Virtual Teams

Guest post: The Restaurant at the End of the Virtual Universe

Guest post by Jyri Kuokka, Technical Communications Assistant, KONE Corp./KONE Training and Documentation

Jyri Kuokka is the current Technical Communications Assistant at KONE Training and Documentation as well as the vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter behind the Finnish heavy metal act The Fathomless Deep. Jyri has a BBA in Management and Human Resources from Pacific Lutheran University (in Tacoma, WA) and a QBA in Accounting and Finance from Helsinki Business College in Finland.

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 Virtual Trainer Skills is an exciting new course at KONE. It coaches trainers to train virtually without forgoing the level of engagement perhaps more easily attainable with face-to-face teaching.

VTS exists because virtual training exists; a simple fact, but the reality in most large organizations is that virtual training is not only employed, but encouraged. It is, or can be, an effective means of teaching a large number of people across the globe, without the costs of travel or arranging a learning facility, or the cost in terms of time needed for organization and administration.

As a learning platform, virtual training can be a difficult craft, as trainers may feel distant from their audience, or find true contact impossible. Tony Poots, our VTS instructor, discusses the key challenges, most common mistakes, and the solutions, which, as he analogizes, are not entirely unlike handling customers at your restaurant.

A difficult meal to prepare. The key challenges in virtual training

Imagine going to a restaurant, being taken to your table, but no further. Nobody has given you a menu, let alone something to eat. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, you would not feel like eating there. The same trap fall exists in virtual training. Tony Poots explains:

The key challenges are engaging people, keeping them engaged, and getting the content right. Human beings are really designed to be face-to-face creatures so when we engage one another in a conversation or training it’s about the words we use, it’s about the content, it’s about your voice, it’s about movement, and interaction between us at a physical level.”

Tony continues: “So, the key challenge is how you engage people when all you’ve got is your voice and something happening on the screen and you don’t have eye contact, you don’t know what people are doing, and they’re not really getting to know you. The other major challenge area is getting the content right to ensure that you don’t spend your whole time in some kind of one-way death-by-PowerPoint activity and do something, which is actually very practical and useful for people that they can’t get from simply reading a book.”

Poor nutrition – The most common mistakes in virtual training

“The most common mistake people typically make is lack of interaction. For some reason, either [trainers] think that creating true interaction is impossible or because they themselves feel quite remote from their audience,” he comments.

The second mistake often occurs as a result of or in conjunction with the first. “[Trainers] forget about the need for interaction, which leads them into the second biggest mistake, which is talking at people, rather than discussing with them.”

“Finally,” Tony adds, “in a LiveMeeting [editors note: communications’ technology type], it’s pretty hard to concentrate; people need regular breaks around every 50 minutes, or so.”


Food for the mind – The solution

“I try to think of a LiveMeeting or virtual training as someone coming to my restaurant, and I want to get them engaged very quickly. So, I make sure they get the menu very quickly and that they get an appetizer too that makes them want to stay for the rest of the meal.”

A vivid analogy, but how is this done?

Tony’s answer is ironically both blunt and to the point: “The number one rule is, don’t be boring. If you look at your own material and really feel that it doesn’t interest you then it certainly not going to interest folks when delivered remotely through technology. That means that we really do have to design for interaction and design with the needs of the audience in mind.”

“When people learn, they really do use not only their logical brain – they also use their emotional brain. They like to listen, but they also like to talk; they like to read, they also like to write; and more importantly, they like to do stuff; they don’t want just to consume, they like to create and co-create as well.”

Exotic spices – The effects of culture on virtual training

As virtual trainings bypass country borders, trainers will naturally have an audience of people from vastly different cultures, most often all at once. Tony is very aware of this, and has his own take on how to respectfully approach this situation.

“[VTS] participants will run courses for international audiences,” Tony begins. “The first thing to consider is language; typically, most international courses are run in English, so we try to role-model and coach people on how to speak English in such a way that it’s comfortable for their participants; not too fast, not too slow. The second element is to recognize that you have different learning and group behaviors across different cultures.”

This seems like a challenge. However, culture isn’t the fabled giant living in the hillside, as Tony explains: “…actually culture is just one dimension of peoples’ personality. Therefore make sure not to use culture as an excuse for certain behaviors. Within your training, you can create your own culture, by which I mean: create your own expectations of how to participate, make people feel comfortable and safe, and really let their personality, rather than their culture come to the fore.”


The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – The future of virtual training

Virtual Training is here to stay and will only continue to develop. In fact, the technology keeps bringing virtual training closer to face-to-face training, but with the benefits of both. Already many 3D virtual learning and collaboration solutions exist; Second Life, Tixeo, just to name two.

“That will come, probably sooner than we think. We are now on maybe the third or fourth net-generation. The third net-generation is coming into the workplace and they’re more relaxed with using those kinds of technologies,” Tony remarks. “More and more we spend time engaging others via technologies. For some generations it’s still quite unnatural, but for the younger generations and the folks coming into KONE right now, this is what they’re used to from their own private life. [With Virtual Trainer Skills] we’re simply mirroring reality.”
Tony’s Top Tips:

1. Create something that’s interactive and memorable

Make full use of the collaboration software (puzzles, games, virtual whiteboard etc. If you’ve exhausted all options, you can send your audience on a fact findoing safari on the internet.)

2. Be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage

Don’t talk AT people, rather discuss with them. Aim for the students to do more talking than you.

3. Get your material right and don’t be boring

If you’re not interested in the material, the chances are that your audience won’t be either

4. Create your own culture and let people’s personalities come to the fore

ie understand cultural differences in general so that you can look beyond them

5. Allow regular breaks, approximately every 50 minutes

It is very difficult to concentrate in a virtual meeting. Breaks help let the knowledge you impart to sink in.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Tony Poots of Global Integration for the fantastic interview, Timo Paulamäki at KONE for the assignment, and Douglas Adams for the literary reference.

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