A couple months ago, an article on the Federal Times caught my attention as it declared, “GSA cancels 2014 Expo, SmartPay goes virtual.” Curious, I reached out to the GSA SmartPay team to learn more about their move from in-person to online for this event. Below is a summary of my interview with them.
Q1: How did you make the decision to move the GSA SmartPay training forum from in-person to online?
A: “If we were going to survive the current budget environment, we knew we would need to adapt. There have been significant reductions in travel spending and it was plain that we needed to make this shift now. In addition, the government-wide charge card program moves millions of dollars and OMB has a requirement for training. The charge card program managers who need this training are not all in Washington, DC – they’re across the country and around the world, so a virtual event allows us to reach more people.”
Q2: Was it tough to make that call?
A: “We know that there are pros and cons to a virtual event. People like aspects about both virtual and in-person events. We’re trying to carry over some of the value from in-person to virtual so that people can experience the best of both worlds.”
Q3: Tell me more about carrying over the value of an in-person event to the virtual space.
A: “There are many ways to carry over the value of an in-person event. We are incorporating networking opportunities among attendees in a virtual networking lounge, hosting ongoing live chat discussions on a variety of hot topics and participants can even exchange virtual business cards. We’re also ensuring that the live sessions have Q&A and polling.
Q4: Is this the first time you’re hosting a virtual event?
A: “Actually, it’s not. In 2011, GSA SmartPay hosted the largest virtual conference at GSA to date. So we have experience, best practices and lessons learned that we’re building upon.”
Q5: What are some of those lessons learned?
A: “We learned a lot from our 2011 event. For instance, one thing that didn’t go very well was the live chat. It was hard to keep up with the questions as they came in via the written chat format. We had a moderator, but it was still difficult to respond to everyone’s questions. This time, we’re making it such that the subject matter expert is able to talk in real time in addition to the typed chat through an audio bridge.
In 2011, we were also going through change management with our clients. We were asking them to go beyond a conference call or webinar platform, so it was a really good experience to help them see the value in this fresh modality. We demonstrated that the platform could work. We also made the courses available on demand afterward, so they could access the content again in a way that they could not at an in-person event.”
Q6: Is there any other advice you’d give to other agencies moving in this direction?
A: "Be realistic. Listen to your customers. Not everyone likes virtual, so you need to be sensitive that this is a tough transition for many people. We’re exploring how to best balance virtual with other training lanes going into the future.
We’re collecting feedback through our annual customer loyalty survey to learn how we’re doing in delivering our programs, which includes training. No delivery mechanism is ideal. It really depends on the topic and on the audience. It also depends on the technology and to what degree you can accommodate certain things. We’re going to be looking for that right balance between the quality of the training experience and the cost effectiveness of the delivery. We’d encourage other agencies to do the same."
How Is Your Agency Making This Transition?
Can We Help You Make the Move From In-Person to Online?
As always, please also let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you move traditional events and training to the virtual space. GovLoop sees itself as a massive “learning hub” or
“knowledge network” for government that has been providing these kinds of social, e-learning opportunities for public sector professionals for years – and would like to advance this trend within government through direct support of agency events and training. Email me at Andrew@GovLoop.com if you think I can be of assistance or would just like me to come by and talk to key stakeholders at your agency about these trends.