Sunday, January 30, 2011

Skype to the Rescue!

Here is a winter-time scenario that is probably familiar to many learning professionals:

You have a group of employees participating in a learning program.   As part of the program, they are scheduled to attend a classroom learning event.  Participants, instructors, subject matter experts and senior leaders are scheduled to fly in from different parts of the country to converge at the training location for three-days of discussion, instruction and action-planning for the days that follow.  Then the weather strikes.  One or more of the key players for this event can't make it on time, or worst case scenario, at all.   Instead of a smooth-running, well-planned event, now you are faced with using a less-than-ideal contingency plan. 

This week my team facilitated a program for a group of supervisors from our service organization at our training center outside of Atlanta.  The topics mainly had to do with people management issues.  Everything went as planned on days one and two, but winter weather threatened to disrupt the agenda on day three.  One of our key subject matter experts (SMEs), an employee relations specialist, was scheduled to join us for a three-hour segment on day three.  Since that was the only time he needed to be there, his plan was to fly in Wednesday night, join us for the positive employee relations segment on Thursday morning and fly back home Thursday afternoon.  He was coming from the northeast, where I live, and flew in from just a few days earlier.   I've lived in Connecticut for fifteen years.   We have had more major snowstorms this year than in any other year since I've lived here.   On Wednesday night, we had another one.  There was no way our employee relations specialist was going to be able to get to Atlanta for our session.  Time for plan B.

Now we had used this particular gentleman as a subject matter expert for similar training sessions in the past. He facilitates discussion about treating people professionally and in a manner that is in line with our company values.   He also covers important information about legal aspects of the supervisor/employee relationship.   Needless to say, I was disappointed that we weren't going to have him with us in person.  In the past, when things like this happened, we would often have the SME join us via conference call and through Microsoft Live Meeting.  This works well when the SME has a lot of written or visual material to cover.  But our employee relations SME doesn't use PowerPoint slides.  He doesn't have a three-inch binder loaded with printed materials.   He relies on group discussion and storytelling to deliver his message - and he is a very animated storyteller.   He is a dynamic and engaging speaker who adds a lot of value to the topic with his style.  His messages come through clearly and powerfully, and he makes a memorable visual impression.  I didn't want our supervisors to miss out on the advantages created by that style.

Fortunately, I have recently become familiar with, and comfortable using Skype - which is software for making voice and video calls over the Internet.   Both of my kids are in college.  My wife and I have been using Skype  in our conversations with them.   It is one thing to talk to them on the phone and ask how they are doing,  It is another to see their faces.  Are they smiling?  Do they look happy/sad/worried/tired/etc?   Using Skype with them has made us feel that we are all a little closer.  The conversations feel more intimate.  The visual information tells us much more than their voice and words alone ever could.

Knowing our employee relations expert's speaking style, I thought, "why not try to connect him into the classroom via Skype?"   I knew it would be risky.   Would the technology hold up for a three-hour segment?  Would the one-to-group dynamic work as well as the one-to-one conversations that I've had with my kids?  But in the end we decided to try it.   I called him on his cell phone to ask if he ever used Skype.  He said that he had it on his computer but had only used it once or twice over a year ago, but he was willing to give it a try.  Next, we had to find a large monitor and speakers to connect to my laptop so that the group could clearly see and hear him.   Fortunately, we were able to find everything we needed to make the connection.

On Thursday morning, I huddled the group in closer together so that they would be in camera range and dialed up our SME through the computer.  There he was, smiling and ready to go.  He was very comfortable with the set-up.  Even though he was sitting at a desk at home, he was still able to be as lively, animated and engaging as I knew him to be in person.   He could clearly see everyone and he responded to their body language, gestures and facial expressions as if he was in the room.  The one challenge we had was that our audio feed to him was through the microphone built into my laptop.  So there were some times when he could not hear comments or questions from the group.   I acted as moderator repeating/paraphrasing questions for him.  At his direction, I also drew a few diagrams on the flip chart and captured comments from the group during some of the discussions.  All-in-all it was incredibly successful.

Afterwards, I was thinking, "If we were this successful with this impromptu effort, imagine what we could do if we had actually planned and designed this as a distance learning segment."   Now my head is filled with possibilities.   I think we will be doing more distance learning using video calls in the future.

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