The resilient trainer


We are all well aware of how the Pandemic is not only a tragedy with an enormous human cost but also an economic tsunami that is sweeping through almost every sector of the economy that, crippled by lockdowns, literally has no room to move to make its professionalism productive.

For us trainers, the Pandemic means the closure of classrooms and a huge restriction on training events such as outdoor and indoor teambuilding, town halls and conferences of various kinds: the edifice of organizational training has suffered an earthquake that has undermined the very foundation of the profession.

Still immersed in this situation we can only do as the architects of a civil defense crisis unit do i.e. assess the resilience of the structure understood as the inherent ability of the system to change its functioning before, during and following a traumatic event so that it can return to if not optimal at least sufficient functioning.

My colleagues and I found ourselves making this assessment and, with some surprise, after almost 12 months of working in this particular context, we came to this conclusion: lockdowns were a tremendous blow to our profession but their effect was not only to force us to adapt, it also helped us to improve the way we work and our products.

I would not want this statement to be perceived as a trivial consolatory consideration that is the result of misplaced simplistic optimism: the point I am trying to make is that the lockdown has forced us to explore more deeply the potential of distance learning and to discover how it is not just a substitute for the classroom but a training mode with a potential that is difficult to express in more traditional in-presence paths.


I have been in this profession for twenty years and, like most of my colleagues, the first feeling upon being forced to do training through a computer screen was a real form of claustrophobia. After only a week of lockdown we were already feeling a tremendous longing for the classroom, a magical place where you really can make connections with people you often meet for the first time.

Adding to the nostalgia was the annoyance of having to "really" learn a number of new IT tools. Certainly videocall platforms, virtual whiteboards, instant survey and brainstorming programs were not new and we were already using them - in moderation - aware that they were interesting and full of possibilities... and outside our comfort zone!

Of course, I am not speaking for everyone: many colleagues had long since launched themselves into the world of digital training, some with considerable success. I am describing the situation in which I found myself: I was definitely one of the victims of the earthquake and, like the building of in-presence training, I had taken quite a hit and was in the position of being forced to test my level of resilience...

In these 12 months I have had to start over, go back to that day 22 years ago when I first entered the classroom alongside my mentor, for the first time in a role as trainer instead of learner, and learn all over again how to manage a set of people who find themselves--by choice or by "imposition" of the organization--trying to learn something new or to improve their organizational actions.

Starting over, feeling myself in only partially explored territory, stimulated my curiosity, my adaptability and my desire to improve to bring my effectiveness back to levels comparable to what I had achieved in my classroom experience in attendance.

In these 12 months my colleagues and I have achieved two important results:

Let's look at them in detail.

1. It is easier to create training pathways and not limited to training "pills"

When I started as a trainer in the late 1990s, an Effective Communication course lasted 3 days; the same course, sold in December 2019, could not last more than 4 hours by putting the same number of people in the classroom. This transformation was in part due to distance learning: many organizations were having increasing problems disconnecting people from day-to-day operations due to lack of time and ever-diminishing training budgets. The digital tool had enabled blended solutions in which part of the training (the more theoretical part) was done with a pre-recorded webinar and the more "hands-on" part (exercises and simulations) took place in a half-day classroom. On balance, it was an efficient but ineffective solution: few participants completed the online part before the classroom part with an overall effect of wasted time for an incomprehensible half-day classroom.

In my opinion, the mistake lay in keeping the training "condensed" into a single "time unit": in the end, a more dispersed and less effective classroom day had been recreated. The true potential of the training had not been properly exploited.

Since March 2020, we found ourselves offering online modules but, not having pre-recorded lectures and aware of how boring and demotivating it could be to listen to a speaker without interaction, we set up 3-4 hour e-workshops in which we took advantage of all possible modes of interaction: not only virtual whiteboards and instant word clouds, even modified versions of the experiential exercises. The end result was a training event consisting of a theoretical part and a practical part in one 3-4 hour session that, since it could not be completely exhausted, had to be repeated for 2-3 more sessions a few days apart.

Organizations were offered the equivalent of 2-3 days of classroom training "spread" over a period of 3-4 weeks with returns of effectiveness significantly greater than 4-7 hours blended. We trainers had the opportunity to structure a small training course with modes and results comparable to those of 3 classroom days.

2. Real pathway monitoring is possible

In general, in-person training days ended with an invitation to follow a self-training path from the topics covered, often organized and summarized in an action plan. In the vast majority of cases, as that was the only time we met those people, it remained an invitation that was completely unheeded.

The structure of distance learning as described in the previous paragraph means that, at this moment in history, "homework" is not only possible but even necessary: having less time in direct interaction, the trainer can ask participants to "ground" the strategies and behaviors analyzed in training and, by writing a few notes on digital platforms or even just in a text file, reflect on them. The next session then starts with a quick and effective review of the topics already covered and a discussion on the actual applicability of the notions learned.

The action plan is no longer a formality, a "cosmetic" expedient to give the illusion of continuity of training, it is now a real working tool that continues the training action out of the classroom and into the workplace.

3. Credible evaluation of training results and possible follow-up is feasible

A reliable tool for evaluating the effect of newly completed training is, in several quarters, considered the "holy grail" of organizational development: being able to quantify the effect of a course immediately after its completion would represent unprecedented business leverage.

While waiting for a knight in shining armor to discover such an artifact, training professionals have often proposed to their clients the only alternative: remote monitoring of participants followed by a follow-up session in which to discuss what they have observed and experienced and to discuss possible alternative strategies for improving their effectiveness. Needless to say, only in very rare cases could such a complex - and expensive - evaluative device be implemented.

Again, structuring the training into a path of several e-workshops spaced apart allows and facilitates this similar evaluation of results: by extending the time interval-and not by much-between the first and last sessions of the path and having already performed several intermediate evaluations along the way, a virtual final evaluation meeting easily becomes an integral part of the program. Downstream of such an evaluation, it also becomes easier to propose new paths to clients that are integrated with the one already completed.

Resilience Test: Past

Distance learning is certainly not new, but the pandemic has turned it into the preferred medium: those who were not already in this field have found themselves thrown into a stormy ocean, swept by waves capable of shattering the fragile vessel of a distance learning neophyte.

While the health emergency is not over and we are still far from being able to say that we have mastered with agility all the tools of this mode of training interaction, we can certainly say that we have withstood the blow or, as it is fashionable to say today, that we have proven to be resilient: not only have we "converted" part of our training offerings to this mode but we have also discovered how to take advantage of possibilities that, in presence, were either not possible or difficult to achieve.

Far from claiming that the in-person classroom is now outdated-the strength of the direct relationship is even more "tangible" in its absence-we are now convinced, however, that a mode exists-a blended mode different from those hitherto known, a mode that alternates moments of distance learning (synchronous and asynchronous) with in-person classroom moments united in a coherent and protracted pathway, a device for organizational development more effective and efficient than those envisioned before lockdowns.

And it only took a pandemic to prove it to us in facts!