Not quite a class and different to a conference, the workshop is a hands-on training event.
It allows participants to flex new capabilities as they’re learning them, meaning mistakes can be made in a low-risk environment and corrected in real time.
Here, we’ll run through exactly what a workshop is, the benefits of running one and how to plan an effective workshop.
What is a workshop?
A workshop is a single instructor-led training activity that help employees practically learn and apply a specific capability or skillset. They are ideal for:
- Small groups (max 15 participants) that allow for teamwork and personal attention
- Passing on subject matter expertise
- Topics that are niche to an organisation or field
- Providing an intensive educational experience in a short time period
- Introducing a new topic or concept
- Real time course correction
- Team bonding and building communication skills.
The difference between a workshop and a course
Think the workshop sounds eerily similar to the humble course? There are a few differences between these two popular forms of training.
The main difference is really in the application. Today’s courses are generally online through an eLearning platform, which means they focus more on theory. A workshop has to be face to face or face to screen, putting more emphasis on practice.
Now, this is where you need to be critical. Most legacy platforms will push workshops based on generic skills. This would work if skills didn’t expire quickly, or if they could be attributed to business goals. Following legacy thinking only puts learners at risk of undertaking workshops that aren’t actually relevant to their job roles, wasting time and enthusiasm for training.
We developed the performance learning management system (PLMS) for this reason. It’s founded on the premise that when mapped to relevant content, capabilities are the only way to generate real performance improvements and accelerate business results. Contextual learning opportunities like workshops are then tightly linked to performance of the specific capabilities of their role, netting you greater L&D impact.
Types of workshops
There are dozens of potential workshops out there. It largely depends on the role: Team building is useful for leadership teams while employee engagement works for HR.
As with all good training, a workshop should have a strategic outcome. Whatever the topic for the workshop, there should be a direct link back to the employee’s every day or development plan.
We’ve talked before about how leadership is best learned practically. A leadership workshop is a safe environment in which to practice those key interpersonal skills.
Many leadership workshops centre on problem-solving, whether that’s in teams or individually in, say, a conflict resolution exercise.
Culture & team building
This can be a literal team exercise (e.g. for your support team) or one aimed at a leadership team.
- The former will focus on strengthening close work relationships. It’s handy for newly formed teams or those that are remote but still need to work closely together.
- The latter is about strengthening corporate culture where it forms. Your leadership team is responsible for setting the tone in your organisation, so team training can clarify expectations across the board.
Diversity & inclusion
DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) would come under compliance training as part of the employee code of conduct. Where other workshops may be a one-stop affair in a PDP, many organisations run frequent DEI workshops to maintain cultural competence and social awareness as their workforce evolves.
What happens in a workshop?
Active participation is a key element of any workshop. It’s not like a conference or class where you mostly sit and listen; workshops are designed to put new capabilities to the test as they’re being developed.
You may work in a small group as part of the activities or it might be that you debate in the larger group. Whatever the format chosen by the facilitator, the agenda for the workshop will be predetermined and there’ll likely be mini milestones the instructor will be guiding attendees towards.
For example, in a leadership workshop, there’d likely be role play to help emerging leaders learn the art of constructive feedback.
Benefits of hosting workshops for employees
Where learning in the flow of work has flourished and remains an important way to channel knowledge, guided learning still has its strengths.
- Ability to develop deep but not exhaustive expertise
- Encourage cross-function collaboration
- Strategic networking.
Deep and broad expertise
Deep expertise is key part of business resilience, since it creates little pools of critical knowledge in every business function from which all employees can draw from. Using subject matter experts (SMEs) as workshop facilitators or moderators helps to transfer knowledge in scalable way, especially if employees from all professional backgrounds can access them.
Long-term or repeated exposure to SME-run workshops can develop the desirable T-shaped person: An employee with broad baseline knowledge and deep expertise. And this has the advantage of avoiding cognitive bias, or the scenario in which one’s knowledge is so niche they defend bad ideas or are unable to see new ideas to innovation’s detriment.
Workshops can get employees out of their comfort zones. Many may gravitate towards their work friends without a little push.
Leadership development, as an example, could see employees from all areas of business come together. The combination of differing skills, perspectives and expertise helps broaden their strategic thinking and cultural competence on top of the core outcome.
While internal leadership training is essential, there are opportunities to send your strategic players to an external workshop.
And while executives may be mentoring younger workers in your organisation, they too need guidance or a sounding board. External workshops can provide mentoring opportunities for them.
- External mentors aren’t biased in their opinions or restricted by cultural norms.
- Different perspectives can inspire new levels of creativity and innovation.
- Their industry knowledge is usually invaluable to the mentee.
How to conduct workshops for your employees
We encourage you to think about the value created from a workshop before you begin hosting them. It shouldn’t be an exercise that just ticks a box; employees need a convincing reason to sacrifice time and you need a strategic outcome the workshop will achieve.
Define the goals
Making it impactful means setting a tangible behavioural outcome. What do you want participants to experience and learn?
Look to your business tools, like a capability framework. Prioritise capabilities by the impact they’ll have on business and the availability of those capabilities in your workforce—this will depend on current competence.
What’s missing will show a performance gap you can plug. Certain capabilities that can lend themselves to workshops include:
- Project management
- Product training
- Sales enablement.
Create an agenda
This is essentially the plan of action for the workshop. It’ll include:
- Main discussion points
- Number and types of activities
- Time allotted to each activity
- Any extra resources required, including visual aids.
Pick your format
Most workshops sit in the one to four hour range. But while your employees may be students, workshops aren’t just ordinary classes. Spark a little joy with variety in the delivery of a workshop.
Shorter workshops can still be impactful, though they’re best for overviews of new topics. Lunch and learns allow employees to talk about something that is interesting to them. Keep them primarily work related but if someone is passionate about music, let them run a hobby-based lunch and learn. It helps build experience talking authoritatively on expertise in a familiar environment.
There are instances where a multi-day learning event is necessary. Annual meetings, as an example, are better in a longer format considering the complexity of the agenda.
Be sure to share said agenda ahead of time so people can get a feel for how long they’ll need to be switched on for and when breaks are. Failing all else, start and end times are key for those with kids or other priorities, especially if it’s hosted off-site.
Evaluate the process
Evaluation is an important part of a training event. It determines the effectiveness of the workshop and whether or not employees saw it as helpful or time-wasting. It’s a three-parter.
- Survey sentiment. Employee feedback is powerful as negative feelings about training will impact knowledge transfer.
- Look at performance post-workshop. Has the behavioural goal been realised in everyday work?
- Consider organisational outcomes. Processes, customer satisfaction and employee engagement are all training touch points.
You might have been to a workshop in the past that was time-consuming, time-wasting or both and completely written the medium off. Done wrong, they can be the antithesis of value. But done strategically, they can strengthen knowledge sharing and expertise in your organisation.
A workshop should have a defined outcome and the length of the workshop should reflect this. There’s definitely a time for the multi-day workshop, but you can utilise shorter formats to imbue more casual collaboration into the workplace.
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