Navigating Virtual Negotiation Instruction

Approximately three years ago, I found myself at an aquarium concept hotel in Manila delivering a negotiation workshop for the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Regional Office for the Western Pacific.  The venue, not of CBI’s choosing, was a meeting room with a giant shark tank running along the longest wall. A scuba diver would emerge twice per day to feed the sharks, an event with which no presenter can compete.  In the years since, as CBI has ventured into virtual negotiation training design and delivery, we have learned that looming sharks pale in comparison to the myriad diversions available to e-learning course participants.

As budgets contract and travel costs skyrocket, organizations across sectors increasingly seek virtual learning opportunities as a more cost-effective approach to building institutional negotiation capacity.  CBI has been approached in recent years by corporate, public and non-profit clients to develop a range of negotiation training products in an effort to provide convenient, affordable professional development opportunities.

For Joanne Hayer, Director of Sales Training at Intralinks, a leading global technology provider of secure content sharing and collaboration platforms, the CBI-CorpU Art of Negotiation course provides “the best of both worlds…top training content at a lower price point.”  Unlike Massive Open Online Education Courses (MOOCs), which “tend to have a low retention rate because they rely exclusively on the learner’s motivation,” tailored negotiation e-courses with interactive instruction, meaningful assessment of content uptake, social learning components, opportunities for practical application, and robust internal sponsorship are more likely to help organizations achieve pedagogical and financial goals.  

Course interactivity and assessment

E-learning can indeed serve as a cost-effective alternative while offering busy participants the flexibility to learn at the most convenient times and locations.  Fully asynchronous modules satisfy the flexibility criterion but have significant drawbacks.  After developing a standalone multimedia course with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), CBI learned that fully self-guided modules, even those replete with attractive technology, yield lower retention rates.  Capturing participants’ attention and ensuring course completion is an ongoing challenge that can be addressed in part by a complementary program featuring both self-guided learning and instructor interaction. 

CBI has offered a range of dynamic instruction models from regular one-on-one email communication to interactive live webinars for all cohort participants.  Participants in WHO e-trainings have noted the effectiveness of qualitative assessment activities tailored to participants’ contexts and the importance of individualized feedback via email from the course instructor.  Courses with specialized feedback can be costly, however, so some clients opt for more traditional forms of self-guided assessment such as multiple-choice quizzes.  Though cost and time-saving, this approach provides limited opportunity for participants to engage with the material and to apply it to their own professional challenges.  More effective forms of assessment include evaluating quality of posts to the course discussion forum, assignments asking participants to analyze fictional yet context-specific case studies, and exercises requiring participants to apply theoretical concepts to their real-world experiences.

Although multimedia courses do not ensure participant satisfaction, they can be highly successful in concert with proper monitoring and facilitation.  The CBI/CorpU Art of Negotiation course, a highly sophisticated negotiation training platform that has to date served clients worldwide from the high-tech, insurance, grocery manufacturing and retail industries, features a mix of videos, readings, reflection exercises, negotiation role plays, an interactive discussion forum, and weekly live webinars.  The course offers a range of opportunities for participants with different learning preferences to engage with the material, but multimedia courses are not always practical for clients operating in regions with poor online infrastructure and frequent field travel.  To help manage these challenges, CBI developed a low-tech introduction to negotiation with text-only modules and limited graphics.  A middle ground approach, developed for Pfizer, includes slides with high quality graphics and audio voiceover and can easily include subtitles to accommodate language needs. 

Social learning

Another key element of e-learning success is the opportunity for peer-to-peer discussion about key concepts and their application to participants’ respective organizations.  The WHO course referenced above was originally designed as part of a blended learning approach with both virtual and face-to-face components.  As budget cuts precluded face-to-face interaction and in response to participants’ desire to interact with colleagues across cohorts, CBI added an optional discussion forum to the course.  Although only a fraction of course cohorts tend to participate, the discussion forum is a source of rich interaction and course application for those seeking to learn from their peers.  The Art of Negotiation course also features smaller virtual working groups, who can connect via conference calls to debrief course concepts and skill building exercises. 

For some clients, scheduled webinars with instructors anchor the e-learning experience as each week builds to the live event.  Others find it difficult to fit the sessions into their workday schedule over several weeks.  Using the CorpU platform, participants can join sessions remotely using a handheld device.  People are often distracted by phone calls and emails, however, because they are not situated in a conference room with the instructor and social pressure from the remainder of the cohort.  Live video is not always practical due to bandwidth issues, so participants must be kept engaged with multiple visuals, polling, and other devices meant to capture the ever-decreasing human attention span. 

Content application 

Opportunities to put theory into practice are especially important in the context of negotiation training.  This applies to both virtual and face-to-face learning but is often lost in the online environment.  Role plays and analytical exercises are most effective in face-to-face workshops, but CBI has successfully created opportunities for participants to practice the Mutual Gains Approach in resource constrained environments.  The Art of Negotiation course features several negotiation simulations that can be conducted in person or via video chats and allows participants to debrief their experiences in small group conference calls, on the social media portal, and/or with their instructor on the subsequent live webinar session.  As is the case with face-to-face training, role plays are most useful when tailored to the client context.

Course sponsorship

Cost effectiveness can decrease in the absence of sufficient internal monitoring and support.  As Susskind and Movius note in Built to Win: Creating a World-Class Negotiating Organization, individual training is only as useful as the organization’s commitment to supporting a coordinated, corporate approach to negotiation.  Close interaction with course instructors is not enough to ensure successful uptake and implementation of lessons learned when participants return to everyday working environments.

Commitment to building organization-wide negotiation capacity should be signaled by senior leaders to participants at course inception and carried through by course sponsors. Ken Murphy EVP of Sales and Operations at Mattress Firm, the largest bedding retailer in the United States, serves as a key motivator and supporter of participants in the Art of Negotiation course.  Thanks to his commitment to broad-based adoption of the Mutual Gains Approach, Mattress Firm’s “sales leadership team now has a consistent platform to guide collective thinking in terms of how we approach value creation opportunities.” 

Course sponsors should at minimum be regularly engaged to monitor course participation and ideally should participate in one or more activities at various points in the course.  There is a direct correlation between the involvement of internal sponsors and course completion rates.  This can be measured both by material completed as well as level of attention on live webinar sessions.  Participants in one of the most successful Art of Negotiation courses, a cohort from Costa Rican dairy giant Dos Pinos, benefited from course coordination and full participation on weekly live sessions by a trusted internal sponsor.  Internal sponsors are also essential to the design process and to developing realistic timelines and course workloads.  There is no one-size-fits all model for course duration, but material overload is a pervasive problem that can be avoided by regular course evaluation.

Blended learning programs such as the WHO model and CBI’s course on Resolving Conflict for International Monetary Fund (IMF) managers offer both cost-efficiency and necessary indulgence in order to build the foundation for well-rounded organizational negotiation capacity.  Negotiation courses, whether virtual or face-to-face, high-tech or low-tech, are less likely to bear fruit without institutional commitment to long-term shared learning and related performance incentives. 

Future opportunities

In the coming months, CBI will explore how to expand our e-learning offerings to include other types of content, design cost-effective blended learning programs, and to meet the needs of non-profit and public sector clients.  Examples of future courses include a low-tech online negotiation course for women agricultural scientists and field workers in Africa - offered as a prerequisite to partner-implemented face-to-face learning - and an e-learning course for Royal Dutch Shell on the Mutual Gains Approach to Community Engagement.

Rachel Milner Gillers is a Senior Mediator with the Consensus Building Institute.