Prepare your teams now, ready for tomorrow
With schools, colleges and universities on lock down as a result of the Coronavirus, talk has moved towards virtual and digital learning solutions. Certainly, at the higher levels, universities and colleges are well versed in using technology to supplement and even replace traditional classroom delivery of lessons and sessions. There isn’t a student anywhere in the world who hasn’t had to log on to some platform to gain access to learning materials, videos of lectures, assignments and other course support information.
But in the corporate world, the challenges are different. In formal education, for the most part, students are working towards qualifications, many of which are gained through either sitting exams or submitting written course work. The object of these assessment measures is to assess understanding of the course curriculum. Its goal is proving knowledge has been acquired and can be recalled.
In corporate learning, there is quite a lot of training and learning that is similarly focused on learning facts, figures, protocols, regulations and policies. But the highest impact learning activity we engage in when we are in work, goes beyond knowledge. That learning focuses on skills, behaviours and performance improvement. Put simply, businesses invest in training which enables people to do things differently and do different things. Business learning and development is – or should be – about improving individual and team performance on the job. Its focus is on working smarter, improving results and the eternal business paradox – how do we achieve more with the same or fewer resources (including people)?
For the most part, selling, negotiating and conducting meetings have traditionally been held face to face. Sellers visit their customers, negotiations are managed with individuals and teams across the table, communications happen in meetings where teams or project groups physically gather together. Recognising this, most of our training and learning interventions also include face to face sessions, replicating the environment in which people use those behaviours to provide experiences which are as close as possible to the real thing. We give plenty of practice opportunities and – crucially – expert facilitators observe, provide feedback and help individuals identify where they will gain most benefit from trying out new things and new ways of approaching the challenges that need addressing.
But the world has changed. Not just in response to recent events, but over the last two decades, communications over time and distance have evolved to take advantage of technology. We instant message both colleagues and clients, we negotiate via telephone conference and we ‘meet’ our buyers and suppliers more and more frequently at our desk using a camera on our computer.
But guess what? The verbal behaviours we observed successful sellers, negotiators and communicators using in the world of face to face interactions are exactly the same when used in virtual or remote communications. Good sellers uncover needs; negotiators establish common ground and build on the proposal from their counterpart; effective communicators test understanding and summarise to ensure clarity before moving on. (And all the dirty tricks we observed people using which undermine effective verbal behaviour are the same as well, and successful people counter them effectively).
So, it may seem straightforward to move our training programmes into the digital world. Surely, we can simply convert face to face course to mobile friendly apps and courseware? Clearly, our trainers can simply deliver virtual training sessions which replicate the classroom?
Well, yes. And No.
First, even in the world of ‘meet-ware’ (i.e. what non IT teams call people) our journey from not knowing what I don’t know or can’t do, to being skilled, the route to ideal behaviours becoming habitual, needs rather more than some training and education.
Over 30 years ago, Huthwaite International recognised that our course participants could use their time wisely and accelerate their route to competence by learning about our extensive research and the behavioural and psychological models which resulted. In those days this material was made available via CD Rom, but now the internet allows this material to be available at the click of a mouse.
This knowledge acquisition process – which precedes time in a classroom - is common to many training processes.
So, if people know what they should be doing, what is the job of the classroom? In our learning journeys the classroom provides an opportunity to have a go. It is a safe space where the only mistake anyone can make is to not try something new. As well as having the chance to experiment, you also have access to first class feedback from experienced individuals. Like learning a musical instrument or mastering a sport, you need someone to stand apart from what you are doing. You need an outside eye to provide an independent viewpoint of what you are doing as well as a lifetime of experience – based on a proven success model – of what you could change to get even better, even faster.
Can we replicate that in the virtual or digital world? Quite easily.
Video, digital modules, quizzes and infographics can help you to learn what we discovered in our research. Integration exercises and guided assignments can help people consider what they have learned in terms relevant to them. How would I use these questions? How can I prepare and plan for that meeting? What kinds of answers might my customers give? How does this relate to our usual sales cycle? Which of these behaviours would have been helpful in a recent negotiation? Which of these often-observed communication mistakes are ones I recognise from my own experience?
By design or circumstance, virtual, remote communication is the setting in which these skills are increasingly required.
But even if we get this right, have we achieved behaviour change?
I’m afraid not. And I apologise if this comes as a shock to anyone, but we haven’t done so after a traditional classroom course either. There is a final stage of the journey.
Workplace transfer is not simply a process of measuring whether or not the training ‘worked’ – i.e. desirable behaviours were changed and implemented in an observable and measurable way. That’s part of it, but there is another crucial stage to go through.
Sellers, negotiators and communicators will only truly change their behaviour through repetition and application in real settings. Because some of these skills and behaviours are new, unfamiliar and possibly counter-intuitive, they won’t work as planned or hoped every time. People will get better if they persevere, but sometimes modern business life doesn’t allow for people to incrementally improve. Our teams are expected to ‘hit the ground running’ and ‘give 110%’ and be ‘high performing’. All these clichés are admirable in spirit, but the performance they envisage doesn’t just happen. In fact, without the right support, these kinds of expectations can kill experimentation, growth and skill development. In some environments where hyper-performance is constantly being advocated people are simply too scared to try new things for fear of failure.
That’s where we need to support that final stage of the journey – regardless of whether the route taken to get this far involved digital modules, attending a face to face workshop or participating in an online, virtual classroom.
This support involves progress chasing – encouraging people to plan meaningful and appropriate action and holding people to account for trying out new behaviours and using their brand new skills.
It also means encouraging people to jettison behaviours and skills which may be unhelpful – even when they apparently worked in the past. Unlearning is often more difficult than learning.
It means skilled and experienced people – peers or managers – providing feedback, observing what the individual is doing and helping them objectively analyse how they achieved their goals, and how they could continue to develop in the future. It requires a clear understanding of what good looks like and how it can be achieved.
This kind of feedback requires what is usually referred to as a coach. Not a coach who is simply encouraging self-reflection, but one who can assess, mentor, provide feedback and be a critical friend.
In some setting, the virtual classroom is not appropriate or available. In these situations, the coach role also encompasses skills practice and feedback and the creation of a safe space to try things out and gain feedback prior to applying these skills in the real world. It requires someone whose role is to try and ensure that each individual performs to their potential and the best of their ability. We’ll give them the tools to do that and recommend activities which are designed primarily to build and strengthen new skills. But a real live human being – either alongside them or at the end of a platform, phone or video conference – needs to maintain focus, provide feedback and comment on action plans.
That sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it. Someone whose role is to ensure that everyone performs to their potential and the best of their ability. For some that could be a specialist role in the team or in the organisation. But to me, that sounds like a pretty good job description for a leader.