Webinars are to Executive Education what Facebook and Instagram are to professional journalism


Didier Marlier

May 01, 2020

From Disruption to Engagement

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Daniel Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize of Economics, for his work proving that “Emotional Memory” lasts much longer than “Factual Memory”.

Prof. Antonio Damasio earned his fame as top neuroscientist for demonstrating that  people move from intention to action, when their emotional brain is triggered; The rational brain is not sufficient. His colleague, Joseph Ledoux discovered that “somatic memories” ensure a deeper learning than just a rational discourse.

On April 29th, French neuropsychiatrist, Boris Cyrulnik declared in an article titled “Getting back to Business as Usual is heading us towards catastrophe”: “Distance Learning creates poor results. At the National School of Magistrates in Bordeaux, where I used to teach, we had had the idea to implement MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses). But, rapidly, we realized that students were remembering the material covered, far less deeply, via MOOCs. The reason is perfectly documented at the neurological level: What activate memory in the brain are emotions. Alone at home in a pyjama, sitting in front of your screen, you won’t feel emotions. Anyone has made that experience: The best teachers, the very ones who produced a deep and lasting impression on you for life are those who, on top of a well expressed content, have conveyed emotion”.

Several times, in the past, clients asked us whether we would consider putting our material on line, or deliver webinars instead of the 3-5 days long experience we were providing. Because experiencing is part of our DNA, we always accepted to engage into this exploration. But nothing as concrete, powerful or impactful ever came out, especially if hoping that a cheap and efficient “digital fix” may replace a whole development experience…

Then Covid-19 came. As Yuval Harari explains, it acted as a catalyst and things that took ages before, were all of the sudden possible in two weeks. Webinars flourished like mushrooms after the rain, with an incredible richness of formats, durations, topics and speakers. Some were awesome, many awful, some delivered by true experts, others by wannabees. I personally followed ten of these, cut half before their end, got bored after 5’ in general and will run away from some of the “speakers” next time I see their name. Out of 20 hours invested, there were maybe 30’ truly worth the effort. The rest were a show of banalities, subjects that anyone a bit serious in the Leadership Development area probably knew. It rather sounded like a desperate effort to prove Andy Warhol’s quote, “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, than a true and honest effort to bring something meaningful to the courageous listeners.

I confess to have acted on two webinars myself, with our friends of the Futures Agency, We need social, NEOMA and StratX. I have selfishly enjoyed the experience… But felt that those deserving admiration and respect more than me, were the participants!

Webinars are not Executive Education! They serve at best as “Edu-tainment”, information or broadcast of some new ideas. They cannot create behavioural skills transfer, culture change, leadership development and fail to create the right atmosphere. And when it comes to engagement, it is not the virtual classrooms, chat nor hands-up function that create it. Webinars bring us back to classrooms of the 19th century!

So why do so many great professionals fall for webinars and other digital learning solutions? Often, unfortunately, for the wrong reason: They are into cost-cutting mode and believe that digital will be cheaper. Unfortunately, a serious “Digital Program” is not cheaper, at least not for the first few times: A digital program is not a digital version from an already existing presential course. It does require a completely new design: Shorter sessions (as the attention span dramatically reduces), different medias (clips work better than PowerPoints on digital), completely different interactions, digital break-out rooms etc.  And, whilst you save money (on hotels and convention centres, flights, food and taxis), these are the golden nuggets you lose:

