I often get asked which is better for training, actual or virtual.

My first response is, who are we actually or virtually training? Secondly, what do we want them to really know or know how to do? Everyone supposes that I’m going to vote for “virtual” since one of the main areas of my research is educational technology. Surprise! Here’s what I really think (and solution providers, please don’t take this personally.)

Both have a time and place, and when chosen with the outcomes in mind, one can be as effective as the other, and many times blending the two is the best of both worlds.

Case A: Doctors during the last five years have literally seen a revolution in the use of educational technology. The terms “simulation” and “didactic” mean the same as actual and virtual. From performing operations while another surgeon watches and listens from thousands of miles away on a PC, to learning anatomy by dissecting an anatomically correct virtual corpse. Their training has been virtually changed forever. Would I want to really have an operation from a doctor who was only trained online? Obviously no, so in this case, both approaches work but actual is better. Having a physician, who went through the grueling internship phase after years of actual training, and learned basic anatomy from software because corpses are hard to find, would be okay with me. So one vote for actual.

Case B: Police SWAT teams have started using virtual training that is so real you can feel the pain – the real pain not as in “I feel your pain.” Motion Reality and Raytheon have created what may be the most sophisticated and realistic virtual training world ever made, using full 360-degree, physically immersive, real-time, multiplayer simulator and avatars that duck when a policeman ducks and when shot, relays the pain to the player controlling the avatar. First, I hope this never makes it into my living room. Second, it’s a great way for police, through their avatars, to gain muscle memory and training to meet situations that would be next to impossible to actually imitate in real life. Do I want a SWAT team member to have a sense of how to react when a terrorist bomb goes off on a bridge at rush hour? You betcha, so one vote for virtual.

Case C: Sales people have been actually and virtually trained for years. It’s easy to measure if it works. For sales training, if you are not closing you are not selling. So the results of actual and/or virtual training come down to ROI. Ahh, here’s the rub. If you measure the ROI of virtual training you can rack up a lot of dollars in cost avoidance and cost reduction. Looks great on the balance sheet. But the third leg of the P&L stool is revenue increase. So what’s the verdict? According to a recent article in Business Week, the answer is actual. Live, in-person, actual face-to-face, instructor-led classroom training is still the default for the most successful sales organizations. According to the research, 87% of the sales reps who get actual training achieve their quota. This is compared with only 31% of the representatives going virtual. Actual training results in a 9.5% annual increase in the average deal size compared to 0.5% for the virtually trained. So what’s the verdict? Not just yet …

51% of these top performers also use online, mobile and social learning, as well as learning on-the-job, mentoring and coaching. The best of the best are offered a carefully blended model of all actual and virtual opportunities to learn to close a sale. Both just-in-case and just-in-time training comes into play to support, enhance and reinforce their ILT in-your-face sales training.

So the verdict is that you need to be careful when you measure the two. In the case of sales training, the ROI of actual increased revenue resulting from a blended approach outweighs the ROI from cost avoidance and cost reduction when only choosing virtual training. The verdict is carefully blended, with actual ILT in the lead.

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