Delivering Speed & Agility in Virtual Training: The Skytap Podcast


We recently attended DevLearn 2016 and had the opportunity to interview a handful of the show’s most engaging speakers and we’re featuring two of them on this week’s episode of The Skytap Podcast. While many sessions at the show focused on new breakthroughs in wearables and virtual reality, we were really impressed by those that discussed the need to modernize and accelerate the way virtual training is delivered, and not at the cost of quality.

On this week’s episode, you’ll first hear from Megan Torrance of TorranceLearning as we dive deeper into her focus on agile’s ability to help virtual training professionals “figure out what the most important thing is (they) ought to be doing.” After Megan’s interview, we’ll move on to our conversation with Jennifer Hofmann, President of InSync Training, where you’ll learn how modern training and blended learning are enabling the creation of “authentic learning environments.”

We encourage you to listen to this awesome episode, download for later, or read the entire transcripts of both interviews below!

Noel: In you session here at DevLearn 2016,  your abstract mentioned that “training is looking to deliver things on time within budget and what they need.” I would love to know more about what that “what” is, and who “they” are. Whose needs is training trying to meet today, has that changed, and is training aware for the most part that there’s been a change there?

Megan Torrance
Megan Torrance

Megan: We have always been seeking to meet the needs of our business partners and the people who commission training. Actually, nobody commissions training. They think they do, but they actually want performance improvement. They want learners or performers on the job to do something better or different or more. What they need, the “what” is expanding as we all learn more. We’re developing and delivering more than just instructor-led training, more than just virtual training, more than just eLearning, and all sorts of different things and agile project management can be used for all of it.

The “need,” though, and who defines the need, I think we’re getting better. I hope we’re getting better as an industry at looking at the learner’s needs in addition to the business sponsor’s needs. Balancing that and knowing that that evolves is really tricky.

Noel: I’ve been in classes before where someone will ask the class, “How do you know you’re doing a good job? What are you measuring?” There’s still a lot of measuring the number of courses delivered, measuring the rating that they got, was the course enjoyed? It wasn’t until the presenter started mentioning things like, “Are your support tickets going down? Can support resolve an issue faster than they used to be able to? Is more product being sold?” Everyone was just furiously writing down those as these benchmarks because they were still measuring things that tended to just matter to training and not to the organization as a whole.

Megan: That gets down to where are you evaluating. Your level one evaluations, your Kirkpatrick level ones. “Did you like it? Was the coffee hot enough?” and it has nothing to do with actual performance. That’s what’s interesting about the intersection of agile project management and then xAPI, which is allowing us to measure more about the learning experience and match that up with the performance experience because if all you have to measure with is SCORM you’re going to get quantity, hours, and then you’ll ask a quick survey afterwards because everybody expects you to ask that. That evaluation piece is really key. Quite frankly, if people can do the job right now there are zero reasons to train them.

Noel: Right.

Megan: If they can figure it out, there are zero reasons to do it.

Noel: Why is agile your organization’s recommendation of solving some of the challenges that training is facing today? Agile’s been around for a long time, but we saw in the room today only about a third of the room was currently doing it. What are the reasons that you’re giving people for why agile is a good choice for training specifically?

Megan: It’s interesting that a third of the people in the room are doing it today because that’s more than I’ve ever seen. Typically this is a self-selected room of people who’ve been to my sessions in the past and coming back to either ask the “then what?” question, or to share so it ends up being a little bit of a reunion, too. I think that this is catching on because in some cases organizations are seeing their software teams. Their software teams are powerful organizations.

Noel: Delivering faster and faster.

Megan: Right. They are divisions or functions within an organization that carries a lot of weight. They’re using it. They’re using it successfully. That makes adoption seem very logical, particularly when training is tied to a software environment. In other environments, it’s actually a little bit harder sell because where there isn’t a strong internal IT department that’s leading the way. People are seeing that they have to do more with less or they feel like they have to do more with less. In some cases, they need to do less with the less.

