The hard facts on soft skills and e-learning

Until recently, e-learning has been limited largely to pages and pages of text, supplemented by images. More sophisticated e-learning programs incorporated short videos and interactive animated games — the kind where you would connect matching images on the screen. These approaches are fine from the perspective of knowledge acquisition. However, they are not effective for skill acquisition.

Watching hours of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” can make someone a whiz at trivia; watching hours of soccer won’t make anyone an awesome soccer player.

Skills are best acquired though practice. This is particularly true in the case of soft skills for two major reasons.

First, emotions tend to accompany interpersonal interactions. Even if someone knows the appropriate behaviour in a particular situation, it may not be exhibited because emotions can interfere with thinking and actions. Most people know “conflict” is not productive, but the instant emotions are triggered and succumb to, people display behaviours that take them deeper into conflict. How difficult is it to be pleasant to someone you don’t like? Mastering any soft skill involves learning how to regulate emotions and that requires practice.

Second, it is often difficult to read interpersonal situations. The cues that people send to each other are very ambiguous and it is not easy to interpret them accurately. Did he like me or not? Did she agree with me or not? In almost all business situations, be it sales, negotiations or management, it is important to be able to read these cues to adapt one’s behavioural style. The ability to read situations also comes with practice.

Computer simulations
Recent improvements in digital technology now enable companies to build computer simulations for trainees to practice soft skills first-hand. Computer-based simulations immerse trainees in a realistic depiction of a workplace situation (such as a customer with a complaint) through a video interface and let them handle the challenges in a realistic scenario.

Trainees make choices and the virtual characters on the screen provide responses. Simulations let trainees explore a situation by trying different approaches, and provide clear and immediate feedback regarding performance. They also help trainees to understand why a particular result occurred, encouraging learners to try again.

Simulations can be used to improve employees’ skills in selling, customer service, performance management, teamwork and many others. From the perspective of soft skills training, simulations are a significant development because, when properly designed, these tools can provide an opportunity for learning-by-doing.

This is not to say that any simulation is going to be an effective training tool. An effective simulation must incorporate established learning principles. Whether building your own simulations in-house or outsourcing, it is advisable to ensure the following five learning principles are included in the design of the simulation.

Applying five learning principles
Active practice: Trainees should be provided with opportunities to practice a training task. Thus, simulations should be built with opportunities for exploration and practice. Simulations should have many paths. Some should be leading further away from the ideal path if a user makes a less than ideal choice, and others should lead the trainee back if she takes a corrective action.

A multi-path design is superior to a single-path design because it is more engaging, more realistic and allows for greater exploration. This design also makes simulations fun, inviting the user to go through the simulation repeatedly, helping to internalize the skill.

To further facilitate exploration, simulations should provide users with choices on the menu that are not easily transparent. All options should appear to trainees as appropriate or at least potentially appropriate. Trainees should discover the appropriateness of choices by observing what happens when an option is chosen.

When creating a multi-path design, be careful to avoid making the simulation so complex that the lesson gets lost. A good analogy is a movie script. It must find a balance between simplistic and predictable on the one hand and overly complex, drawn-out and confusing on the other.

Identical elements: The successful transfer of training is more likely when the experience resembles scenarios confronted in the actual work environment. Simulated situations must feel real to the trainee. Simulations should be built around real stories from the trenches and should use actual jargon.

Simulations should place the trainee psychologically in the same place that she would be in real life, on the job and evoke the same emotions.

In spite of potential technical concerns that may arise, the use of multimedia capabilities is recommended. Video can display many situational cues and fine details, such as the movement of facial muscles, which the trainee should learn to interpret correctly. This is particularly important for training in sales, negotiations, performance management and the like, where people subtly communicate through body language and facial expressions.

Similarly, the use of audio can help trainees learn to interpret nuances in others’ tones of voice and word inflections.

General principles: Transfer of training is more likely when trainees know the general rules and principles that underlie training content. For learning to take place, it is not enough to let the trainee know which choices in the simulation are appropriate and which are not. They need to learn the “why” along with the “how.”

Simulations should provide instant access to appropriate lessons. No matter where the trainees are in the simulation, they should be able to access the relevant general rules and principles governing that particular skill and be able to return back to the simulation. This type of just-in-time lesson delivery allows for learning to occur at the moment it is needed, resulting in better understanding and retention.

Trainees should also be able to access a virtual coach. The job of a coach is to help trainees make the connection between theory and practice by commenting on the appropriateness of the chosen option and guiding them through simulations.

Stimulus variability: A trainee is more likely to apply and transfer what is learned in training to a job if he has had a variety of experiences. One training implication of this principle is to design several training simulations that provide opportunities to practice relevant skills in a variety of settings.

Simulations should also reinforce learning through different means. For example, they can incorporate interviews with actual people. Experienced employees can share war stories and describe what has worked in similar situations. Senior managers can talk about the company’s philosophy and expectations regarding behaviour and performance.

It can also be effective to combine the use of computer simulations with live role-plays, thereby driving the lessons home.

Knowledge of results: Proper feedback of one’s performance on the training task improves learning and skill acquisition. Feedback should be timely and unambiguous. It should tell the trainees whether they performed well or poorly, and provide an explanation of what they did correctly and incorrectly.

Simulations should not provide only positive feedback. Negative feedback is very important because it triggers questions and provides motivation to learn why certain behaviours resulted in failure. People tend to learn from their mistakes. Failure that has an emotional impact is particularly powerful because it is memorable.

Simulations where inappropriate choices result in an upset virtual customer raising her voice and demanding to see the manager, or a virtual employee beginning to cry during her performance review, can create memories that stay with trainees and prevent them from exhibiting similar inappropriate behaviours in real life.

To help trainees acquire soft skills, programs should be designed to permit learning-by-doing. Computer simulations can be quite effective in this regard and, as a result, they are quickly gaining popularity. Just as flight simulators have become a central part of the training program for airline pilots, simulations may soon become an essential part of computer-training programs for soft skills.

Igor Kotlyar is a partner at Upward Motion, a consulting firm that helps companies select and train employees. Alan Saks is a professor of human resources management at Toronto’s York University and an author of three textbooks and more than 40 articles. Comments regarding this article can be addressed to [email protected]

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