I recently did something that I hadn’t done in two years. I put on a collared shirt, put on a sports jacket, and took the stage in a hotel ballroom to give a presentation. After what felt like an eternity on Zoom, it was fun to connect with the crowd, share a laugh, and debrief over a great meal together afterwards.
And yet, this positive experience masks a darker vision. In many aspects of life, just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Consider opting for a cocktail or workout after work, or ordering a large plate of nachos instead of a salad. It turns out, in-person classroom learning is the same: it’s better for most people than learning online, but when done right, online learning wins hands down.
After four years of analyzing thousands of data points on hundreds of behavior change initiatives, I watch with concern some companies shift their learning activities to in-person workshops. It’s a terrible loss now that we are used to learning online and because virtual learning can be the key to helping businesses adapt faster to our rapidly changing times.
The surprise results of virtual learning
If an organization wants to implement large-scale culture change, it cannot simply rely on the best leaders to implement new behaviors. Instead, such change requires employees at all levels to establish new, lasting habits of thinking and acting in new ways, literally every week.
To measure this kind of change, we’ve developed a way to track how many people are doing something new each week, over time, after a learning session. We call this the “percentage of behavior change”, or BCP to shorten it. We found that the average BCP of our own in-person workshops was 54%. That’s a great result: getting half the audience to do something new every week, several weeks after a learning experience, is no small feat. And yet, virtually the same content delivered had a PCA of 84%.
Out of curiosity, we also captured and averaged Net Promoter Scores (NPS), which measures the likelihood that people will encourage others to engage in such learning. Any score above zero is considered good, and online deliveries had an NPS of +12, while in-person events averaged -6.
Put simply, this means that virtual learning in our case was more than 50% more effective than in-person learning in driving real behavior change. Imagine a workforce of 10,000 employees. That means 8,400 people would change the way they work with a virtual experience, compared to just 5,400 if the learning happened in person. And that’s before we even think about the cost, effort and disruption associated with bringing 10,000 people together in person.
Our data is the opposite of what people predict. Most people think that in-person learning, which is usually done in blocks of several hours, is better than spacing out learning, for example, in 60-minute sessions over several weeks. To further test our hypothesis, we recently looked back at over 500 people in an organization who had activated new habits around a growth mindset, using a virtual solution. Two weeks after the program, we found that the BCP was around 90%. Six months later, the BCP had only fallen to 85%.
Why does virtual learning work so well for cultivating new habits? For starters, learning in small chunks over time allows you to learn one thing, apply it, then come back and learn the next thing. That can’t happen in an in-person workshop, where you walk away with pages of to-do’s. Second, the act of space out learning has a strong positive effect on memory, which means that even a one-time virtual workshop would not be as effective. And finally, learning over time, especially if the learning is designed to be social in nature, increases the likelihood that you will take action. When we did a thought experiment that looked at the effectiveness of a single three-hour workshop delivered online or in-person versus three one-hour events over three weeks, we found that people on average took seven times more shares.
Impact an entire organization, quickly
Much of the design of learning follows a top-down model. According to the theory, train the best leaders and the effects should trickle down. That’s why we still see companies trying to get the top 100 leaders of a 10,000 person company to have an in-person learning experience, and watch it go six months before they only have 60% of them. them in the classroom.
But Studies show the main factor that explains why people change is that they think other people change. Instead of a top-down model, we believe in an everyone-to-everyone model. Using a virtual approach in much less time than it would take to face senior executives, the majority of the 10,000 employees could be doing something new every week. With the the half-life of many skills decreases rapid virtual learning allows an entire business to change in weeks instead of years.
Finally, consider this: while it was fun to be back on stage and sharing a laugh with the crowd, I found myself missing the momentum of getting everyone to answer questions in the live chat. real-time, thereby increasing inclusion. Instead, I watched the confident, powerful people in the crowd speak, and many others say nothing. Additionally, with the costs and challenges of scaling in-person learning, those on the front lines of organizations, typically a more diverse audience, are often left out of valuable development. With smart design, you can engage everyone in virtual learning, whether you’re working in a factory, retail store, office, or home.
In short, when thinking about returning to in-person learning events, while it might be fun to see hands up in a room again, you might want to think twice. If you want the fun and connection of bringing people together, maybe take a hybrid approach, launching an in-person program but leaving the real learning online. When it comes to real and lasting behavior change, virtual learning, done right, beats in-person learning hands down.