Can You Teach Soft Skills With eLearning?

soft skills elearning

I’d like to credit Branimir Trosic for posing this question to me on LinkedIn in response to another post about L&D being too busy delivering training to do digital.

The question this post is written to answer presumes quite a lot. For me, it certainly presumes:

  1. Soft skills are best developed in classrooms
  2. eLearning is inferior to classrooms in developing soft skills

However, what is being neglected in this question – and the subsequent presumptions – is what really works: How do people actually develop the requisite ‘soft’ skills they need to be successful in their work and careers?

It’s just a distraction to be asking whether classroom training is better than eLearning for developing soft skills.

And additionally:

“L&D overestimate the value of classroom training in developing soft skills”

There, I’ve said it – and I’m sure I’ve said it before. But let’s look at the evidence:

People attend so few courses compared with what they’re expected to know and do at work. One survey by Degreed discovered that 77% of respondents hadn’t been on a course of any kind for more than 2 years. Now, I encourage you to apply your own critical lens to this and assess what percentage of your clients have attended your courses over the last 2 years.

Don’t get me wrong. A good, timely course can be useful. But it’s certainly not how people develop and hone their skills.

Whether people attend courses at all, or perhaps attend infrequently, to think that only those people in attendance are developing skills is, I’m willing to bet, inaccurate.

L&D, trainers and facilitators have absolved themselves of responsibility in the failure of their interventions for as long as I’ve been exposed to the profession, with phrases such as:

“If you take one thing away from this course it’s been worth it”


“Nothing will happen unless you transfer the learning back to your workplace”

Or even:

“This training won’t work if your line manager doesn’t support you now”

I wonder how such a fragile experience can be best fit for anything?

We also tell ourselves that people don’t learn if the ‘learning event’ isn’t experiential. This has led to more crass exercises than I dare to imagine. I vowed a long time ago that if one more trainer sets up blindfold exercise to demonstrate the importance of clear communication I will just walk out of the room.

Relevant learning, in the context of work, happens in response to challenges. Real challenges occur when we are working.

How about we (L&D) scaffold the work itself and do away with the fragile experiences that are measured only by how many people are taken away from their work (bums on seats) for as long as we can keep them (training hours) and satisfy them (happy sheets)?

But what about eLearning? Can that help with soft skills? Maybe? It still suffers from many of the flaws that classroom training does.

I think L&D make huge assumptions about what people need, in terms of skill development, and we are so wedded to the classroom that we’re unable to see what else might work (dare I say) better.

The ability to provide support and guidance at the point at which challenges are faced will help us to enhance everyday performance, in a way that classroom training cannot. We can then use face-to-face events to do what what people are best at (conversation, debate, question, challenge and practice) rather than what we’re worst at (remembering a great deal of content to recall, perhaps weeks or months later).

So the short answer from me, Branimir, is:

Comparing different methods of delivery is masking the real issues at hand. Instead, find out what your clients are trying to do and what’s stopping them from doing it now. Run small experiments with them to find out the best way of supporting and guiding them towards achieving their goal and scale what works.

David James is Digital Learning Strategist with Looop and was previously Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.

Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.

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