Three reasons why leadership development should go virtual

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In today’s highly competitive and lean business environment, organisations need leaders at every level to be great at what they do. Leaders must be able to make good decisions without all the information. They need to respond to competitive shifts and capitalise on new opportunities swiftly. And they are expected to coach and mentor their team members so that they become strong leaders as well, says Harvard Business Publishing’s Ray Carvey.

Even those companies committed to leadership development find it challenging to build leadership capability in these tough economic times, when budgets are tight and leaders are increasingly widely distributed.

Progressive companies are moving to virtual development and are finding it works well for both scale and quality – often significantly better than they expected. Today’s technologies deliver a wide range of capabilities with increased reliability to ensure engaging virtual programmes for leaders, at any location. By using technology-based collaboration platforms and tools, along with social media and other learning platforms, learning professionals can create compelling online experiences and real-time virtual classes that spark excitement and learning for today’s leaders.

Some organisations have been hesitant to adopt virtual methods for soft skills like leadership development, often because of a perception that virtual programmes are less effective or inferior. Yet busy leaders stand to benefit tremendously from these advantages of virtual learning.

During the past several years, Harvard Business Publishing has worked with hundreds of organisations around the world to design and deploy virtual leader development programmes. Based on this experience, here are three reasons why your organisation should go virtual with its leadership development.

1. You can reach more leaders, faster

The traditional work model – where all employees work from 9am to 5pm under one roof – has become the exception. Global expansion, the growth of telecommuting and the “always on” nature of business are driving demand for development programmes that leaders can access anywhere, anytime.

Virtual development allows organisations with distributed workforces to deliver the same programs to multiple groups of leaders. This accelerates the development of key capabilities that leaders need to drive strategic initiatives across a large, distributed organisation. Think of how much more efficient and cost-effective it is to reach 400 developing leaders – at a variety of levels and located throughout the world – with virtual programmes, rather than taking them out of the office and flying them all to one location.

2. You will give busy leaders more flexibility

Today’s connected leaders expect to be able to access information when and where it’s most convenient for them – which often isn’t during the traditional work week or from their desks.

With senior managersworking longer hours than ever before, development can easily sink to the bottom of the to-do list. Leaders may opt out of development because they can’t afford to leave the field for formal training programmes or they may report for a required programme but be distracted and end up checking email so frequently that they don’t fully benefit from the experience being delivered.

Since virtual learning can be absorbed into the work day, busy leaders are more likely to take advantage of development opportunities. The time commitment for each session is shorter and spread over a longer period. Recording and archiving sessions and allowing participants to access materials online offer even more flexibility for learners, who may post a question to their cohorts while waiting for a meeting to start or read a case for discussion while riding the train.

3. You’ll be able to bring learning closer to work

Learning that is integrated into daily work allows for greater business context around the content. In addition, research shows that learning delivered over time stays with learners longer than knowledge acquired at a one-off session. Ongoing programmes offer numerous opportunities for leaders to absorb and apply information on the job.

According to research published by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), a wider spacing between learning experiences, together with more repetitions, helps employees more fully remember what they’ve learned. The self-paced aspects of virtual programmes allow leaders to review information repeatedly until they have mastered specific material. As a result, virtual programmes can be designed to deliver information consistently over the course of several months, so leaders can continually learn, reflect and apply knowledge as they work.

Another aspect of these virtual programmes is the opportunity for participants to work together with their colleagues. Sharing knowledge and experiences with team members from other business units and regions helps leaders broaden their network within their organisation and develop a better understanding of the perspectives of their colleagues. These ongoing programmes also allow time for participants to learn best practices from their peers.

Most organisations with distributed workforces are currently delivering some virtual training to segments of their staff. Now there is an opportunity to expand virtual development programmes to reach all leaders. New technology tools and platforms are delivering the energy, engagement and collaboration benefits of in-person experiences while more effectively driving business strategy across the organisation.

Ray Carvey is executive vice president of corporate learning and international at Harvard Business Publishing

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