On the (virtual) sofa with Olga Flory

Orange sofa

Smith+Nephew’s Olga Flory on virtual learning and development


Olga Flory, Director of Leadership Development, Smith+Nephew

We spent some time with Olga to capture her reflections on the challenges and opportunities which virtual learning and development has created, the key points of difference with face to face learning, top tips and lessons learned along the way.

Olga Flory is the Director of Leadership Development at Smith+Nephew, a global medical device company headquartered in the UK. She is an accomplished learning & development leader with a successful career in strategic talent and organisational development, leadership development and business transformation in companies and organisations ranging from startups to Fortune 100. She has coached business leaders and teams around the world to help them develop critical competencies and establish the practices of business excellence in their organisations.

Olga is a co-author of the book Transforming Leader Paradigms (2019). She holds an MA degree in Education and Linguistics from the Krasnoyarsk State University, Russia, and certification in Brain-Based Coaching from the U.S. NeuroLeadership Institute, New York, NY.


For the purposes of this article, we define virtual delivery as learning which happens live and with other participants, even if that is just one other person (such as a coach). However, it takes place via video conferencing or another virtual medium. By e-learning referenced in this article we mean self-paced on-demand learning that takes place when learners access various learning assets via an online learning platform or other e-sources.

How established is the virtual learning and development across your organisation? How has the pandemic influenced the delivery of learning and development?

Previously, both virtual and e-learning were viewed as a small supplementary component of our learning and development portfolio. Until 2020, we only had 2 channels in place. One was an online learning platform providing learning assets on the basis of a relatively small number of licenses (12-15% of Smith+Nephew headcount). The other component was a year-long e-learning programme which primarily targeted learners at the individual contributor level.

The pandemic has changed everything. Our core leadership programmes (Pioneer and Leadership Edge) were historically designed for in-person delivery. We were preparing to launch them in March when the pandemic hit. We didn’t want to put the programmes on indefinite hold and went through various iterations together to work out the best solution.

We frontloaded both programmes with virtual learning to be delivered in 2-hour webinars with 6-8 weeks in-between to allow time for participants to practice what they learnt. In fact, while converting the programmes for virtual delivery, we have significantly increased the share of collaborative and experiential learning. It’s commonly known that around 70% of development happens on the job. Which is why we have introduced a new important element to both programmes – along with their managers, participants select business projects which allow them to apply what they have learnt in the course of the programme.

The programme portal that was previously used for uploading materials has now become a place for collaborative learning – participants get together in their learning support groups to work on assignments, provide feedback, share success stories and discuss the challenges of developing new behaviours and habits.  We also introduced ‘Ask the Expert’ video dialogues: following each webinar, we collate questions from participants, group them into themes and film a Lane4 facilitator and in-house expert addressing these themes.

Beyond those two programmes, we are also making changes to how we use our e-learning platform switching to an enterprise-wide license so that we can provide immediate access to a broad variety of content to all Smith+Nephew employees. Also, we are replacing our ‘one and only’ e-learning programme with a diversified portfolio of blended learning experiences to meet broader development needs of our employees.

What have you learnt about the design and delivery of virtual programmes along the way?

Overall, the biggest lesson we learnt is that it’s hard work! A mere conversion of the three-dimensional world into two-dimensional delivery creates a lot of challenges.

For facilitators, who are often unable to see the participants’ reactions during virtual sessions, it’s important to be very aware of their facilitation style. To be able to deliver a lot of content during a short webinar means they have to be very concise and move through the agenda at a good pace. At the same time, they need to learn how to keep participants engaged and not feel rushed. Which is why virtual facilitators must learn to be comfortable with silence when they ask questions, giving participants the needed time and space to come up with answers.

Designers need to use the many different approaches to virtual delivery (videos, whiteboards etc) wisely. It’s not simply a case of taking slides and delivering them virtually. It needs to be a flawless multifaceted learning experience. You also need to make sure you’re using the right virtual delivery platforms because not all of them were created for the delivery of learning. If you want to create an engaging environment it’s worth considering a smaller group – our cohorts are between 12-20 people.

We shouldn’t think about virtual learning as a series of standalone events but rather as a component of a holistic learning process complemented by exposure and experience, with a follow-up process and structure in place to help learners convert knowledge into practice and build the needed competencies. We are engaging managers, to help them understand the importance of acting as mentors and coaches to their direct reports when they go through their learning journeys.

What feedback have you had from the learners so far?

The feedback from participants has been predominantly positive, especially regarding content and facilitation. We had important feedback on the platform we were using which did not allow participants to see the facilitators or one another. As one of the main benefits of the programme is building networks across the business, not being able to see people was prohibitive, so we moved to another platform.


What preconceptions did you have about learning and development pre-pandemic which have now changed and why?

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge proponent of virtual learning. I always thought it is impossible to recreate, in the virtual format, the magic that happens in a classroom when participants and facilitators bond. However, having observed our webinars, I’ve seen and admired facilitators who managed to create a wonderfully open and engaging environment in online sessions. I know now that it can be done.

My other concern with online learning was about providing learning in small, bitesize chunks.  I felt that by doing that, we teach learners to ‘talk the talk’ and not to ‘walk the walk’. I realise now that it’s all about creating a blended experience for learners with a good balance of education, exposure, and experience. We need to remember that when we’re trying to change a behaviour or develop a new skill, it takes time because we are building a new neurological circuit. It takes around 10,000-12,000 repetitions to build an automated skill!

In the post-pandemic world, how do you think virtual delivery will fit within your L&D strategy?

I think remote working will become a reality so virtual learning will play an important role in the future business environment. It will certainly become a significant part of our Leadership Development portfolio. For it to happen, we need to start upskilling instructional designers and facilitators to ensure they get progressively better at creating and delivering virtual learning programmes. We must help our leaders to be ready to step up and provide timely support to their team members who learn virtually. And we should be constantly on the lookout for new technologies to be able to create rich, engaging and exciting learning experiences.

What top tips would you pass onto other HR professionals embarking on virtual learning and development programmes?

Firstly, make sure that you have a good vision for your online learning and then build a strategy to execute that vision.

Formulate the principles to guide your online learning. For example, at Smith+Nephew, we agreed that e-learning and virtual learning must be:

  • Agile
  • Relevant
  • Bespoke
  • Engaging
  • Comprehensive
  • Collaborative

Finally, don’t think you will nail it perfectly the first time. Approach it with the mindset of a scientist – trying things, testing things, seeing what works and does not work. We are all learning every day so keep experimenting!


If you want to learn more about the do’s and don’ts of virtual learning, check out our white paper: Real Learning in the Virtual World.