Using Video To Develop Employees’ Soft Skills

A case study from the insurance industry demonstrates the challenges of combining soft skills training with e-learning.

In October 2018, I met with three insurance agents to discuss my new training program to improve employees’ soft skills. I hoped they might participate in a beta testing. The 30 videos, each one approximately five minutes long, all focused on soft skills topics such as professionalism, teamwork, and communication. We left with the agents agreeing to have their employees enroll in the course.

The roadblocks that ensued reflect the challenges of combining soft skills training with e-learning.

THE SAGA BEGINS

I had the course ready to go by January 2019 and added the names and e-mails of the participants to the course platform. The next day, I received an e-mail from one of the agents informing me that the parent insurance company—which controls all the computer systems—was blocking the Website access to my training platform for security purposes. Multiple calls later, one of the employees convinced the corporate office to perform a manual override to allow trainees to access my platform Website.

Once that hurdle was jumped, I assumed things would go smoothly. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Employees were supposed to watch one new video per day for 30 days. At the end of the month, we were going to meet again and evaluate the results. By March, at what should have been the midpoint, I noticed through my analytics tracker that employees had stalled on watching the videos. Most had logged in and watched a video or two, but their course participation all seemed to stagnate at around 5 to 10 percent. Only one person was on track.

When I called them, the agents cited several reasons they had gotten off track. The videos were high quality and relevant, they said. But the problem was that life had gotten in the way. One of the agents—I’ll call him Andrew—said that daily sales goals and constant “unplanned” interruptions took priority. He suggested we reboot the program, focusing on one-week timeframes whereby everyone in his office would watch a video per day for a week and then discuss it—rather than a monthly approach.

The other bad luck was the timing. Within a month of starting the test program, the insurance company unexpectedly overhauled its platform and required a host of new mandatory trainings; the agents were loath to enforce the soft skills training on top of that. Andrew, who wanted the one-week option, suggested the following month, April. I wasn’t getting much concrete feedback from “Mark,” the second agent, so I reached out to schedule an in-person meeting with the third agent, “Rick.”

Rick recently had hired two new employees who were enrolled in the soft skills training: “Jessica” and “Paul.” Jessica was the one person out of about 10 who was completing the videos on schedule. Paul had simply fallen behind. Why was Jessica successful? She told me she had made herself a sticky note and put it on her computer as a reminder to watch the videos. Simple, but brilliant. She also seemed to have an excellent work ethic.

I left their office with assurances that things would be better once the company-wide platform changes improved. By April, I had simplified the video course into a week-long program as Andrew had requested. There were still 30 videos, but they now were broken up into weeklong segments. At Andrew’s agency, we would restart with one topic at a time and see how that went before moving on to the next segment.

THE SAGA CONTINUES

Unfortunately, life intervened again. Andrew’s office was unable to begin in April because one of his long-time employees unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer, so office workloads had to be redistributed. We postponed the training indefinitely.

I sent the other agent, Mark, my shorter program, but I didn’t hear back from him. Discouraged, I returned to Rick’s agency in person. Jessica had completed the entire 30-video program by this point, but Paul had not. When this came to light, Rick critiqued Paul—who subsequently binge-watched the remaining videos in just a few days’ time and completed them. Not ideal, but at least it was done. To date, they are the only employees to fully complete the program. I interviewed them about their experience. They felt the quality was good, but they preferred fewer videos and suggested that videos analogous to their daily work would be better. They also wanted each video to have a clear application for their work that day, like a daily “challenge.”

Based on this feedback, I was determined to iterate the program one more time. Rick was about to hire a new employee in a few weeks. I would test the revised, shortened program with her. I e-mailed Jessica and Paul to ask them which of the videos were the best but received no response. So I chose the 12 videos I thought were the most essential for daily insurance work. I returned to Rick’s office in August to sign up his new employee only to find out she didn’t pan out as a new hire. Furthermore, I learned Paul had quit and taken another job elsewhere.

WHAT I LEARNED

I felt tired and deflated. I had one successfully trained employee (Jessica), one sort of trained employee who left the agency (Paul), and eight failures. What, if anything, could I learn from this?

1. Managers must provide time for the training. One of the issues with this program was that the agents expected their employees to complete the videos on top of everything else they were tasked to do or do it after hours on their own time. Meeting sales goals, taking care of daily interruptions and customers, and learning the updated insurance platform all took priority over the videos. This proved to be too much. Managers must carve out dedicated time for training to be completed.

2. Managers must enforce the training. With the exception of Jessica, none of the other employees out of about 10 completed all the modules of their own volition. Paul ended up completing all 30 videos once his boss forced him to. The rest of the employees all seemed to stall out at about 10 percent of the program. This may be exacerbated by the fact that the training was online. Online video training seems to take a backseat to in-person tasks. For e-learning to be effective, managers must hold employees accountable.

3. Shorter seems more achievable. Based on the feedback, 30 videos may be too many for some employees and industries. One retooled version of the program was going to consist of four one-week sessions employees could focus on. Another version of the program was the reduced, 12-video program. Group discussion at the end would be ideal—if managers make it happen.

4. Soft skills don’t seem urgent. On multiple fronts, the training program was put on the back burner when life got in the way. When employees get busy with issues that are causing emergencies at work, soft skills training seems like a luxury that would be “nice at some point.” Employees with strong soft skills can help businesses improve profitability, but the reality on the ground is that employees in industries such as insurance are focused on putting out fires every day—and soft skills training doesn’t seem urgent because the ROI is not immediate.

TOP TAKEAWAYS

The challenges detailed above suggest that soft skills trainers must be smart and adaptive with e-learning. In addition, we must articulate the value of our work for improving the bottom line and securing manager buy-in. That would help to ensure higher learner engagement and knowledge retention.

Dr. Benjamin Garner is an associate professor in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia. Dr. Garner has taught communication at the university level for nine years and instructed 1,000-plus students on how to deliver effective presentations. His documentary films have competitively screened at film festivals and aired on public TV. To contact him, e-mail: thesoftskillprofessor@gmail.com​​​​​​​

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