But definitely more strategically. Agile is a way of figuring out what is the most important thing we ought to be doing.

Noel: For those other two-thirds who are either just getting started or just getting started knowing what agile even is, a lot of times the topic comes up of the importance of getting management or executive level buy-in early. For something as transformative, disruptive as agile, what are some of the ways to not just get the buy-in from the trainers themselves, but whoever it is that they report to or other executives? Maybe some funding is going to be needed, whether if it’s for more resources or an agile coach to come in or for tools. What are some of the ways to convince management that this is the way to go, too?

Megan: I typically recommend that people start with a willing project sponsor and a willing team for a project that matters, but is not necessarily critical to life and death of the organization. There are people who will say that the critical ones are the ones you ought to have using agile. It puts a lot of pressure and stress on … What we try to do is use an iterative approach to implementing agile itself. Take one project, start to finish. It’s really hard to do agile in the middle of an existing waterfall project. Find something that is multi-disciplinary with willing people. The thing about doing that beta test, that first version, is that the willing people are more willing to give you feedback and to forgive your mistakes the first few times while you figure out what it is that you’re doing. You have to implement agile in your own situation, your own context. If you do exactly what I do it’s not going to work in your organization.

As you do that successfully, you’re both getting something out, delivering successfully, and building a reputation within the organization at the same time that you are cleaning up your act so that by the time you get to the people who are more reluctant they’re less reluctant and you’re better at it.

Noel: You’ve got a much larger case study to present them with then it worked with these two people?

Megan: Yeah. It’s easier to attract bees with honey than vinegar.

Noel: Last question for you is, we talked about how agile is not just being able to accommodate change but welcoming it. Once you’ve set up that environment to really nurture an agile project or an agile organization, how do you maintain that environment because people leave the company and new demands come in that make that agile project harder? The entire use case could change. How do you maintain the environment that agile needs to continue to grow and scale?

Megan: We make sure that we are continually tuning our own agile processes and training new people coming in. I have the benefit of since I give workshops around agile and we do them at our office, we will make sure that all of our new team members come to an official agile workshop in addition to getting, we have a self-paced, self-study internal version that we do. Everybody’s shadowing a lead so it’s easy when the rest of your project team is doing it. It’s a little bit harder to maintain momentum if it’s just a one person kind of thing. But, success breeds success. I have not seen an agile project be unsuccessful because of agile.

Part II: Interview with Jennifer Hofmann

Noel: You’re giving a session later today on “push/pull training,” and I wanted to first start off with a definition of what that is, how it came to be, and why you recommend it. Things like that.

Jennifer Hofmann
Jennifer Hofmann

Jennifer: Right now, the industry is changing. Fifteen years ago all I did was virtual classrooms and everybody could live in their silos fifteen years ago, but now you can’t do that anymore. Everything’s a a blend. Also, we’re expecting that our learners want to pull the information down on their own. Whether it’s live, or self-paced—they’re looking for it. So, we need to create an environment in which they want to pull. Now, there’s research being done. We expected that millennials will be all about online learning and the reality is, they’re not. They would be if it was done well. If it was produced to the quality that they could have produced it on their own, on their phone in ten minutes. We’re not producing great training.

What we need to do is create, or transform, from a push training environment where we tell people what to learn and when to learn it to a pull learning environment where there are still going to be formal events, but they’re surrounded by content that our learners know is there and that they want to reach out and grab and learn.

We want to almost become their “internal learning Google” if I can call it that. Why would they use our content instead of asking Google or asking their neighbor? That’s a challenge for us. Everybody’s always talking about millennial learners and “they’re so difficult to please.” I’ve got clients that sit around have workshops about how to please millennials and there was a big “Ah, hah!”. One group came together. They did this whole workshop and created all the things that they thought would appeal to their millennial group and the group said, “I’d like this too. I just never demanded it. This would be better learning for me, too, as a non-millennial. I didn’t know to demand it.” I’m not worried that we’re creating this pull learning environment just for this one group. We’re creating better learning for everybody, and just upping the standards.

