Are we listening to the ‘SILENT THIRD’ or the ‘LOUD THIRD’

Written by Alistair Gordon, 09 Mar 2021

It is a common belief among L&D professionals – those at HFL included – that ‘live’, face-to-face training is superior in learning outcomes to virtual delivery. In particular, we have believed that the vast majority of participants preferred face-to-face training. But what if this wasn’t actually true?

Unconscious bias comes in many forms. We should know: as L&D professionals we often deliver programs explaining unconscious bias and how to spot it. What if we have our own blind spot? We are generally a social lot, loving the interaction of live workshops. Have we automatically assumed the vast majority of our participants do too?

Recent participant feedback for several HFL run programs suggest there has been a Silent Third of participants who hated face-to-face workshops, but didn’t tell us. We’ve been relying on the enthusiastic feedback from the Noisy Third of participants who tell us they love the social and networking aspects of workshops. Perhaps we listened harder to these responses because what they were saying matched our biases? And why would we even consider asking about delivery mode in the feedback forms? Surely facilitator style, content usefulness, session length and venue catering covered the concerns of participants?

In three recent blended program designs (including workshops, coaching, mentoring, manager check-ins, learning portals and the like), we sought feedback on the now virtual workshops. In three multi-day workshops (one 2-day workshop, and two 4.5 day workshops) delivered completely virtually, more than a third of the 60 or so participants told us they much preferred the virtual workshops to those face-to-face ones they had previously attended. These workshops actually got a higher net promoter score than similar programs we run face-to-face (from both the Noisy Third as well as the Silent Third).

In anecdotal verbal feedback, this Silent Third told us they loved the fact they didn’t have to travel or leave their families, and that they didn’t miss the forced (and often alcohol-fueled) social events that residential workshops often entail.

It has forced our team to ask some tough questions:

  • **Has our bias (we love live workshops) been imposing the wrong designs on some participants? Conclusion: our bias definitely blinded us from looking carefully at alternative designs for the Silent Third. We never asked them if they enjoyed the travel and nice hotels – we simply assumed they did.

  • What questions should we have been asking on our extensive feedback surveys which would have helped us uncover this Silent Third earlier? Conclusion: our questionnaires asked for feedback on current designs, and didn’t sufficiently ask for participant preferences (ideally ahead of time). We are revisiting all of our surveys.

  • Why did the Silent Third not communicate their dislike of live events earlier? Conclusion: we are still investigating this, but my personal theories are is that they didn’t speak up because (a) they are mostly introverts, (b) they thought we would equate a lack of enthusiasm for live events as a lack of enthusiasm for development and growth (and they may well have been right), and (c) they didn’t believe virtual was an option in the first place, let alone a realistic alternative (but now are excited to have learned they are).

COVID has been a disaster, no question. But the re-think it is forcing on every industry may well be a good thing long term.

One simple example: one of our clients, by converting face-to-face workshops to virtual, and thereby avoiding the costs of airfares, taxis, accommodation, meals and drinks, can nearly double the number of participants they can put through programs for the same budget.

Virtual isn’t as appealing to the Loud Third, of course, but it hasn’t impacted their learning outcomes negatively. But virtual does appeal much more to the Silent Third. And virtual may well appeal to the many extra participants that get much earlier development than they otherwise would have done. And virtual, when the numbers are crunched, is much more likely to appeal to many CFOs I know.

The Silent Third are finally being heard – over here at least.