What is the best approach for learning new skills when you don’t work in the same place as your boss and colleagues? Should I rely on e-learning and asynchronous tools? As a leader, is it worth the expense of pulling people together for training events? Are lunch-and-learn webinars more cost effective than instructor-led training, or are they just cheaper?

As I head to the Association for Talent Development conference this week, I’ve been thinking about how training, learning and personal development have changed over the 25-something years I’ve been in this game.

From overheads to CD ROM to Webinars

It should come as no surprise that the way we learn to do our jobs has morphed alongside the way we do our work. In 1996, I had a mixed team (a couple of people in the office and everyone else scattered up and down the west coast). For the first six months, I didn’t have an email address, so everything was done by fax, phone or (gasp) mail. As a result, almost all the training I conducted for clients was on-site, using an overhead projector and transparencies. It would be several years until Google came along. If you had a question, you pretty much had to ask someone.

Then came the internet. I remember my boss and I staying late one night to try and figure out how to use this new, noisy thing called a modem. Bandwidth was too uncertain to do streaming or video. Big companies had satellite-assisted studios, but everyone else was still either meeting in person or experimenting with the latest way to learn on-demand and wherever you were: CD ROMs. Those shiny little circles were going to put us all out of business. Except they didn’t.

I did my first “webinar” in 1999. What a crazy idea—a hundred people (assuming they could get connected) could attend the same learning at the same time. There was no video, of course, but who doesn’t love PowerPoint slides and inconsistent audio?

Virtual learning does not mean learning alone

Fast forward to today. We’ve gone through self-paced e-learning, Virtual Instructor Led Training, CD ROMs, Learning Management Systems with on-demand courses, Telepresence, and YouTube. You would think someone could sit at home (or wherever) and never have to interact with someone else again. Except it didn’t turn out that way.

As it turns out, e-learning is fast and cheap, but most people don’t feel like they learn a lot or change their behavior by that method alone. As travel became more expensive and fewer people did more of the work, it became increasingly difficult and expensive to get people together for training.

All of this leads to the point: It’s important we choose the right kind of learning and development for the job, and it’s not remote job = e-learning. Here’s a quick guide to what kind of training or learning helps in different situations.

  • I need a quick answer about a task. In the dinosaur days, if you wanted to know how to format a PowerPoint document, you could take an all-day course (usually offsite) or you could turn to the person in the office and ask them. The modern equivalent of that has never been easier. Google, Youtube, short e-learning classes on your internal processes, or using Teams to ask a colleague. Questions like this, especially bout technology, are best learned as-needed, one on one, and informally.
  • A lot of us have questions about an upcoming change to our jobs or new technology. When you have multiple people needing the same new information, individual learning becomes less effective. You want everyone on the same page. Here’s where lunch-and-learn webinars come in handy, You can also do short trainings as part of longer meetings. But just because you tell someone something doesn’t mean they will take action on it. Coaching, reinforcement, and job aids (physical or online) are needed.
  • What we’re trying to learn is really complicated, or there is a social and emotional component to it. So-called “soft skills” like leadership, sales, conflict resolution, and presentation skills are not simply taught by presenting facts. You can watch a video on overcoming objections, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to go out and model that next time you’re talking to a client. Here is where individual learning is less effective, and you discover that there’s a social component to learning. Does everyone else experience the same problems? How do others deal with the situation? I have questions I need answers to in real-time. Synchronous training, with other people, is the most effective. That doesn’t mean there can’t be e-learning or individual components to prepping or reinforcing the learning, but our brains work like our brains work.
  • What we’re learning is critical to our culture, and we all need to be on the same page. To really internalize complex learning and change behavior, we require information, context, and reinforcement. That happens best in social environments. It turns out that most people don’t learn to change their behavior in isolation. We need confirmation of the need to change, knowledge that our coworkers or colleagues feel the same, and need to process the information in multiple ways (think role-playing, small group activities, tests and assessments) Plus, when we have fun, our brains relax and make it easier to absorb information. It might be time to get everyone together for more than an hour webinar.

These are wildly general guidelines, but they make the point. Many organizations and leaders think that remote, individually focused work eliminates the need for in-person or group training. Conversely, gathering people together for simple training is often more trouble and money than its worth.

Choosing the right learning method for the right job, in order to create the culture you want for your organization and team, is key.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

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