Snapshot: Nissan needed to develop 60 high-potential leaders in high-growth markets to support its global growth strategy, but these leaders were widely dispersed and could not physically be together for training. After creating an e-learning program which included a virtual classroom, the company was able to deliver live courses that promote the same level of interaction as a traditional classroom.
One of the best things about classroom learning is the opportunity to congregate with other learners. Physical proximity promotes the formation of relationships that can lead to camaraderie and networking. It also allows employees to work together on group projects. Everyone hears the same information at the same time, ensuring consistency.
Further, when sessions are led by a live facilitator, participants can ask questions and receive immediate feedback.
Multinational automaker Nissan realized it isn’t always possible or practical to conduct training in a classroom setting. Such was the case with its 60 high-potential operational leaders, who were dispersed around the globe. These leaders, who are critical to help Nissan grow in emerging markets, need to be developed, but there were multiple challenges in doing so. To meet these challenges, Nissan leveraged the benefits of classroom training without the expense and logistical complications by creating a virtual classroom.
Brakes on the Budget
Nissan employs more than 150,000 people worldwide, with production sites in 20 countries and markets in more than 160 countries. The diverse and dispersed operations require high-performing leaders in many functions and locations.
To address its future global growth plans, in 2009, the company identified the aforementioned 60 high potentials with the aptitude and skills to become Nissan’s future leaders. The company said this was the first time high potentials received targeted development attention.
These high potentials worked in many different organizational functions, at varying levels and in different locations, including Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. Although it was desirable to bring the group together in a classroom environment to teach them the leadership skills and develop the competencies that would allow them to take their careers and the company to the next level, to do so would be costly in terms of travel, logistics and the learners’ time away from work. The group would need to be convened multiple times, and travel budgets had been frozen companywide.
E-learning, which would need to be a part of the solution, wasn’t new to Nissan. Employees were comfortable using online platforms for learning and conducting daily business. But when it came to crafting a new leadership development program for the target group, whose members varied in terms of language skills and levels of expertise, it was time for a new approach.
Although they work across different functions, it was critical the high potentials learn a consistent set of leadership skills and competencies rooted in the core principles that guide the business. Nissan leadership has said that people’s professional power comes from personal strength, creativity and dedication.
Working with Development Dimensions International (DDI), a talent management consulting company, Nissan’s HR team crafted a curriculum designed to provide the skills future leaders would need to be optimally effective and establish a common leadership vocabulary across functions and locations. The program included participation in a multi-rater assessment and seven courses from DDI’s leadership development system.
To deliver the course in an environment that offered classroom learning features such as interactivity, relationship building, immediate feedback and the ability to practice alongside online learning elements such as location independence, budget sensitivity and easily accessible resources, the team opted for a blended approach.
First, participants attended a virtual feedback session where their results were explained and they learned how to take action on skill gaps and leverage strengths. The formal learning included three courses offered as Web-based training, followed by a virtual learning lab where they could practice new skills. The Nissan HR team opted to deliver four additional courses that emphasized reaching agreement, motivating others, leading change and conducting effective conversations using virtual classroom technology.
Nissan’s virtual classroom is a synchronous learning environment. Course material is delivered by a live instructor; learners connect from their locations via a Web conferencing platform and experience the course in real time. They can ask questions, interact using tools such as virtual white boards and participant polls, work in small groups and participate in role plays.
To promote relationship building, Nissan’s HR team took steps to virtually introduce participants to one another, uploading photos to the virtual classroom platform and inviting them to share a bit about themselves. The initial group of 60 was broken into three cohorts of 20 to create a smaller, more intimate learning experience. Participants used the multi-rater feedback tool to assess their own strengths and learning opportunities and target the skills they needed to develop. Before the first session, each participant received a binder of class materials and took part in an orientation session to help him or her become comfortable with the virtual classroom platform.
The HR team also helped ensure software issues wouldn’t hinder learners’ access to the virtual classroom. Troubleshooting potential problems before they arose, the team worked with individual IT departments in learners’ home locations to confirm that everyone could access the virtual classroom.
Cruising the Learning Superhighway
The first 20 learners were in 10 different countries. The group convened eight times during a six-month period. Instruction was delivered in English because, although it wasn’t every participant’s native language, it is the official language of Nissan. The synchronous nature of the delivery meant that some learners were attending class in the middle of the night local time. For example, participants in Australia logged on at 8 p.m. for a four-hour session that ended at midnight. Yet Nissan’s HR team said participants displayed high energy levels, were engaged in the courses and interacted freely with the facilitator and each other.
An IT and logistics manager for Nissan in Dubai was a member of the first cohort. In an after-session debrief he said the virtual classroom captured many of the advantages of a live course. “Most of the time, we did not feel the distance between the teacher and ourselves,” he said. “It felt like all of us were sitting in the same classroom.”
Another participant from South Africa agreed. “You could interact in real time even though you were in different countries. You could see what others were putting on the board. You had the functionality of working with a group of three, four, five people at the same time. You also could learn about their roles in the different countries,” she said.
After the first cohort completed the curriculum in 2010, Nissan and DDI measured the behavior change among participants pre- and post-training.
Participants who felt they displayed the targeted leadership behaviors increased by 31 percentage points, from 54 to 85 percent. The percentage of participants displaying the targeted behaviors after the virtual classroom learning as reported by observers increased 30 percentage points, from 57 to 87 percent.
Nissan compared these results with the average measured behavior change after classroom delivery of the same leadership courses. Behavior change as self-reported by virtual classroom participants was nearly identical to that reported by traditional classroom learners. However, observer ratings post-virtual classroom were 13 percentage points higher than they were for the traditional classroom learners.
Members of the first cohort reported that the program also helped them on the job. “The training has helped me when meeting with my subordinates who are having some difficulty,” the participant from Dubai said. “I get specific feedback from them and they say they like my management style and they are comfortable working with me.”
“It’s the people around you who make it possible to achieve goals,” said the participant from South Africa. “They actually give you the results that you
Annamarie Lang is a senior consultant in DDI’s leadership solutions group. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.