Multinational software firm SAP leverages the two-pronged power of virtual and digital learning to deliver training to its global sales professionals, who number more than 8,000 employees worldwide. Nonsales people in the company’s Global Customer Operations and Strategy division are also part of the target audience, bringing the extended learning population to about 18,000.

Malte Bong-Schmidt, head of virtual live learning, oversees synchronous virtual development options for the global customer operations staff. His counterpart in the division, Head of Digital Learning Axel Ferreyrolles, assumes responsibility for asynchronous learning, which includes some synchronous elements found in such assets as virtual business simulations and massive open online courses (MOOCs). 

VLCs at SAP 

Under Bong-Schmidt’s direction, virtual live classrooms (VLCs) deliver instructor-led training online in real time. “I manage all the VLCs globally, which amounts to 400 to 500 training events across a year’s time,” he says. “We typically focus on as many as 25 different topics in a given quarter. That ranges from executive presence and presentation skills to softer topics—how to apply emotional intelligence, how to strengthen mental resilience [an example of next-practice agility-building content]—to such core sales subjects as negotiation, and qualifying and progressing deals.” Each of the 25 topics is trained up to 20 times in a given quarter.

SAP’s virtual classrooms accommodate 20 to 25 people per session, utilizing what Bong-Schmidt describes as “some sophisticated design approaches.” To ramp up the level of contact in the classes, instructors make it a point to call participants by name and initiate interactions every three or four minutes. A technical producer manages the online platform and supports the instructor by serving as a secondary facilitation resource.

A distinguishing characteristic of the approach Bong-Schmidt and his team have developed is a structure he calls an internal best practice: “We don’t want people to be in one room. We want everyone to be on their own laptop or their own phone so they can fully engage with the interactivity—whiteboards, polls, breakout sessions, and so on. The moment people are grouped into one room, we feel the interactivity go down. When everyone uses their own device, they can interact with whatever challenge they are given and the training success increases by far.”  

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An Integrated Learning Environment 

Elements of MOOCs and simulations can involve live learning and interactivity among participants, and archiving virtual classes or portions of them enables crossover from the synchronous to the asynchronous for sales training. At present, Ferreyrolles sees SAP’s virtual learning as largely effective at teaching skills, while MOOCs and digital learning emphasize knowledge building.

Ferreyrolles envisions creating an integrated learning environment. “The idea would be to bring all the learning together under one umbrella,” he explains. “You can use virtual learning capabilities to record content, and then have a sponsor of the program come in and share their expertise using the MOOC environment. Instead of a four-week training course, you guide salespeople through a journey of learning over three to six months.”

Learners might start with pre-work and tests done in the MOOC environment, and “then move into a one- or two-day live workshop,” Ferreyrolles continues. “Next, learners may continue enrichment by going back to the MOOC setting to access new reading material on the topic they’re studying. After that, we want them to engage with the customer, so we add an action-learning component. We ask for their sales pitch and record it using a video-based management system. If employees are struggling with the pitch, they are enrolled in a VLC that can provide a reinforcement of those skills. Ultimately, that continuum of learning drives development through skills and knowledge to new behaviors.”

For more on how organizations are using virtual classrooms to engage learners, check out the new report from ATD Research and i4cp, Virtual Classrooms Now: Using Technology to Reach Today's Workforces.