Seth Payne
Seth Payne

Seth: I talked to a lot of software companies, obviously. What they’re talking to me about now is this transition from you hold a two to three to four-day class and they’re talking about it in terms of “chunking,” right? They’ll take a very complex subject, but they’re finding that their learners want to just find the answer to a question so they can solve a problem. They kind of chunk things up in a way that’s little more consumable. How does that kind of thought process fit into what you’re talking about?

Jennifer: First of all, training is evolving. We’re no longer event-planners and order takers, but we’re actually becoming what we’ve been trying to become for ages. Which are truly learning consultants, and formal learning shouldn’t go away. It’s not going away. It shouldn’t go away. I think what’s going to happen is building into the formal events, the moments of need where we’re learning something new. We’re teaching them about the tools that they can go out and find later on. Instead of the 200 pages of a workbook or all the PowerPoint decks we’re saying, “Okay, here’s an infographic. Here’s a video. Here’s a worksheet and a process. This is how you use this when you run into this problem back on the job.” I think that the role of training is going to be teaching people how to use the other tools we’re making available to them in that particular moment of learning need. That’s one of the things we’re going to be talking about a little bit later.

There are five different moments of learning need. Some are formal. We need to have formal training. Blended learning now allows us to really give people the content they need when they need it. Instead of hoping they remember a five-day boot camp.

Noel: We were talking a lot of about availability. Making it easy to find. You also talk about how when you’re making this training actually engaging and not just quick to consume or easy to find that it does require a lot. You say that it requires “a trio of emotional, intellectual and environmental responses to training,” which sounds really hard to come by. I was curious as to how you build that in. We talk a lot about building quality into software. How do you build in those kinds of responses to make these classes far more engaging than these people are probably used to training being?

Jennifer: That’s right. We’re not used to training being engaging. First of all, we need to define engagement. You come from software. “Oh! Well, virtual classrooms. I’ll give you my Excel and you’ll get to play with it.” Therefore training is engaging. Or, “You can click every two minutes to get the next screen and then it’s engaging.” Really, engagement is more than just communication. It’s more than just going through the content. That doesn’t prove that we’ve learned and it doesn’t help us retain. What we need to do is figure out what are these engagement points.

“Emotional” means I’m connected to the content. It resonates with me. I can see from my adult learning perspective where I need to connect and why. “Intellectual” engagements mean I’m actually learning. It makes sense. Just because I want to learn something or I’m interested in the topic doesn’t mean I’m actually going to learn the topic. Motivation lends itself to it, but we go to these conferences all the time and I might be the best speaker in the world and you might love me, but tomorrow you might not remember a word I said.

Think about the way you spend your spare time. You’ve recorded something on your Netflix account and you take the time out and you watch three episodes and the next day, can you tell me what those three episodes were about? Often, not, and we chose to spend our spare time watching something that we selected, but it wasn’t intellectually engaging. Emotionally we got there, but intellectually it wasn’t.

Environment means, “Am I the right place at the right time?” Right now, we’re doing a podcast and there’s noise around and there’s a particular environment here and we expect a certain quality. A certain energy. When we put people in a classroom, for example, a traditional classroom. The environment suggests we sit and we listen and we contribute when we’re invited to contribute and not really any other times.

What blended learning and modern learning is really letting us do is start to create more authentic learning environments. For example, everybody’s very hot mobile learning. You’ve probably worked with mobile learning all the time and everybody’s talking about mobile learning as a “technology.” I think of mobile learning as a place. As an environment. On my mobile device, I can watch a video. I can participate in a live WebEx session. I can do social learning. I can do all that stuff. I can also do that on my desktop. I can also do those things in a traditional classroom. Those are all different places, but if I expect my learners are going to be in a mobile environment we take an event, there’s going to be noise around them. We don’t want them having to do very fine motor skill tasks. We want to keep things short. If they were learning at their desk, that environment is different.

