Back in 2013, I was working for the National Australia Bank and part of the Digital Learning Team responsible for the rollout of skills programs in virtual facilitation, virtual meetings and Learning How to Learn Online for the entire bank.
Our team designed and developed the suite of these courses (I remember those Facilitator Guides and Participant Guides so well) because the bank had rolled out Webex across the organisation to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings and the reliance of physical classrooms when running the many banks leadership, sales, retail, banking operations and customer service training.
Much of it was all going to go online and be delivered through live online learning. That is, teaching people who happen to be in different places at the same point in time.
Now back in 2013, this was HUGE!
I remember it caused such a ruckus for many people especially those facilitators who felt that the bank was taking away their classroom and forcing them to deliver their classes online. Some rebelled and returned working back in the business where they had come from, others took to this new delivery with gusto. There was a lot of discussion (heated at times), as to whether online versus face-to-face was better.
Regardless, I find it amusing that we are STILL having the same arguments seven years later. Of course this form of learning has been around a lot longer than that.
Be under no illusion that online learning is new. It’s not.
So in the Digital Learning Team, we had to teach leadership, managers and staff – pretty much everyone at the bank – on these new ‘digital’ skills of using, participating and contributing in virtual meetings, events and courses.
For the face-to-face facilitators, we ran the the Virtual Facilitation Skills course which encouraged them to rethink their face-to-face delivery behaviours and recreate these in an online format without losing the engagement and interactivity of their classes – and all the while, holding the attention and focus of workers who were doing training at their desk.
Now it may be surprising but I found that many of the F2F facilitators were actually pretty good online facilitators because they had the skill of FACILITATION. That is, they knew how to ask open questions, read the group, encourage interaction and activity, weave in stories, challenge thinking and come up with interesting team games that supported learning. At times I was in AWE of how a 2 hour session with them facilitating online seemed to zip by and I came out of it motivated, inspired and dare I say it, had lots of fun, learned heaps and I looked forward to the next session making every effort to clear my diary and commit to those virtual training sessions.
I remember making up signs printed out “DO NOT DISTURB ME! I’M LEARNING!” and put them around my desk whenever I was in a session with these awesome facilitators.
Meanwhile for the Instructional Designers and Developers in the Learning and Development department, we designed and developed (this is my background and qualification) and ran the “Virtual Instructional Design Course.
Once again, this course was delivered through Webex and in this course we upskilled them on the techniques needed to redesign course materials such as slides, facilitator and participator guides as well as also provide some skills in e-moderation for any post-course communications in discussion forums (that’s an entire new skill set completely).
Designing for a face-to-face course versus a live online experience are completely different – online is far more detailed.
This was a lot of fun because my background was Instructional Design and I loved creating these courses then working together with the business as well as the selected Facilitator who was going to run that live online course and design activities and exercises for them. It was a partnership approach and the facilitators always challenged my thinking because they would propose what they would have done in the classroom for an activity and then it was up to me to design a similar activity using ONLINE functionality.
That kept my thinking fresh, I had to test various systems and functions out and then whatever worked, I had to incorporate these steps into the Facilitator Guide STEP-BY-STEP. Then, we had to test and re-test it with the facilitator first and then with a small select group BEFORE the actual real life class.
Oh fun days!
We also ran Producer courses for those technically minded who wanted to act as Producers to live online sessions. Producers support the Virtual Facilitator and I liken them to say, a Radio Producer making sure the Host/Facilitator can run the session while they deal with any tech issues in the background.
As well as that, we ran “Learn How to Learn Online” courses consistently through the year and on a rotation to ensure that everyone in the bank had completed this training. This was a critical foundational course that everyone had to do PRIOR to attending any virtual event.
The course taught them how to get prepared for online learning, set up their computer and workspace, how to interact and engage online and how to use polls, chat function and so forth.
How Did We Prepare For This?
Before we ran these, the Digital Learning team (and in fact, all of Learning & Development) completed the Insync Certifications run by Jennifer Hoffman. I undertook the Facilitation Fundamentals, Design Fundamentals and the Virtual Producer and LOVED the training. I remember it being quite intensive but rewarding.
At the time, National Australia Bank was seen as the leader in online learning so it felt that we were pushing boundaries and leading by example when it came to this way of learning.
Personally, I loved working in that team because we used the digital tools available to us at the time such as SharePoint, Webex and other tools to help our customers structure blended learning programs. Also, it was a team that valued our continued professional development and my boss at the time, Cheryle Walker who headed up the team actively encouraged us to use digital technology and look at ways to incorporate it into work (I was the one exploring social media and Yammer at the time of which I have written TONS on this blog about my work at NAB).
Cheryle encouraged me to explore the use of online communities, personal learning networks and using social media for learning.
It was a good time to be at NAB and breaking new ground. An exciting time where the organisation was feeling its way through this new digital landscape and luckily we had people like Simon Terry, Ben Elias, Angus Florence and many others who you may all know through the Twitter networks who were also leading the charge in their own ways through this new landscape.
The Current Situation
Fast forward to 2021.
One of the things I’m now working on at Adopt & Embrace is once again revisiting these virtual facilitation skills because they’re important as ever. We run our courses through blended learning already so delivering live online (as well as offline) is not new for us.
However, like Cheryle, our boss Paul Woods actively encourages the team to be consistently and continually improving our knowledge and skills and then applying what we learn to our work – and sharing what we learn – to our customers to build their skills too.
Similarly, this year, I also am experiencing being a learner in a live online environment by doing French classes with the Alliance Francaise. These are undertaken on Zoom but the standout, quality classes are dependent on the skills of the facilitator and the amount of interactivity, exercises and activities that get us talking, brain storming and learning.
As I take these classes, I look at ways as to how the facilitators are using the tools to put us into breakout rooms, share applications, whiteboard and using chat and it makes me think that virtual facilitation – indeed even take the virtual out of it – facilitation in general is a skill we need to all have. Some teachers have been exceptionally creative in their use of the systems and they’re ones to learn from!
Working on a current project at Adopt & Embrace curating some resources in virtual facilitation for my colleagues, I started to appreciate how valuable having these facilitation skills are for current workplaces. After all, our workplaces are in constant flux, we are dealing with complex problems and we need insights, ideas, perspectives from everyone.
(I even wrote about it back in April 2020 in a blog post: Skills After Corona – Advanced Facilitation Skills. )
We shouldn’t excuse our own lack of facilitation, open questioning and collaboration skills and then blame it on the limitations of the technology. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect to just sit there in virtual meetings, hidden and on mute, and not engage and contribute to discussions and decisions that affect our work. Now’s the time to step up and have a voice.
Now’s the time to start exploring those functions in your virtual platform and looking at creative ways in using them for collaboration, communication and co-ordination.
Here’s a short video where I work out loud on the small project I’m working on.