  • Opportunity to build the culture: 70% of an organization’s culture coming from the behaviours of its leaders (usually participants), how do you want to create the intimacy and closeness for this to happen in 2, 4 even 6 hours daily distant learning sessions?
  • Networking: A 1am last round of drinks between some diehard participants on a program we ran, ended up into a completely random connection between individuals who finally stayed till 7 am designing a revolutionary item which netted €. 50 million for their company. How do you create random and alcohol creative sessions on a laptop?
  • Engaging and transforming: As all of you know, engagement doesn’t happen by PowerPoint. It emerges when leaders bang their heads together, honestly share their hopes, doubts or disappointments, when they stop being politically correct and truly discuss with each other… Should we create “Honest-hour-of-politically-incorrect-discussions-for-engagement-purpose-only” sessions for distance learning?
  • Seeds for unconditional collaboration: Experiencing 3, 4, 5 days of conviviality creates strong bounds between participants who usually act as bridges between their organizations and some disgruntled colleagues upset by people “on the other side of the wall”. They’ll pick their phone and try to understand how to solve the issue via a friend on the other side.
  • You cant get everyone on the same program at the same time: And by so doing, you reinforce the Americas, Europe & Africa, Asia & Oceania silos who will work separately.

So, should we trash the idea of Digital Learning Experiences? By all mean no! But let’s be clear about what we lose and what we could earn. On the positive side, they do save hours of travel for already busy and platinum mileage executives. They will probably be grateful to stay in the comfort of their homes and families while learning! Digital, requires a new design as well as new technology and may be more expensive from that point of view but, considering a series of program, you will more than recover your investment (travels, hotels etc.). This should in turn, enable you to disseminate the program to other layers of the organization, otherwise excluded.

The perfect Distance Learning program still has to be seen. It definitely isn’t a webinar, but a whole experience process is possible. It probably won’t offset the disadvantages covered hereabove but it can definitely be better than what we have seen to date.

Three design criteria must be considered when designing an impactful “Distance Learning Experience”:

  • Logos (Cognitive): Since we know that intellectually transferring knowledge yields a low impact, the way it is transferred is of critical importance. Our partners from StratX, for example, have a solid experience in creating virtual simulations which create emotional moments (competitions), replicate the reality (full immersion) and… teach, engage, transform through their unique programs. 90% of the top MBA’s use their services.
  • Ethos (Skills): Practice, observation, feedback… If less impactful at a distance than with an instructor next to you, it still is possible to add to a distance learning experience. It certainly works well for “hard skills”, it is more challenging for leadership/teamship skills, unless what you observe and practice are virtual or remote management skills!
  • Pathos (Relational): I am always humbled when I see the high quality of interactions, the pleasure of physical conviviality between participants coming from all over the World! I believe that what happens outside the classroom is at least as important that what happens during our sessions. This doesn’t happen in a virtual context. But, should the size of the group (small) permit, and the faculty create a solid atmosphere of Psychological Safety and encourage people to lower their guard, a relational climate may be created.

If you have strong opinions, curiosity or interest in this topic, I can only recommend you to join our friends of Stratx who will share their experience around “Create Engaging Learning Experiences Online”, Wednesday May 6th @ 4pm Paris time. Here is the registration link.

Leading is also developing others… I hope you enjoyed this slightly longer than usual post!


  1. Ingrid

    Didier, I do agree with what you are saying when it comes to emotion that leads to action. However, I experience is that the relationships in our Global Team have never been so personal and meaningful. During virtual happy hour or coffee session (yes, Webex with cameras) – everyone in their own home with kids running around and spouses interacting, some cooking because of time difference and others just relaxing, we get to know each other from a completely different side. Webex does offer opportunities for a meaningful emotional connection – which somehow should be transferrable to interactive learning, I think….

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you, dear Ingrid for this reality-based and truly lived experience. I would parallel what you describe, with what I just went through (and many times before when we weren’t even confined) in one to one coaching. In such a case, it was possible to touch on thoughts (Logos), Behaviours (Ethos) and emotions (Pathos). And I can relate to what you say, when we prepared and reviewed our Webinars with the colleagues and friends who would co-deliver. I just wonder if that would be possible in the “old context”, when time was money and people had to be (supposedly) “efficient”. As you know, I am a strong supporter of “relational” instead of “transactional”.

      However, what I am referring to here is whether “Distant Learning” may create the same “Learning Culture & Enablers” as what happens in (carefully crafted) face to face programs (or even better, experiences).

      Thank you for helping me to clarify my thoughts. Have a good week end!


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