I think we can get to more authentic ways of teaching. The big thing about mobile is you can teach anything via mobile, but do you want to? Is it the right environment? For example, if I was teaching you how to program macros in Excel, which never come to me to learn that, but if I was trying to teach you how to do that, the most authentic environment would be at your desk in a virtual classroom. Not in a face-to-face classroom when you’re not at your own computer doing your own work surrounded by your own environment.

The most authentic place to do it is on your own desktop where you don’t have to use a different mouse. You don’t have to figure out different keystrokes. On a mobile device, I might be able to deliver that content via a mobile device, but you’re probably never going to program macros on your phone. Taking training and expecting to actually master that content on your phone is not an authentic way to teach or an authentic way to learn.

“Environment matters” is what this comes down to. Just because we can teach something in a certain way or to a certain location doesn’t mean we should. Just breaking down that we can learn on a mobile device, we can learn at our desk, we can learn in a classroom or we can learn on a job. It’s a very simple consideration I think makes learning and training much more accessible.

Seth: I think it’s interesting that you brought up mobile. Because we talk to our customers and prospects and mobile always comes up in the conversation, but when we dive a little deeper we find out that, “Well, I’m not really sure how they’d use it.” There’s just not a whole lot of clarity. There’s not a real vision as to how it’s going to be used. It’s seen as using a technology just because it’s there. I certainly see that happen. In our case, we work a lot of what you were saying fine motor skills, right? Very technical. That’s very difficult to do on an iPad or an iPhone. How would you encourage someone to kind of shift their thinking from seeing technology as a solution rather than a means to a greater end?

Jennifer: First of all, there’s going to be learners that no matter how you design or no matter what environment you design for they’re going to take it on their phone. At some point, modern learners are going to do what they need to do. The first thing we need to do is realize that not everybody needs the same amount of expertise on a topic. If we go back to macros in Excel, for example, the manager might need to know what the capabilities of programming in Excel can do. They might not need to know how to program in Excel. For them, participating a little more remotely if I might say on a mobile device might be

For them, participating a little more remotely, if I might say, on a mobile device might be an authentic or an okay environment for them, but if they needed to program they should be at their desk. What we need to do is stop saying everything can run on everything. Which is true. I mean, we could make everything work. This was designed for a desktop environment. The learning objectives at the desktop environment are at the end you will be able to program a macro in Excel. If you opt to take this on a mobile device, the learning objective changes. You’ll be exposed to the capabilities, but you will not have the opportunity to practice.

When we started moving online, what we did was we took all this great content face-to-face and moved it into virtual classrooms and e-learning, but we didn’t change any learning objectives. You’ll be able to program a macro in Excel. We showed them how to do it. Maybe I turned it over to Seth, and Seth got to practice, but the other seventeen people in the class got to watch Seth. One person got trained. Training implies practice. It might not need to be at that moment, but there needs to be hands-on in order to receive any kind of mastery.

Noel: You’ve got an outstanding infographic on your website. It’s really good, we highly recommend listeners downloading it, there’s a link in the transcription of this interview. It talks about “the five guiding principals in this push-pull style of learning.” We could probably talk way too long about each one of these, but one of them is, “being able to support a wider range of learning experiences, training needing to loosen control and autonomy.” That’s something I’d love to learn more about from you. Why is it so hard to let go?I’ve been going to these training conferences for a couple of years now and every single one of them has multiple speakers saying that training has to let go of that control.

Some of the other five guiding principles you have in this infographic are, “Supporting and enabling learners,” “Focusing on performance,” and the last one is, “a new relationship between learning and development in the business.” That’s another one that a lot of people are talking about. People are starting to realize that it’s not just about training, and training can’t just deliver results for training. It’s got to expand to the whole organization.

