blame but, rather, how it was being used.
As a society, we haven’t quite mastered the mechanics of converting our interpersonal dealings into technology-aided interactions. We’re “teching up” presentations and training without thinking about whether we should or at least how we should.
Sometimes, It Isn’t “Broke”
Several times a year at large training forums, organizers bring in acclaimed speakers such as Colin Powell, Tom Peters and Rudy Giuliani. The designers of these training events book magnificent settings and then, other than projecting the occasional slide to a large screen, they turn the day over to the speakers, who carry it.
They’re engaging. They share examples from world events. They’re smart and have a lot to say, and the audience eats it up. I know because I’ve gone to these events, and I’m not easily satisfied.
Now, if it weren’t for the occasional slide, the event could easily be held on a hillside with a megaphone.
Why does this leadership training work? Because the event is congruent — the promise, the message and the technology align. People attend with the purpose of being entertained, and maybe they’ll walk away with a couple of good ideas. That’s the promise, and that’s what they deliver.
Then, they put the spotlight (literally) on the speaker, not the technology. People aren’t going to the event to be wowed with a slide show (as if you could be). Rather, they go to hear the speaker, and that’s what they get.
Four Rules for Getting It Right
As you develop learning initiatives, it is essential that you evaluate how to match your chosen technologies to the training content rather than how to design a program that cannibalizes valuable content with the latest, flashiest and most entertaining technologies.
Over the years, I’ve developed four rules to help me deliver high-leverage skill training that is applicable, relevant and transferable — not just high-voltage.
Rule 1: Show and Tell … But Keep It Short
The subtleties of interpersonal problem solving are best learned and transferred by capturing the dos and don’ts of complex human interactions in short video snippets. Talking or lecturing about human problem-solving skills merely leads to confusion.
You have to show participants specifically what you have in mind with well-designed video models, or they find dozens of ways to misinterpret your advice and, more often than not, to support their old ways of behaving. When you capture on video the exact skills you have in mind, however, the confusion disappears.
Coupled with mini-lectures and directed practice, the video does not cannibalize the message by overstimulating the senses and understimulating the brain. Instead, the video modeling works because it matches the promise (“We’re going to teach actual skills”), and it matches the content because the material covers human interaction, which is best accomplished through video modeling.
Rule 2: Plug In to Follow Up
Often, individuals leave training and fall back into their old ways. People walk away full of hope and then, when confronted with a real-time issue brought to them by a real person, they climb onto the treadmill of habit, forgetting to put into play what they’ve just learned. Computer-generated reminders or online forums and blogs, for instance, can help students keep in mind their new skills and remain on the lookout for opportunities to use them.
Perhaps one of the best uses of modern technology is to provide participants with follow-up material. Once participants get a feel for the content of a training course and are moving toward mastery, stand-alone, computer-driven material that incorporates technologies such as pathing and electronic tabulation can help add insights and push participants to higher levels of performance.
Once individuals have had a chance to talk about the material, make a social contract to change their behavior and receive valuable feedback, technology also can be used to bring together users for encouragement and support. Electronic forums that help users discuss what’s working and what isn’t can go a long way to form a support community.
Similarly, once participants share a common vocabulary and similar understanding of the training content, any opportunity to share practical advice is also quite beneficial.
Rule 3: Know When to Forgo the Flash … or Not
Computer-based and other high-tech learning will make its place in the training world when it finds its voice and fulfills both the promise and the content of the training. Even then, there are certain methods of training that cannot be delivered using flashy, technological advances — particularly, learning initiatives that involve social contracting or require directed feedback. These initiatives return the best results when they involve a traditional group setting. Here are two examples:
But there are times when technological training elements can be very effective. Stand-alone computer training already serves technical skill building quite nicely. It also can provide the initial content for interpersonal and leadership material but only the initial content. Once people view material, including video examples and even short lectures, they should then come together in small groups in which they can take care of the verbal, social and feedback elements of the training.
Finally, as is the case with any training — independent of the technology or training delivery system — the value of the training always lies in the idea. Above all else, the content needs to be fresh, the recommendations need to be relevant and the problems the material has been designed to solve have to be serious. Anything short of this, no matter how clever the delivery method or high-tech the tools, simply isn’t worth the investment.
Kerry Patterson is the co-developer of the Crucial Conversations training program, as well as the co-author of the New York Times bestsellers “Crucial Conversations” and “Crucial Confrontations.” Patterson is the co-founder of VitalSmarts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.