In today’s world, every time we turn on our computers for a meeting or course at home, sipping coffee in our pajamas, we’re all thinking one thing: How effective is this? How effective is this virtual, online experience, compared to our traditional alternatives? Is this meeting as productive? Is this training as effective? Do we learn as much? Do we apply as much? Do we have the same business impact? Is it worth the investment?

How can we test and compare the effectiveness of delivery modes? How can we compare classroom training to virtual training and be confident in our results? After all, in order to make any credible comparisons, and for measurement to be sound and scientific, we need to control for all the factors outside of the delivery mode that can confound and confuse our results. For example, it would not be valid to compare the results of a classroom training program for a sales group in a start-up organization to a virtual leadership training program for a large biotech company. The training would be different, the employees would be different, the skills would be different, the metrics would be different and the markets would be different. How do we eliminate all this “noise” and just compare delivery modes?

The only way to truly compare virtual and in-person training would be to pick one training, in one organization, at one point in time, for hundreds of internal participants, and only change or “manipulate” the delivery mode. In other words, we would keep everything the same for all participants, except that one group would receive the classroom training and one group would receive the virtual training.

I have been doing these types of studies for the past 15 years as an internal return on investment (ROI) consultant. Here is what I learned from a meta-analysis of all my studies:

    • Classroom training has a slight advantage over virtual training when it comes to engagement, learning, behavior change and business impact (Kirkpatrick evaluation levels 1 through 4).
    • Virtual training has a significant advantage over classroom training when it comes to ROI (level 5), because it is typically a fraction of the cost.
    • Both of these statements about effectiveness and ROI can be outweighed by a difference in transfer climate (the on-the-job environment the participants return to after the training).

In other words, even though the delivery mode of the training experience may predict some initial advantages, the transfer climate will be your biggest, best and overriding predictor of impact. A virtual training with a great post-training climate will be significantly more effective than a classroom version of the same training where the post-training climate is poor. Similarly, a classroom training can give you a better ROI than a virtual training (despite the higher price tag) if the post-training climate is much stronger.

The bottom line is, the delivery mode does not matter as much as what you do after the training to help transfer the learning, foster the application and drive the business impact.

This research is great news for training professionals. It shows us that all of the virtual training experiences that we have in place right now, during this time of social distancing, can be just as effective as classroom training experiences. More importantly, these virtual experiences can be even more impactful and effective than the classroom — if we focus our efforts on improving our participants’ transfer climates back on the job.

The most impactful climate influencers are immediate manager support, follow-up one-on-one meetings to track improvement in key trained behaviors, and rewards and recognition associated with applying the new behaviors. If you can find ways of “warming” these climate factors, you will be able to improve the impact and ROI of any training, regardless of the delivery mode.