Jennifer: First of all, I want to give credit for these five principals to Jane Hart and Modern Workplace Learning. These five principals are directly hers. The idea of us becoming partners with the business. Traditionally, I’ve been training a long time, we create a new software product and when we’re ready to roll it out we call training. Training would create an event. People would get trained. Also, we were the first people to get cut anytime there was a layoff or something like that, because we’re seen as an overhead expense.

If we’re overhead they didn’t need us in the first place. If our role evolves into becoming more partners with the business, we’re embedding training in the flow of work, then we can anticipate when people need to be trained. What’s the moment of need? Is it new? Are they having a problem? Is the world burning around them? How are they going to access that content? If we’re embedding ourselves in the workflow and saying, “This is going to reduce calls to the helpdesk,” or “It’s going to help us going through a difficult time,” we can prepare people and it’s not an event, but it’s a process that doesn’t end. Then we’re not overhead anymore. We’re part of the business process.

We’re part of the planning process, not just an afterthought. “We should create ten infographics.” That’s a nice idea when I only have one week to train people, but if I was involved in the process all along I might be able to identify points, and maybe even improve the product along the way and improve the process because I can see where the learning would be difficult or people will fall down.

We were teaching, think of a site like The people who create software for travel agents. They were moving from the old blue screen to a web-based platform. That’s still going on. People are still moving to the web. Just like you mentioned, your solution would have worked for them. One day, these travel agents around the world who did not all belong to the same company were going to come in, turn their computers on and have to use a new system. That’s just the way it was going to work. How do we teach them? We used the virtual classroom and we used application sharing.

Traditionally, we would have taught them how to be travel agents. “This is how you put in a plane. This is how you put in the hotel.” We didn’t need to teach them that. We just opened up application sharing and said, “Seth, book me a ticket from Portland to Las Vegas. I’m going to DevLearn.” You know how to be a travel agent. You ask the same questions in the same order every time. We all watched you and watched where you got stuck and then helped you. Then somebody else did the plane and somebody else did the hotel or the car. Then we made changes.

By training that way, we allowed them to figure out how the system worked. We also figured out where the workflow didn’t work anymore. Where it made sense from a systems perspective, but it didn’t support the way people were working. They actually had time to change the system in small ways just to improve the workflow. That’s pretty powerful. It was by accident. You don’t plan for that stuff.

We know how people learn. I don’t necessarily know how to program a macro in Excel, but I can tell you where it’s going to fall down in the learning process. So, make it authentic. Teach people in the environment in which they’re going to use the skill. Don’t just throw content out and when there is a lot of content, teach them how to use that content when they’re back on the job. I always thought even twenty years ago Windows first started coming out and all our computers—you guys are too young for that. We spent four days teaching people how to use Word. We never opened the help facility. Even twenty years ago, Microsoft had a great help facility. I don’t know if you remember Clippy? As goofy as that was it was fabulous.

We never taught people how to do that in training because we had to teach them how to format a table. But what if when they said, “I need to format a table and these are the requirements.” And we said, “Go to the help facility and do it and tell me where it got difficult.” Teaching them how to fish instead of hoping they remember everything. That’s a change for us. You talk about loosening control. That means we’re not the experts anymore. We have to have expertise, but we’re not seen as the experts. That whole moving to a facilitator perspective. We have to keep the expertise because we have to be able to help, but teach people how to do it on their own is just so much better for the organization in the long run.

You get into social collaborative learning and things like that. Everybody wants to know about it. Just like you said about mobile, you can’t do that here, can’t do that here. What if they post the wrong thing. In a classroom, people answer question wrong all the time and that’s okay. The fact that it’s written down scares people. We need moderation. We need to teach people that just because it shows up on a discussion board doesn’t mean it’s right, but we can’t leave it there either. We need to watch that and that kind of stuff takes time.

