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Achieving Real Results in a Virtual World

Virtual Booth Duty @ SAP Education Virtual Learning Symposium


Recently, I wrote a A Real Invite to Virtual Education about the evolution of education in a corporate context, in which I previewed the SAP Education Virtual Learning Symposium 2009.  Last week, I had the privilege of staffing a virtual booth with Marilyn Pratt at this event.  Thank you Marilyn, for your leadership in both sustainability and community!




Alvaro Tejada Galindo (@blag) blogged about his experience and impressions in this wonderfully The specified item was not found..


This week, Canada’s published a very informative article entitled “Skimping on staff training is ‘risky’ for Canadian firms” by Joaquim P. Menezes which included some thought leadership from the speakers at this event.


Here are my takeaways…


Pod Surfing


This turned into a truly global event, creating a platform for hundreds of people to engage and network.  The chat areas in the keynote theatre and the networking lounge were filled with shout-outs from several countries in at least two languages.


In the Exhibit Hall, where Marilyn and I staffed the Sustainability pod, we established a virtual booth “best practice” of inviting each of our visitors to a chat.  I reached my personal limit when I had three chats open at the same time, and judging by the number of points earned by many of the attendees in the Prize Center, I wasn’t the only one doing a lot of talkiing.   I also saw a lively discussion taking place in the Networking Lounge, where I popped in on a regular basis.


Considering that it was Earth Day, I expected more traffic in the Sustainability booth.  Only about 25% of the attendees visited, making it one of the least-visited pods in the show.  I’m still pondering this – perhaps the other pods were simply more compelling to the audience, perhaps our audience doesn’t link SAP to sustainability, or perhaps (and I hope this is not the case), sustainability is not top-of-mind.


Panel Discussion


For me, the panel discussion was very compelling.  This session was moderated by Cushing Anderson of IDC, and included the following experts:


  • April Young, Dean, Value University, Global Field Operations, SAP
  • Doug Weiss, Head of IBM’s Learning & Knowledge group for the Global Delivery Centers
  • Brian Launer, Employee Training & Career Solutions, Intel Corporation


Each of the organizations is using a blend of traditional, virtual live classroom and on-demand learning on a very large scale – i.e. many thousands of learners.  The percentage of virtual learning currently employed ranged from 30% to 90%.


According to the panel discussion, offering multiple learning “modalities” helps get many more people trained, thanks to three factors:  cost-effectiveness, convenience, and preferred learning styles.


It sounds as though change management has been a bit of a hurdle.  Many of us still value the face-to-face experience of a traditional classroom.  However, the economic realities of our time are forcing a new paradigm for training (and in fact many types of meetings), that will not likely reverse when the economy rebounds.  Virtual and on-demand learning are here to stay. 


The “style” of virtual learning the organization establishes is dependent on the culture of the organization and the needs of the individual learners.  While SAP offers many courses to the sales team in a 100% virtual format, Intel prefers to blend virtual attendees into traditional classrooms.  Adding an online entry point into traditional classrooms ensures that even the remote employees get trained.  It also ensures that no one has to miss a course because of a cancelled flight or other mishap.


As an alternative model to having individuals join virtually from their own desks, organizations may wish to collect groups of students in local offices to participate in a virtual environment with a remote instructor.  This can give them the best of both worlds – live human interaction along with the cost and time savings associated with a virtual session.


Bite Sizing


One of the many benefits arising from the move to virtual learning is the ability to break down a course into digestible pieces and record these “learning snacks”, enabling the student to consume only what they need, at the time they need it.


Best Practices


It’s clear that virtual training is still evolving, and the panel participants offered some recommendations:


  • Content first – Create a comprehensive, standardized learning framework and curriculum across the organization as the first priority. Offering flexibility in delivery methods then makes it easier for the learners to get trained.
  • Make it interactive – Use Web 2.0 technologies to your advantage to create a more interactive audio and visual experience for virtual learners.  Introduce frequent interventions, use white boarding in addition to static content, and provide lots of breaks. Try to enable people-to-people connections within the virtual environment
  • Train the trainers – Remember to provide skills development for the virtual instructors, as teaching in a virtual environment requires a new skillset.
  • Shorter is better – Tailor classes so that they provide exactly the skills that need to be transferred.




As noted in the keynotes, virtual learning is not a panacea.  It doesn’t serve all needs, and there are some things that need to be addressed:


  • Technology – As advanced as it is, the technology does not yet seem to be fully robust in certain aspects, e.g. inherent platform glitches, availability of toll-free lines in every country, etc.
  • User preparation – The student often needs to do some technical preparation (possibly a software download) to prepare for the class, and failure to do so can lead to class delays.
  • Standards – The current lack of standards is a challenge for some organizations at the moment. Organizations may need to support multiple platforms for vendor training and internal training, which adds complexity for the organization and the participants.


Despite these challenges, the consensus was that an 80% solution is better than no solution.  Knowing the link between training and effectiveness, these companies believe that getting more people trained is the # 1 priority.


I SHOULD be Multi-tasking! (thanks to one of our panelists for this great quote!)


The concern from some “old school’ers” (pardon the pun) is that an online learning experience will not be as effective as a traditional classroom, partially because it’s too easy for the student to get distracted.  But it sounds as though leaders in the education field are listening to the Gen-Y’ers, and reaching out to younger employees or university students.  What they are hearing is that these are people who have played video games all their lives, and have done their homework while IM’ing with their friends.  They are comfortable with multi-tasking, and tend to prefer online learning styles.


While I’m far (very far) from Generation Y, I still consume a lot of information online, and appreciate virtual and on-demand learning options.  My pod-duty experience at this week’s event helped me to see how effective a virtual environment can be for networking as well. 


I look forward to the upcoming roll-out of SAP’s new learning on demand platform, which will take our education offering to a new level.

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