The article evaluates why conferences have failed to shift from in-person to virtual, despite the numerous advantages of this transition. The current pandemic provides another benefit to more virtual conferences, but the solutions still do not address why previous efforts have failed. I believe the failure is born from a flawed approach that looks at incrementally changing existing conferences rather than radically rethinking these events. The implicit question posed by entrepreneurs hoping to ‘disrupt’ conferences is “can we incrementally improve the experience to make it life-like enough to be a worthwhile substitute?” I believe that radically rethinking all talent development programming, including conferences, off-sites, and training, is necessary to make virtual training as effective. Managers must shift the discussion from one of bells and whistles and technology to one of maximizing engagement and learning. I believe the failure is in trying to make a digitally-adapted solution and not a digitally-native solution. The question should be, “What do we actually need to accomplish, what are the limitations in a virtual world, and where have they figured out similar virtual solutions already?” The principles and tools of people analytics are necessary to rethinking talent development. While managers may not be able to change the way an industry conference happens, they can use the failure of virtual conferences as guiding principles to source, implement, and develop effective talent development material.
One guiding principle should be to focus on the ‘dependent variable’ that drives performance. Managers should know what skills or traits drive business success, and any training should be tied back to developing these skills or traits. Conferences and training are often delivered broadly and annually, more for the benefit of the organization hosting the programming than for the recipient of the programming. Managers should instead be using data to determine which team members need what development at any moment. Virtual talent development can break from effectively arbitrary timing to focus on just-in-time development.
A second guiding principle is the use data to validate training effectiveness. Current training, conferences, and offsites typically use very simple, if any, metrics to evaluate their utility. When implementing new programming, managers should think about ways to evaluate the programming’s effectiveness through outcomes variables. Did the individual’s performance improve in the way that was expected? This can additionally be evaluated by collecting real-time feedback from participants to make the programming more effective in the future.
A final principle is to understand the limitations of the virtual world and to take inspiration for engaging content from it. If you want to replace the networking magic of a happy hour, first decide what you’re actually trying to provide. This could be a setting where people have something other than work on which they can focus and about which they can chat when knowing nothing about one another. Then, instead of reinventing the wheel, look for opportunities where people already do this (willingly and enthusiastically) in the virtual world. Maybe, this could be achieved by participating in an online game or leveraging social media to provide a similar opportunity. Additionally, you can look at the obstacles of the virtual world like the lack of chance encounters and build opportunities that directly address these challenges in a new way.
As Henry Ford said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” To truly make a shift in talent development to make the most out of new virtual tools, managers must be willing to lean in to where people analytics has been successful in the past to radically rethink talent development to reap the benefits.