Can online learning totally replace face-to-face, especially for leadership development?

Coaching and mentoring, Corporate Universities, HR Management, Remote Teams and Global Working, Talent Management, Workshops & Training | 2 comments

I have been recently helping a large mining company in Kazakhstan with its strategy for its corporate university. Even prior to the Covid pandemic the wish was to move heavily into digital. Which was also the only way they could meet their vision of 100% of their employees annually undergoing training to develop their professional competences.

One of their questions was whether I could advise what best practice might now be for online learning and in particular whether online could fully replace face-to-face (f2f) learning, even in a post-pandemic world, and especially with regard to leadership development.

Unsurprisingly many companies moved online due to Covid. A survey I saw by Brandon Hall, the leading US Human Capital Research & Analyst Group, even in the first year 2020, found that 68% organisations turned to e-learning as a sustainable alternative to face-to-face. Also in 2020 the Fosway Group, Europe’s ‘#1 HR industry analyst’, concluded that post-Covid only 5% of L&D professionals thought learning strategy, investment & resourcing would go back to where it was. In their same survey Brandon Hall found that post-Covid 82% of organisations planned to start producing more digital learning.

There are obviously a number of business advantages to digital.

  1. Save money and time compared to f2f training
  2. More scalable: produce once and share with as many employees as you want; also in different languages/dubbing/subtitles
  3. Flexible, accessed on your learner’s terms: available when and where they want it; students set the pace
  4. E-learning is consistent: not reliant on different trainers and their interpretations or choices
  5. Content more relevant to needs (as the learner chooses)
  6. Streamlined: series of shorter learning experiences can help reskill/train employees faster

E-learning is exceptional for learning (and checking the learning of) information especially information to accomplish knowledge-based tasks

Nevertheless best practice is to use blended online learning.

For example engaging through: interactive e-learning scenarios, reflective digital activity, expert videos, VILT (virtual instructor led) sessions, face-to-face role play (via computer), simulations, online coaching/mentoring and case studies.

Furthermore, online learning will often have to be backed-up with a’ hands-on’ aspect. Even pilots after many hours in flight simulators need practice in real planes.

For example: on-the-job, coaching/mentoring, practical lessons (e.g. working at heights or welding, to use some safety at work and industrial examples).

Note that the social element of f2f training – often mentioned as an advantage over e-learning – can to a great extent be successfully taken online, through for example virtual break-out groups; and social learning to keep connections between participants.

So what is then the future of face-to-face learning in a post-pandemic world?

Because the ability to discuss, collaborate and role play, live with guidance of facilitator, whilst being part of a group and held accountable, are all powerful learning tools.

Bill Pasmore is the Senior Vice President in CCL (the Center for Creative Leadership), but also Professor at Columbia University and author of over 30 books (many of them classics that I wholeheartedly recommend, including the recent ‘Advanced Consulting’ and his previous classic ‘Leading Continuous Change’).

CCL is a Foundation set up in 1970. It has been in the FT top 20 leadership development companies for the last 15 years and was the first company to develop 360 degree feedback & 70/20/10, both of which I have written about previously. CCL has worked with 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 companies, has  >1 million alumni and has run interventions in 50+ languages. I have directly used CCL and their trainers in at least two companies for whom I have worked.

Their expertise and research has led to four reasons why they think face-to-face leadership development is so effective.

  1. Away – psychologically getting away to another location opens up new possibilities (less distraction)
  2. Anonymity – it feels less risky to try out new ways of thinking and behaving than at work or home
  3. Community – the environment has the right balance of challenge, safety and encouragement (and networking with peers)
  4. Focus – it’s a rare opportunity to take a serious, sustained look at self and career and make significant changes

Having the privilege of knowing, Bill I was interested in his thoughts post-pandemic and he was kind enough to exchange ideas in November last year.

Some of his quotes were:

“Online learning can be surprisingly effective but we believe that hybrid courses or some mix of online and in-person will be the norm going forward”.

“Human beings ‘learn’ from each other by taking in a full range of behavioural and conversational cues that are restricted in the online space”. 

“From a neuroscience perspective, fears and anxieties that accompany meeting and working with strangers are not easily reduced in an online environment, whereas face to face meetings do allow the creation of psychological safety and trust over a period of time”. 

“Safety and trust allow us the support we need to take experiential risks

The online environment is too flat– because there is a lack of safety there is no emotion; we don’t allow things to get out of hand, which is the space in which some learning occurs”. 

“We know that a richer and more varied network is vital to continue career success (more extensive in a classroom setting). We also see that participants have a higher level of engagement in to face programs as they have less distraction”.

So despite the understandable move to more digital learning, there will remain an element of face-to-face where possible, especially for the best and most effective leadership development programmes.


  1. Linda van Rijn

    Thanks Gary, very useful!

  2. Stefan Kardos

    Very insightful Gary, many thanks for sharing.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *