Webinar: Is that even a word?

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If you work in information technology, it sometimes feels like webinars came out of nowhere a few years ago but now feel as ubiquitous as coffee shops in Cook Street Village.

For those who have not experienced a webinar, it is an online video or demonstration generally used to show a promotion or product or provide online training. They can be quite brief or longer than a Meat Loaf ballad and are a very passive method of learning. 

There is no doubt that training webinars can be delivered at far lower costs than traditional training methods. This is due to there being no expenses for facilities, trainers, travel, or even providing attendees with muffins. But I challenge you to truly consider the overall costs if you are employing webinars as a training strategy and weigh that against the benefits. 

The most common use of webinars that cross my desk is for vendors showing off a new product. It is easy to demonstrate the benefits of the product without making any real investment of time in getting to know my organization and its needs. It almost feels like video junk mail. When you consider an organization’s potential spending on the products or services being shilled (combined with their associated implementation costs), I can’t be the only one who thinks, “no effort, no relationship, no sale!”

They Have a Place

Alas, I must concede that webinars have their place. In my experience, this would be when you need a short presentation that demonstrates the specific use of an application’s new features or a visual demonstration of such things as safety procedures.

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Although they can provide value, I strongly believe that value is not a replacement for quality training. I think of webinars like TV: there is no question we learn from what we see on TV (Lindsay Lohan got drunk again? Thanks TMZ!) but, despite the pleadings of your teenager, could anyone really convince themselves that passive TV watching is quality learning that is an investment in their careers? 

The bigger issue that concerns me is when an organization cuts training altogether and tries to pass off webinars as a viable alternative to real hands-on learning. When a training budget gets cut, some organizations offer webinars as a training solution instead of more traditional methods. But I suggest you tread carefully. At the risk of sounding Churchillian (hey, if webinar gets to be a word, then so does Churchillian), the economy will improve, the boomers will retire, and organizations will be hiring again! 

Your staff know the difference between real training and watching a computer monitor for a few hours. The result of cutting costs now could be your staff choosing to cut ties with your organization later. Use webinars if you must, but don’t pass them off as a training initiative. Remember that your staff sees training as an investment in their careers and future and will be very aware if you are cheaping out on them.

Interruptions and Distractions

We look back at 2009 as a time when budget cuts were extreme and companies looked to cut most non-essential expenses across the board. Unfortunately, a training budget usually sticks out as a non-essential expense and is often one of the first to be cut. This is dangerously shortsighted. If organizations stop developing their staff, it can be a demotivator at best and, at worst, can weaken your ability to retain these employees. 

If you have just reviewed my arguments and determined that webinar-based training is still the path you may follow, there is another point to consider. How much of a webinar do people retain and is that worth the money you are paying your staff to watch it?

There is no doubt people have different learning styles. You have probably seen the arguments that only about 10 per cent of what is read is retained, while as much as 90 per cent of learning is interacting. If your staff is participating in a lecture-style webinar, they are likely not retaining too much at all. Combine that with the possibility of staff having to stay late to make up for work not done while watching the webinar, and your staff could easily deduce that webinar training is not the best use of their time.

Another challenge with learning from webinars comes in how they are actually viewed. Generally, people view them just sitting at their desk, staring at their computer. I am sure members of my team have no idea how to tell when I am working or when I am watching a webinar. You may take this as a sign that I probably don’t appear to look very busy when I work. Others may agree that it is difficult to learn while surrounded by the normal everyday distractions of an office. Sitting at my desk, webinar or not, there are still interruptions such as emails, text messages, naps, phone calls, and people knocking on my door. While viewing a webinar, I am sure that I have the same blank look on my face as Tiger Woods does in the now infamous Nike commercial.

I can’t be the only one thinking like this. As the Globe and Mail reported last year, “52 per cent of people enjoy multitasking while on a conference call.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this 52 per cent would be easily distracted by almost anything else if they were trying to watch a webinar amid the normal daily distractions. I also found it interesting that they “enjoy” multitasking. These webinar watchers would probably also eagerly look forward to filing a budget report just to liven things up.

Participative training

If you still have budget challenges and can’t free up funds for training, there are many different training solutions worth pursuing. Consider internal opportunities to support a more involved style of learning, participate in job shadowing, or start a mentoring program. You may even find some success in giving ownership to a team member of a part of the budget to allow staff to better understand the responsibilities of expenses. 

You could also consider following the model at Hewlett-Packard and open up an innovation break during the week to allow staff to work on something of their choice that both interests them and benefits the company. I believe these participative suggestions provide more learning opportunities than a passive webinar.

I read not too long ago that e-learning has grown to represent 24 per cent of all employee training hours. If this is true, let’s ensure that this enormous e-learning time commitment is actually effective and not just used as background music while your staff multitasks with their normal daily duties. 

Now if you will excuse me, I must catch a webinar from the good people who manufacturer the Snuggie: they promise to teach me eight essential uses for it.