To illustrate, when I started facilitating leadership programs, the gold standard was week-long leadership retreats. The week involved piles of different assessments, group work, and reading mountains of leadership authors. The belief was that total immersion into leadership issues was required to turn managerial technicians into leadership exemplars.
Over time, these week-long deep dives become three-day sessions, then one- day briefings. Multi-day programs still exist, mostly in academia, but business leaders today want development that is quick, relevant and that has minimal disruption to daily workloads and commitments.
By now most of us have heard the VUCA acronym applied to today’s business climate: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The core question I hear from business leaders today is how can we create leadership development programs that make sense in a VUCA world? Multi-day retreats won’t cut it. They want development opportunities that are efficient, just-in-time, applicable, scalable and customized to address issues facing them in the moment. My response? Virtual leadership development.
LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN A VUCA WORLD
By Dr. Alice Waagen
Every January, I eagerly await the trend predictors for the coming year (I love prognosticators; Trend watching is a passion of mine; Looking Ahead: 2015 Workplace Trends). I value those researcher-journalists who do the heavy lifting of reading through the top events of the prior year and extrapolating how they inform issues for the coming year. One trend that surfaced years ago, and continues to be strong, is the move into virtual work. Whether we are talking about global work teams or the increase in telework, the concept that work is being done by people who sit across a table from each other is becoming quaintly outmoded. Even when people are co-located, more are preferring to interact via technology than face-to-face (this is not always a good thing, as I’ve noted before, Managing Virtually: Hello, Anybody Out There?)
Virtual work affords the luxury of being geographically agnostic. No matter where you exist, you can partner, collaborate and interact with others. If your local team lacks the talent needed, you can sweep far and wide to pull talent once you determine that virtual interaction will suffice. Why not apply this same premise to leadership development?
Sadly, the biggest inhibitor I’ve found to the acceptance of virtual learning is the decades of horrific precedents. Early virtual learning involved nothing more than dumping text into lengthy documents that required the learners to scroll through as long as their eyesight and brains allowed. These electronic page-turners killed interest in virtual learning for decades.
PowerPoint-driven webinars are the ugly grandchildren of this trend. Webinars abound today that consist of a droning voice “illustrated” by massive slide decks. These “learning” products exemplify the one-way, non-interactive methodology of the early computer-based training programs and have limited effectiveness in fostering learning and development.
I don’t blame users of this form of virtual learning to be skeptical of my assertion that leadership development can be effectively done virtually. The key to creating a meaningful leadership development program is to capture the keys to success first, then to align these success drivers with the best method to produce them for the learner.
When I look at the attributes of today’s business environments, I see the following attributes that need to drive leadership development program design. Leadership development in a VUCA world must be:
- Agile – content needs to be customized to unique and specific issues and challenges, as well as be scalable to various levels of leadership experience
- Brief – structured to be consumed in small, manageable chunks of time
- Immediately applicable – through the use of action learning and applied structured experiences
- Highly interactive – built more on the collective experience of the cohort than on the expert facilitator
- Peer based – delivered to cohorts of peers who share the same issues and challenges and who can share best practices along with worst nightmares
- Current and timely – content must be generated as close as possible to real-time to adequately reflect today’s complexity and volatility.
Virtual learning, using readily available collaborative platforms, allows leadership development program design to exemplify these conditions in ways that traditional classroom offerings simply cannot.
For example, in a virtual setting, participants can elect to disclose sensitive experiences anonymously by sending a private message to the facilitator who can then summarize the experience for the other participants, keeping its author unknown. The ability to share personal information anonymously can result in a broader, richer sharing of experience.
Virtual classmates can also use webcams to enhance interaction. Larger audiences can be subdivided by using virtual break out rooms. Collaborative technology has advanced to the point where the virtual facilitator has a host of features to draw on to increase interaction, involvement and engagement.
My breakthrough moment on virtual learning came when I abandoned trying to emulate a “live” classroom experience and began to design virtual learning to go beyond the traditional classroom experience. Using the above characteristics as a guide, one can create meaningful learning experiences virtually in ways that are truly faster, easier and less disruptive than traditional workshops and retreats. Virtual learning experiences are the most sensible way to grow leadership skills in a VUCA world.