Advantage to Butt-in-the-Seat Training

by Paul Meshanko

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The best roadmap to the future sometimes looks strangely like the past. This is particularly relevant in the discussion on classroom vs. online training. Almost a decade ago, one of my friends who worked as an HR manager for a large, Fortune 50 manufacturing company lamented the difficulty his organization was having with employee acceptance and use of a new, online learning service that had just been purchased from an outside vendor. He said, “You know, Paul, sometimes there’s nothing quite like good, old ‘butt-in-the-chair’ training”. Looking through the lens of recent research on learning, the cause of his frustration is much more apparent.

Technology is great. In fact, I’m writing this post from a Mr. Tire repair shop (conveniently located next to a Bob Evans restaurant with a strong wi-fi signal). I could just as easily be participating in a webinar on to do a better job pre-screening new employee candidates or improving the search rankings of our websites. But technology, like other educational “tools”, has its limitations…especially when it comes to learning and development.

The challenge is human neurology. Research supports that knowledge and skills related to tasks that can be executed independently of other people (such as how to interact with a new computer program) can be practiced and learned by our brains without direct interaction with other people. However, when the skills to be learned actually involve our interactions with other people or have a high emotional content (such as communication skills or inclusive behaviors), our brains struggle on their own to learn at the level required to change behaviors. This is because the learning itself is a by-product of participating in and observing the complex, nuanced and multi-sensory interactions between live humans.

My suggestion, one that has served our company very well over the past 40 years, is simple. Leverage technology to its fullest when it makes sense. Online learning labs, webinars, etc. are terrific and should be part of every organization’s learning tool kit. But when it comes to enhancing skill sets critical for positively impacting the culture of your business (the “soft” skills), stick with live, face-to-face environments. Not only does this best take advantage of how humans learn, it also builds commitment to use the skills between the people who learn together.