On March 12, 2020 — less than seven weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Ontario — I was attending a meeting with one of WCP’s strategic partners. Sitting 6 feet away from one another in a large boardroom, on the agenda was how the rapidly escalating and evolving pandemic may impact delivery of training services to our clients.
At that time, all the project management training and consulting services offered by WCP (except for Microsoft Project training), were only available in-person. We have always been proud of the hands-on, scenario based nature of our project management workshops. How could we possibly provide the same level of group collaboration and learning in a virtual setting? Settling for instructor demonstration of concepts and participants completing exercises off-line, was not a compromise we were willing to make.
Just five days after our meeting, the Premier of Ontario declared a state of emergency and ordered the closure of businesses such as daycares, bars and restaurants, theatres and private schools. The writing was on the wall; in-person training would soon not be viable.
Sink or swim
Over the next few days, we saw almost all our pre-booked corporate training and consulting assignments scheduled for 2020 indefinitely postponed, and in-person open-enrollment (public) workshops were no longer an option.
If we were to continue offering our services in the coming months, it was clear that we would have to transform our entire service delivery model — or there would be no business at all.
The new vision: defining the requirements
We began our transformation to virtual service delivery by setting a key requirement: all group discussions and collaborative scenario-based group exercises used in our in-person sessions would have to remain intact. Our virtual workshops would have to be a no-compromise experience when compared with the in-person version — the quality and value of our courses were not to be compromised. Anything less was not an option.
Platform and tool selection
Selection of tools that would support our new vision was completed in a matter of days.
To facilitate participate engagement, we would require that all participants use a web camera so that, just like in an in-person session, the instructors and participants could connect with one another visually and verbally.
As a regular provider of webinars, we already had a very capable virtual meeting platform complete with white-board functionality and virtual break-out rooms. That was a good start, but for scenario-based collaboration exercises such as the development of a logic diagram or real-time agile simulations, we would need something more.
What we found was a tool called Miro. Miro is best described as a virtual white board of infinite size that can be used by groups to collaborate virtually in real time. Using Miro, participants can move or zoom in or out at will, without affecting others who are working in the same space. It is about as close as one can get to a group standing together in front of a white board to plan out their project, without actually being in the same room. In fact, it offered more options in how we could engage participants.
Conversion to online service delivery
With our virtual training platform and tools selected, we began to prepare our courseware for virtual delivery. Our tests showed that 2 – 3 days of work per training day of materials would be required. With about 15 different courses (30 unique training days) the challenge of converting courses to virtual delivery was daunting. Because the WCP team is made up of consultants who not only teach, but also are involved in the development of our courses, our team was able to move quickly. We also worked closely with, and leveraged the experience of, our strategic partners: Canadian Management Centre, the University of Waterloo, and Velociteach.
Our first live-virtual course was delivered the first week of April – just two weeks after all in-person training was shut down. Not only were we able to maintain all interactive real-time collaborative group exercises, the feedback from participants was so positive, some actually said that they preferred the virtual format over in-person (see sidebar for participant testimonials)!
Mission accomplished: delivery model transformed!
We delivered 46 virtual project management workshops totaling 109 training days comprising of 16 different courses between April 3 and December 15 (our last course of 2020).
Post Project Review and Lessons Learned
While minor adjustments were made to courses and processes based on participant and consultant feedback, on December 21 — six days after the last session of the year — our team got together for a post-project review.
What we could have done better.
- About 10% of participants experienced technology issues of varying degrees. While most were resolved prior to the start of the class, in all but a few cases, these issues could likely have been avoided with clearer and more streamlined pre-course participant communication.
- When some participants did not use a web camera it negatively impacted the energy and dynamics of the entire session.
What was done well:
- Based on feedback from participants, instructors and our strategic partners, our transformation from in-person workshops to live-virtual workshops was deemed a success and were, as per our requirements, a no-compromise alternative to our in-person classes.
- Participant use of web cameras throughout the training proved to be key to an engaging learning environment.
- In some ways, group exercises within the live-virtual version of courses were even more impactful than the in-person versions of the same courses.
- The real-time group collaboration exercises also helped participants understand how to work effectively in their own virtual project team environment.
- Even when we can once again return to in-person training, live-virtual training will persist as a service delivery option. We suspect for many it will continue to be the preferred option.