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Virtual Training Beats In-Person Training

Technological advances in online employee training will make most in-person classroom learning a thing of the past. Pro or con?

Pro: Online Training Enables in a Good Way

Navigating by looking in the rearview mirror is a risky strategy for driving a car … and a business.

Ten years ago companies thought of TV advertising as the most effective way to reach an audience, and rightfully so for 2001. But if companies had continued blindly down that path and resisted new media experimentation, they would have overlooked Google AdWords, Facebook, and Twitter.

There is a similar shift in training. It’s moving online and will continue to do so. Here’s why:

1. Geographic dispersion. Nearly 75 percent of the American workforce and 35 percent of the global workforce will be mobile by 2013, according to research firm IDC, making all in-person tasks more expensive to coordinate and less efficient. Surely this figure is even more substantial for salespeople.

2. Accelerating changes in business. With company strategies, products, and technologies changing so fast, it is virtually impossible to keep up if new information can be relayed only in person. Online training streamlines knowledge sharing, allowing a sales staff to perform rather than sit in a conference room.

3. Increased social sharing and crowdsourcing. With 52 percent of Americans now using some form of social media, according to Edison Research, we have officially become "sharers." Online training embraces social sharing, providing the actual subject matter experts with tools that enable them to directly share information with peers.

4. Cloud computing’s promise. A recent MarketBridge study found that companies growing by 10 percent or more each year were twice as likely to move applications and infrastructure into the cloud. Sophisticated cloud-based training software allows anyone to convert content into a training tool without the need for expensive enterprise license software.

Dramatic shifts in communication, behavior patterns, and technological innovation make it vital for companies to adopt the most efficient, cost-effective training tools or risk being left behind.

Con: In-Person Has a Solid Track Record

To paraphrase author Phil Myers: "An opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant." Which is exactly why, despite my role as an industry analyst covering 100-plus sales training providers, my personal take on the best training modalities is only an opinion, nothing more.

Fortunately, I’ve researched more than 1,700 companies in the past two years to understand what kinds of behavior, practices, technologies, and services are driving the best sales performance—and I can clearly link live, in-person, instructor-led classroom training to the most successful sales organizations.

Here is how the numbers look: In our most recent sales training research, the top 20 percent of performers among nearly 900 companies report that 87 percent of their reps are achieving quota, compared with only 31 percent at other firms. These best-in-class organizations also show a 9.5 percent annual increase in their average deal size, vs. 0.5 percent for the rest, which isn’t a business result any of us wouldn’t love to report.

So, what kinds of training modalities are favored by these strongest sales teams? Fully 72 percent of the best-in-class consider traditional, instructor-led, live training to be one of the top two most effective ways to train their sales staff. This is 18 percentage points higher than the endorsement of the worse performers, and far more popular among the elite sales organizations than on-the-job training (38 percent), blended learning (26 percent), or one-to-one mentoring/coaching (24 percent).

This does not detract from the value of contemporary technologies. In fact, 51 percent of the top performers also use online learning and mobile and video modalities to support their instructor-led approach—but support, as a best practice, a tried-and-true approach that works.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek,, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments


The company I work for does all of its major training online with videos. They don't work. There are so many employees that have been here years and still don't even know the basics, all because no one wants to take a day to teach them. Virtual training is just plain lazy and is a terrible idea.

Joe Terry

Virtual training is fine for information transfer for all the reasons Donna stated above, technical training, HR, etc.. When you want real business impact and behavioral change nothing beats Instructor-led in-person training as Peter's statistics support. At the end of the day, if you asked C-level executives, everything being equal, which approach will drive business impact for their organizations, they would choose instructor-led, in-person training every time.

Ted Cocheu

Making a blanket statement that one learning modality is better than the other is silly. The decision to use in-person or on-line learning in any situation depends on a multiplicity of factors, including: the learning objective, the subject matter, the learner, the budget, geography, timeframe, etc. With that said, on-line learning will clearly predominate in the future, for all the reasons given above and more.

