Little Jimmy Smith joined the Marine Corps at age 19, and he was full of excitement.
Imagine his surprise when he arrived at boot camp to find not people doing pushups, crawling through mud or stripping and reassembling rifles but instead, a large and well-lit room full of computers.
“It’s the new way of training Marines!”, barked the virtual Drill Sergeant avatar on Jimmy’s screen. “We do everything online now!” he screamed. So Jimmy turned the volume down.
After six grueling weeks of online scenarios and tests, Jimmy got his first service-related injury. During a particularly tough Pentagon policy questionnaire, he pulled a muscle in his mouse-clicking finger. Recovering bravely, and even as many of his classmates dropped out or were dismissed, at thirteen weeks he finally sat for the big online test, scored a whopping 94 percent, and graduated. “Congratulations, son!”, said the class leader, handing Jimmy his rifle. “You’re a Marine!”
Okay, so you’re laughing. You know perfectly well that the U.S. Marine Corps may use computers, but that they’d never train Marines solely online. Neither would the other services, or the police, or a school for heart surgeons. And yet, there are people out there seriously arguing that all the training for your own job can be done online, and that you don’t need to attend face-to-face training or programs with travel and a residential requirement any more.
Are you less important than a soldier? A police officer? Even a doctor? Is your job so inconsequential that the things Jimmy would miss by never training hands-on don’t matter for you at all? You may not be stripping and reassembling a rifle or re-plumbing a heart, but how about leadership? What about handling tough situations? Finding good team strategies? Coping with noise and distractions and people demanding attention? Handling the unpredictable and unexpected? Handling angry customers? Surviving or running a performance review? Dealing with stress?
Mike Tyson, who should know, once said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” That’s why online training simply doesn’t work when ACTION is the needed result. Where intellectual UNDERSTANDING is all that’s needed, online has the potential to work if done well, and you can deliver that kind of training much more cheaply than you used to.
But don’t kid yourself that online training can suffice by itself for handling real-world face-to-face challenges. Human beings are not avatars, nor are they disembodied minds who handle everything with cool intellect in the calm of the classroom. Rather, managers and organizations that don’t have much faith in training to begin with are attracted to entirely-online solutions because it allows them to check the box – “Trained the team” – on their training plan for a lot less money, and since it never worked anyway, what’s the difference?
The commonest published argument for all-online training has to do with the didactic imperative, but that’s a red herring. The real driver for online training in organizations is that it saves on travel and absences and is very, very cheap. It’s all about the money, honey.
And incidentally, elites will always train face-to-face. Online or not, the corporate board, the top managers, the high-flyers, the selected few are not going to give up their leadership retreats anytime soon. It’s just the rest of you for whom all-online training is good enough. We’re in the process of creating a new class barrier between the opportunity-rich and the opportunity-poor.
Smart people know that the dynamics of a group are simply too complicated to predict in a linear, pre-programmed way. Humans are living organisms, and in any group there are a thousand variables going in all directions all at the same time, complicated by emotions, reactions, the vital role of all senses in the way we really think, feel and act, memory that only works when the emotional context and the situation are both similar to the real-world physical environment, thinking that’s intimately connected to and inseparable from the physical world and our physical being, and above all the reality that we are whole humans who only the least-informed, most out-of-touch and most arrogant would think for a moment can be accurately programmed and mapped out in full detail on a computer screen.
Think I’m overstating it? Okay. Next time you need some Marines to protect you at a U.S. embassy, a few police to save you from being mugged, or a quadruple bypass done on your heart, pick the folks whose training was all done in front of a computer screen.
Online training is great, but that doesn’t make it the answer to everything – any more than the invention of cars ended the joys of walking. The right balance is to use online training for what it does best, and hands-on training for what that does best. The history of innovation is that mature organizations seek balance, while immature organizations lose their heads over the latest bright shiny thing. Anybody remember flared pants, VHS videos and Beanie Babies?
What it really comes down to is whether or not your organization values you, and whether senior managers believe that real training can cause behavioral change. If the answer to either question is “no”, then that’s the place where the pendulum will swing completely off the scale and online training will be seen as the answer to everything.
And that might also be the time for you to start looking for another job.