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observe, imitate and learn - online

In the adaptation of online working, as Covid-19 has dictated many organizations, some aspects of professional life have suffered more than others. One such aspect is that it gets harder to learn from observation and imitation. This poses a challenge for professional services firms that have relied on this learning strategy for building soft skills and transferring values to junior employees.


One of the most effective ways we learn as humans – and as professionals – is by observing and imitating others. The concept of observational learning describes how we watch others perform certain actions and replicate those. This is something we do from a young age when we learn basic skills by imitating parents, older siblings and others. We continue to do so when we learn new skills during our careers. We listen carefully to a senior colleague when we first join in a client meeting and learn from how the conversation is set up, how a message is delivered effectively and social connection is established. As we advance and become more independent, we imitate the behavior we have seen as being most effective. So, when we learn from others, it is not just skills that are being transferred from a senior to a junior person. It includes the subtleties of how we present ourselves and the things we mention or not. So, it is also about transferring the values we hold as a firm and sustaining our culture.


In the online world, observational learning has become much more difficult. For example, in a Teams or Zoom meeting, sensing what’s going on has become very different from live meetings. Looking at the talking faces on the screen in front of you (most often including yours), you easily miss out on non-verbal signs coming from participants listening to the person that does the talking. Therefore, it becomes harder to assess if the behavior you’re observing is effective. And this is a situation in which you, being a junior professional, are invited to the online meeting. In the transformation to doing business online, this is not so obvious anymore as many fee earners in professional firms find it easier to have one-on-one meetings to catch up with their clients. In that case, there is no possibility to observe effective behavior at all.


In a recent discussion with the managing partner of a Law firm in The Netherlands, the lack of observational learning and the subsequent decrease of transferring the firm’s values and culture due to online working was a growing concern. He and I discussed what can be improved to both have better learning opportunities and sustain high service levels for clients.

The solution I proposed is to redefine client interaction so that this becomes more interactive and participatory. When both senior and junior staff engage in a dialogue with clients, the opportunities to ‘observe and imitate’ return. And it will serve a second goal, that of improving the service level to clients. When “interaction” is approached as being co-creating and not merely sending static messages through webinars or dulling video meetings, the client can be serviced to its individual needs and preferences. This can be done without huge investments, using readily available online tools and platforms such as whiteboards and dialogues.

We are currently helping several professional services firms to redesign and reformat their online client interaction. If you are interested in finding out what that brings, sign up to our blog. You can also join the ‘Fridays at Four’ sessions in which we showcase solutions to make online client contact more effective.

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