Mary Ann Lynn

I whole heartedly concur with Ostrow's analysis. Research has indeed supported his assertion that the most effective organizations more often engage live instructor-led training with e-learning cast as a powerful reinforcement tool, vs. the primary delivery method. Other key training considerations include the type of training and its objectives. E-learning may be an effective tool for knowledge transfer, but if authentic skill development is the objective, trainer-led programs are a far superior solution. One must also consider the type of training. In the case of sales, leadership, or customer service development, interpersonal and communication skills are fundamental to performance. Clearly, in person training is paramount to the development of interpersonal skills.

bob hatcher

Well, Peter wins this one hands down. While all of Donna's points are accurate, none of them indicate that online is better than in-person training.

Adults learn by doing, by practicing, by putting concepts to work. None of that can be done in front of a computer. It needs to be done in a room with a trained facilitator, with others who are learning, too, and with the interpersonal interaction between them all.

While it may be more convenient to sit in front of a computer, it doesn't take the place of a real hands-on workshop-oriented classroom training session.


Pete Baston

As companies who try this will find, virtual training as a substitute for good human interaction will fail. Virtual training as an aid to good human interaction will succeed.

The former is often done as a cost savings measure and at that point we need to remember the words of the great W Edwards Deming. "If you target quality with a project then over time quality goes up and cost go down--do the latter and the reverse happens." Most virtual training would fail this test.

Mitch Bell

For now, I have to side with Peter. For all the reasons that have been stated. I work for a company that does training, in the manner which Peter describes, in person trainer-led, and eLearning reinforcement. In the future, with various improvements and universal access to "telepresence" systems which might be able to mimic a classroom, with instructor/participant, and participant/participant interaction, perhaps then the power of in-person training might wane, but not now.

Nick S

I agree with Peter. Instructor-led training is very effective in learning situations where interpersonal relations or the students' attitude are graded. When I develop technology training I typically recommend a blended learning environment: Use eLearning to provide a knowledge framework, use simulators to develop skills, and use instructors to demonstrate/evaluate attitude.


The question is not online vs instructor led. The delivery method should reflect the nature of the S&K gap we are trying to close. For example, if the outputs of training can be evaluated easily, then online might work. If we need to evaluate all the behavior that produces the output (such as sales), then instructor led is appropriate.

Jim Hughes

Hey there to "me"!

You are thye first comment and mentioned your company did all of your training online with videos. Can you tell me what kind of reinforcement training is given after the sessions? (if any) Does your manager role play with you? Does your manager "coach" you on new skills to sell what you were trained on?
Thank you very much!
Jim Hughes

Chip Ruhnke

Classrooms are obsolete.

Miles Austin

This debate might have missed a key principle - the quality of the training, whether virtual or instructor-led, will have a big impact on the value/usefulness of the training.

I will take a well-done virtual training over a poorly delivered live session any time.

Think about webinars you have attended recently. Most were average or worse, started late, technical problems, and just bad presentation skills. Then there are those that are well thought out, rehearsed, and built from the ground-up for a virtual presentation that rocked the house. These are the ones that I can't wait to get access to the recorded version for additional reference and replay.

Virtual is and can be a successful training vehicle if the presenter knows the tools, has value in the content, and rehearses the session until it is perfect.

Just my perspective from attending or leading more than 300 webinars/virtual training sessions in the past year.


This article is far too brief to come anywhere near answering this question. First off, the Pro side is more correct in terms of technological and systemic changes. But as others have mentioned, the quality of the training is the X factor, and that's before you consider the time involved in updating that training to reflect the best current picture (which is an ever moving target).

The Con side fails in its argument by choosing perhaps the one business unit where face-to-face communication is most vital: sales. Of course, Mr. Ostrow's experience backs up his opinion strongly; it's sales, not customer support, IT, or another department. The change may not be felt in sales as an industry, as greatly as it will be in other business units because of how each unit is affected by technology in the practical sense. This is a sort of well-sweetening for one side, which doesn't help anyone cut to the core of the issue proposed.

The answer to the above question is that both online and in-person will be needed -- in whatever suitable percentage is required -- until one or more technologies exist that are easy enough for the practicing expert to blend to record nearly every aspect of their top-performing work, and have it accurately translated and be trackable for others, so they can learn and emulate that behavior as accurately as possible. Such technology(ies) don't yet exist, and it will still be some time before they do.

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