I wrote last month about the resurgence of face-to-face learning interventions after such a long hiatus. The conversations we had at the ATD Exhibition in San Diego were immensely heartening as L+D professionals were not only talking enthusiastically about these events but recognising the importance of using them well, and in many cases this equated in their minds to making a case for experiential learning.
With limited time at a crowded exhibition I wasn’t able to continue these conversations to the extent I wanted to - there was a lot left unsaid, and since then I’ve had one key question going around my head.
These people are committed to face-to-face learning; they recognise the unique value of experiential methodologies; so how will they go about maximising the impact of the interventions they are planning?
If you’ve read my blogs before you’ll know how much of a zealot I am when it comes to experiential approaches, after a very long career in learning design I’ve still not come across any other approach that delivers to the extent that face-to-face experiential can. It’s for this reason that I’m prepared to be heavily critical of how the curricula for these events is often decided; for me it all comes down to a single design paradigm that I use to judge impact and effectiveness:
If you’re bringing people together for a face-to-face learning event you should never plan-in content that could be adequately delivered individually and remotely.
I realise that for many professionals this might be a challenging and somewhat controversial thing to say, yet my determination to stay with this as a guiding principle for my own design work was only reinforced by my conversations in San Diego. It’s clear that L+D professionals recognise the value of bringing people together for learning events, and this applies whether they have people working from home or not. The pandemic years showed us that great value was placed on regular gatherings on-line ‘to keep people motivated through building a sense of cohesion and collective identity’ as I was told in one conversation. It almost didn’t matter what the content of those gatherings was it was important that they happened because they had such an important social function. In many cases the agenda or content could have been served through a group-mail or a survey, yet it was recognised that there were important benefits to be derived by making it a synchronous on-line event. Those benefits haven’t gone away now that we can get people together in the same room!
What we’re talking about here is that we need to analyse our planned content by differentiating between the different types of learning being targeted. My bold statement above is an endorsement of my belief that, if you’re going to the trouble and expense of bringing people together in the same room to learn, then the cost-benefit equation doesn’t stack up if you’re filling the time with cognitive learning content. I’d say that learning facts and acquiring factual knowledge is something that can be better achieved by an individual working at their own pace and in their own timeframe. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for face-to-face, group-based learning, it can have immense value if used as a practice-field where people get to apply the cognitive knowledge they’ve built up remotely.
The true value of face-to-face learning events becomes apparent when we look at the reasons why it was so important to bring people together who were necessarily working remotely during the pandemic; the benefits that were crudely grouped under the term ‘social learning’.
When asked to describe the participant benefits people experienced during these calls people often use terms like “getting to know each other, understanding how others work, verbal communication, changing attitudes, understanding why things are happening as they are, encouraging others, feeling part of a team, etc. etc.” We shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that, as we’re back to face-to-face events, these same participants no longer value these outcomes. Indeed, if we want our expensive events to give us a real return then these should be our headline outcomes - the place we start planning our events and the place we start measuring their impact.
So, my strident advocacy of experiential approaches is based on a single belief - that if we deliver experiential learning, utilising tools that have been designed to address specific behavioural learning outcomes, there’s no methodology available to us that comes close in responding to these vital interpersonal learning outcomes.