Blended learning takes time, but I think it’s better. I think we’ve been talking about it for a long time chunking learning, all these things. Now, we actually have the tools to do it. Take the focus off the tools and focus on how learning really happens. Walking around the expo there must have been fifteen video training vendors, and next time I come here there might be fifteen and two of them will be the same. The tools, we focus so much on tools, and I know you’re a tool provider. We focus so much on tools. Find the right answer and then figure out what tools fit that answer. Instead of starting with the tool.

Seth: I think what you said about learning about the process or product or whatever it is you’re training on by observing how students are interacting with it. That’s really fascinating to me because that’s exactly what we do in terms of product when we do a user task. We say, “Do this task and let’s see what happens.” I can see the tremendous value add the training could have on product development, business process, business goals, all that kind of stuff. What are your thoughts or do you have any recommendations on how could you better create that loop between training and that feedback that you get so that business always get that good feedback and then reacts to the feedback?

Jennifer: This is a long term change. This is a big change. Some of the things that you can do right away are not realized so heavily on level one evaluations, and really look and see if people are learning. Evaluation in the true instructional design sense is supposed to be evaluating the effectiveness of the training product. Not evaluating whether people have learned. The idea is if they haven’t learned, then the training product 90% of the time isn’t where it needs to be. There’s always exceptions.

First, let’s get rid of, “We care if they like it or not, but I don’t really care about that as much as the level two’s.” If they learned it and then if it’s usable enough to use back on the job. I think we need to refocus our evaluation and measurement efforts.

Also, we need to be brought to the table a little bit earlier. We don’t do needs analysis in organizations. We come to conferences. We learn all about it and then in two hours we figure out, “Okay, there’s a real problem here. How do we fix it?” But we don’t really sit and investigate and observe. We need to start collecting data. What a great use for social collaborative tools.

Every time a help desk problem comes in or a new supervisor has trouble giving feedback. That problem, that concern is brought into a community. First, a coach can be there to help. Help them solve their problem, get them through that and then second, we can start looking at the business processes and see, did their training fall down in the first place? Did we not even discuss that? Is that something we didn’t consider?

That’s a real strong role for social collaborative tools that we’re hearing about. Everybody wants everything to be mobile. Everybody wants everything to be social, but they don’t know what to do with that and they’re worried because they can’t measure it. They can’t control it. But if we use those social tools to collect data, teach people and then improve the process that’s a way for us to get started and to jump on the trends that these managers want us to start using.

It also is great for mobile, I’m on the road and I need help. Let me put it into my social tool and get help. Let’s use that data to improve processes and not worry about what we’re saying and we’re getting wrong. Easy for me to say, though. I live in a world of best practices. You know, pharma, a lot of heavily regulated industries, they’re going to push back on that and maybe they’re not ready yet. I think that’s a shame. We’ve got other industries that say you’ve got to have a poll every five minutes in a virtual classroom in order to get CEU credit. It has to be a poll. It has to be every five minutes because the accrediting bodies don’t know what else to do.

Noel: A lot of times they use that poll as “proof” of engagement.

Jennifer: Yes, but that’s not engagement! We’re even teaching our trainers that that’s a good thing. We’re teaching them that that’s a best practice. If you have to have to have a poll every five minutes and this is down a different dirt road, but then at least do that poll to do the next conversation. “How many of you have had to create macros in Excel? “Oh! Okay, Seth! You have? Tell us where you had trouble.” At least use it as a lead-in and not say, “Okay we have to do another poll.” Not make it something everybody’s dreading. Because we set our students up when they know we hate it, too.

We hope you enjoyed this double feature of The Skytap Podcast. To stay up to date with future episodes, don’t forget to subscribe to the show over at iTunes or SoundCloud, and to learn more about Skytap’s virtual training solution, click here. Thanks for joining us on another episode of The Skytap Podcast!

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