Negotiation is often overlooked in professional training because people think that since they’ve been negotiating every day of their lives, they have become good at it. We write notes every day yet if we look at our current handwriting, few of us would say that it has improved over the years. Negotiation is both an art and a science and even the most seasoned negotiators can benefit from becoming acquainted with the latest skills and techniques.

Trainers have significant choices when it comes to training their staff and negotiation is now being recognized as a key training feature. Employees need negotiation training to deal more effectively with customers, clients, suppliers, co-workers, business associates and family members. Better negotiation skills allow employees to resolve disputes more efficiently, improve workplace relationships and feel more empowered in the workplace environment. This leads to a happier, more productive employee and ultimately a more profitable organization.

However, the cost and time away from work of professional training can represent a significant barrier for companies and organizations whose employees would benefit from receiving training. A high quality negotiation workshop takes 3 – 5 days to complete and can cost up to $2000. Many smaller organizations simply can’t afford to lose their employees for that length of time or spend that kind of money on its entire sales force or customer service department. Even though an employee who receives negotiation training can save the organization many times the cost of the course over a year, some organizations just can’t afford to have employees out of the office.

An increasingly popular alternative to in-class training is on-line learning. This alternative allows existing training budgets to go further and to deliver higher returns. On-line training accomplishes this by lowering the costs, per capita, of delivering training. Perhaps more than cost – time is a precious and scarce resource. Learning time can be reduced by as much as 75% when a person learns on-line. Also, the participants in an on-line course don’t have to leave the office and are available in case of emergency. Over 90 percent (2002 Ipsos-Reid survey) of on-line educational users in Canada say they would recommend e-learning to others because it furthered their employment chances, was time-saving and provided them with the opportunity to take a course they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Until recently, however, there remained a marked gap between the quality of on-line courses when compared to classroom seminars. The primarily text-based on-line courses involved a lot of reading and some testing. Even though lectures could be downloaded and videos could be viewed, users complained that they felt bored and isolated. People rarely finished the courses that they had started.

Fortunately new communication and computer technologies are making on-line training far more interesting and in some ways superior to classroom based training. For example, the Stitt Feld Handy Group has recently developed a totally interactive negotiation course that is indicative of the new wave of more interactive on-line training. Other institutions, especially on-line Universities and established Universities, are also improving their on-line training. Providers range from Jones International University and California State University that offer degrees in negotiation to and 24/7 University that offer short and inexpensive courses. Concordia University is offering on-line negotiation courses for its students and does on-going innovative research in the field of on-line training. Potential consumers of on-line training, when faced with a range of options, should take a demonstration tour of on-line training options they are considering, check that they have the necessary technology and, in doing so, determine whether the course will keep a students’ attention.

At Stitt Feld Handy, we have embraced on-line training as an increasingly important option for our negotiation students. “Experience has taught us that the best way for people to develop negotiation skills is through practice and interactive exercises, rather than lectures,” says Allan Stitt, president of the Stitt Feld Handy Group. This approach has been so successful that today most adult education is performed in such a manner. We called on a colleague, filmmaker Michael Gibson, with whom we had worked in the past, to develop a fun, interesting, and leading edge course using Flash Media technology. “We saw that there was an opportunity to teach with this technology,” says Gibson, producer of the On-Line Negotiation Course.

Flash allows for extremely dynamic content in a relatively small file size. This allows on-line course participants to experience fast-paced and interactive negotiation simulations with a dial-up Internet connection. “Without this technology, we simply could not design simulations this intricate and life-like and deliver them over the web” says Gibson.

The on-line negotiation course is made up of 7 simulated negotiations with very difficult animated computer characters. The characters talk to you and challenge you, and you have to respond and negotiate with them, trying to get the best deal. The animated characters have difficult personalities, making for hard cases and tough negotiations. Participants therefore have to struggle through realistic and challenging situations. Students are introduced to each scenario and told what their goals are. Within each simulation they are given choices as what to say and how to act. Each decision takes a student on a different path, which leads to a specific finale. If the student does not negotiate an optimal agreement he or she is given an explanation as to what they did wrong and what could be done better in the future and are asked to restart the module again.

“The benefit of simulations is that they transform the user from a passive recipient of information to an active participant faced with a series of challenging decisions” says Gibson. “Simulations give the user experience that may take years to achieve in life.”

Simulations have long been used to train pilots. One of the great advantages of simulations is that educators can place the user in dangerous true-to-life situations. The user then acts under real pressure to resolve the crisis. If the user fails, there is no loss of life or damage to property.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the students’ evaluation of simulated on-line courses (especially negotiation based training) has been very positive; users like experiential learning because they are actively involved. Almost all students reported instances where they successfully integrated insights gained in the course into their private life. For example, Martha Barnes, a Toronto property manager had this to say about the Stitt Feld Handy Group on-line negotiation course: “The course gave the participant the opportunity to negotiate and make wrong choices but still be able to repeat the scenario to discover a better deal. The role playing done in the relative safety of your own office, without too much pressure, meant that I did not get frustrated and give up.”

The challenge when creating engaging simulations for delivery over the Internet is the need to keep the file sizes down. Nobody wants to wait half an hour to download a 5meg video that takes only five minutes to play. “We designed our whole course using Macromedia’s Flash.” Says Gibson. “It offers sound and animations and a robust ability to provide interactions specific to the user’s input. Our users can become thoroughly engaged in one of our simulations for over an hour with a streamable file of between 1 and 2 megs. Wait times with a dial-up connection and 56k modem never exceed 2 minutes with our modules.”

The on-line simulation format seems to be particularly appropriate for negotiation training for a number of reasons. People have the opportunity to improve their negotiation by practicing new techniques, failing, trying again, and ultimately succeeding. In the privacy of their homes or offices, participants feel comfortable taking the risks that they might hesitate to take in the real world or even in an in-class workshop. On-line participants can experiment to their hearts’ content. Virginia Norris, a California based teacher noted: “The graphics and voices were great, and the people talked as regular people would talk. Having a face in front of me was just as scary as having the actual person staring at me and I learned to overcome my fear and get my interests met.”

Although it is unlikely that on-line training will ever replace professional development seminars entirely, in the field of negotiation especially, on-line courses have something important to offer. As the design technology available becomes more and more advanced, on-line negotiation training will likely become an important option for students and trainers alike.
Written by Radek Cecha