Can computers give you the practice you need?

More provocative stuff from Dan Goleman:

Computer-aided instruction, a current vogue in training, has limits when it comes to offering practice for emotional competence. …computer-aided techniques are generally better suited for training in technical skills than for developing personal and interpersonal capabilities.

“People say you can sit at your computer, assess yourself, and find out how to develop a competency,” observes Richard Boyatzis, of Case Western Reserve University.  “But you can’t do this without relationships — you can’t learn this in isolation.”

Social networking has helped learners stay in relationship with each other, sometimes even in real time.  And the technology of online interaction is improving constantly.

But for me, there are two issues with interpersonal practice:

1)  Are you practicing in the mode that you’ll be working in?

2)  Is there room for the spontaneous and unexpected?

By mode, I mean that if you’re managing people via phone (for example), you should be practicing your phone communication skills, You’ve only got your voice to work with, so you’ll need practice in the subtleties of listening, imparting information, getting and giving feedback, and so on.  You’ve got similar restrictions with email, teleconferencing, Skype, etc.

Same for in-person relationships.  If you’re in the same room with people every day, practicing virtually won’t give you the skills you need.  We pick up all sorts of cues in the face-to-face encounter that aren’t present when technology is between us.

To my second point:  online learning tends to be standardized, which makes sense, because we need numbers of people to have a similar experience with the material.  But human encounters are anything but standardized.  People are constantly surprising; conversations we expected to be calm can escalate, and meetings we think we’re prepared for often veer onto a different path.

For practice, it’s much easier for live people to simulate these unexpected interpersonal twists.  (Our Interactors are brilliant at it.)  Even computer games have a limited number of possible responses, while the real human factor is infinite.  So I argue that practice with real human beings, whether in person, over the phone, or even in teleconferencing, adds a level of realism that can’t be reached in any other way.

Learners deserve to try out new skills in a situation that recreates the complexity that they’ll be dealing with back on the job.  Nothing can replace practicing with real live people.

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