Gathering dispersed learners in the same location is difficult.
Even if getting everyone in the same place were cheap and easy, few companies have enough physical seats to accommodate all the people they would like to develop. Transforming the math that dictates the reach and scale of corporate learning through virtual technology is attracting CLOs’ attention and a growing flow of venture capital.
But the concern remains that quality is being sacrificed in the quest for scale. Many learning leaders are waiting to see how experiments play out in higher education, and those who have begun to experiment generally relegate virtual learning to low-priority subjects like compliance-driven training and basic technical or vocational knowledge.
While virtual training may be available to employees, it is rarely central to leadership development strategies. The more senior the audience and the more focused the learning is on judgment and decision-making, the more likely it is to be face-to-face.
In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, an online business journal for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, General Electric Co.’s Susan Peters put it this way: “There is an element of our teaching that we recognize will always be face-to-face and, therefore, probably less technology-sensitive.
I don’t suspect that we will ever go to a place where we have only technology-based learning or e-learning. We really believe that ‘inspire, connect and develop’ happens with real impact when people are physically together.”
Peters, who at the time was GE’s CLO and is currently senior vice president of human resources, is right. No company will likely convert entirely to e-learning for senior leaders. The peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student chemistry is too powerful, the network-building opportunities too important and the prestige of being chosen for high-touch investment is too significant to ignore. Yet plenty of room exists between a leadership development approach that is only technology-based and one that is mostly face-to-face. More importantly, the case for moving quickly is more urgent than most companies realize.
The globalization of the workforce, more dispersed decision-making and increased cross-silo coordination place pressure on CLOs to boost their reach. Those trends also emphasize a specific leadership competence — the ability to collaborate.
Analysis by The Corporate Executive Board Co., a leadership advisory company, shows that “network” performance — outcomes achieved by using the contributions of others and by contributing to the performance of others — as opposed to individual performance drives an increasing proportion of overall enterprise performance. Organizations that build the network performance capability of their employees can significantly accelerate their performance versus focusing on individual task performance alone (Figure 1).
Approximately half the impact of employee performance on firm profits is driven by the ability of the individual to make the larger ecosystem better, not just by execution of individual tasks. Companies that do not develop the network performance are missing the potential performance opportunity available to them.
“The relative importance of network performance compared to individual task performance has more than doubled in the past decade, from 22 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2012, and we see no reason to believe that trend will reverse,” said Thomas Handcock, senior director in CEB’s HR practice.
Seen in this light, virtual learning becomes less about embracing a new delivery channel with superior reach and scale and more about developing a new network-collaboration muscle that will be essential for tomorrow’s leaders. This insight has three significant implications for learning organizations:
- Companies undermine their commitment to developing employee capabilities to work together across silos and distance if they ask them to come into a central facility and learn face-to-face. Leaders must make decisions and build consensus for action virtually, and some of an organization’s learning approaches should reflect this reality.
- The risk of a wait-and-see posture toward virtual learning is greater than most organizations appreciate. CLOs content to wait until the discipline matures may cede performance and profits to first movers.
- To develop network performance capabilities, virtual learning must be collaborative. Solo learning online can increase reach and scale, but the ability to collaborate virtually can only be accomplished through practice.
While there is urgency to become more proficient at collaborative virtual learning, learning leaders rightly observe that the field is still in its infancy. Vendors are scrambling to develop offerings worthy of companies’ emerging leaders. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify characteristics of successful experiences in learning design and participant engagement.
Design and Engagement Are Key
In learning design, any virtual experience must include vetted content, allow time for deliberate practice and focus on a specific, real-world application. Successful online collaborative learning must structure opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous interaction among learners and actively facilitate those interactions to reinforce healthy and productive collaboration.
As part of a focus on product management, MasterCard Inc. designed a collaborative virtual learning experience to deliver training in 2013. The company chose a virtual platform because of its need to deploy a learning curriculum globally and customize it to regional differences. But it was the collaborative component of the platform and its application to real-world problems that has drawn the firm’s attention since deployment.
Leigh Bochicchio, vice president of global learning at MasterCard, told Elearning Magazine, “Participants are ‘doing their job’ during the learning process, and solving complex business problems that require collaborative thinking as opposed to working on theoretical examples in classroom training.”
While focusing on the design and content is critical, organizations must also focus on participant engagement. Learning requires a substantial amount of time from busy learners, and virtual, social learning experiences can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable to beginners. To maintain focus, CLOs can tap intrinsic motivation to reduce the amount of perceived effort or raise the stakes of participation.
Intrinsic motivation is driven by relevance, which organizations can generate by tying learning experiences to business challenges that learners collectively face. If a learning experience allows participants to tap expert and peer know-how to get their day jobs done, they are more likely to lean in. And participants are more likely to pay attention when faculty experts are trusted “brands,” either internal executives or recognized outside experts.
Organizations can also reduce the amount of effort, or at least the perceived burden, of participation. Chunking content into small bites reduces the amount of energy that individuals have to expend in a single burst and allows leaders to fit learning into cracks in their schedules. Switching among learning modes such as reading, video, reflection and discussion reduces the perception of drudgery. Gamification of low-energy activities adds a sparkle of interest that gets learners through slow patches. An easy-to-use technology platform can guide participants through the learning journey so they don’t have to burn energy wondering what to do next or how long it will take.
Increasing the positive or negative consequences of participation can also boost engagement. If learners know the organization expects full engagement and completion and that engagement — which is easily measurable online — will factor into performance assessment, they are more likely to stay involved and try to excel. Certification can also act as an attractive incentive, as can peer pressure — either friendly competition or a desire not to let down peers by being unprepared. Here is another place that technology platforms can help by making peer engagement rates transparent.
Breaking Down the Barriers
While these strategies encourage learners to collaborate online, trouble spots invariably emerge. Older generations may be less inclined to embrace collaborative technologies. Junior employees may struggle because their time and screens are not their own or because discussion boards are interpreted as “wasting time” in settings where employees feel like they’re on the clock. In early stages, online communities may even attack individuals who admit weakness for the sake of problem solving.
So, how can organizations encourage skeptics to collaborate virtually? Start with the learning experience rather than collaborative software tools such as Jive or Yammer. Learning experiences have a beginning, middle and end, so skeptics may be more inclined to endure for a short period, perhaps just long enough to form a habit. Structured learning environments offer the control necessary to frame expectations, ensure that collaboration remains productive and contain potential misbehavior.
Front loading training for audiences who are likely to collaborate is another useful strategy. Emerging leaders are likely to be ambitious, willing to take career risks and comfortable with social technology. Making heroes out of those individuals who contribute most to team success can go a long way toward encouraging desirable virtual collaboration behaviors. Starting with audiences outside the country where the company is based is another promising strategy. These leaders may be starved for development and predisposed to collaborate to expand their networks.
Perhaps the most important step an organization can take to encourage virtual collaboration is to include the skill as part of the framework of competencies that must be developed to achieve organizational performance objectives. If virtual learning is simply a tool to bring down the cost and extend the reach of training efforts, it is not terribly difficult for a skeptic to resist. If it is instead the means to develop a competence that is essential to the organization’s ability to perform at a high level in the future, opting out is more difficult.
The bad news is the urgency to embrace virtual collaborative learning and the consequences of waiting are greater than organizations thought. The good news is this insight can accelerate social learning efforts. The result is a better chance that the improved reach and scale that originally aroused interest in virtual learning will arrive sooner than we thought.
Alan Todd is the CEO of CorpU, a for-profit membership organization. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.