Online Leadership Development

Susan Wright, TCP President

Sometimes revolutionary changes take place without us really paying attention. For me, this has happened with online education. A major transition has taken place over the past few years away from traditional classroom and face-to-face leadership training and development. The reasons are easy to see: lowered budgets for attending leadership development programs, fewer in-house resources to deliver the content, and generally less time and capacity to fit into the fixed schedules face-to-face learning requires. Enter online education, which has seen exponential growth over the last decade with insiders predicting the trend will continue and expand over the next. SRI International just completed a 12 year study from 1996 to 2008 and found participants engaged in some or all of their education online actually outperformed those using traditional classroom instruction. “The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing – it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International.

Traditional universities are now clamoring to add online curriculum to their degree and non-degree programs, and online universities including doctoral programs have experienced tremendous growth. Private firms offering leadership development are moving to webinars, audio and video programming, and coach-supported learning modules as part of their services, and TCP is one of them. Social networking contributes to the viral marketing of interesting new offerings that are then evaluated by program participants in public domains for others to see. Education is becoming transparent, cheap and accessible, at least in the developed world. Google for example has decided they need no additional content – it’s all there and growing continuously.

Wow, that’s a revolution! Which begs the question, how do leaders and their organizations now choose from the wide array of development alternatives, and what makes online learning most effective? In my experience and from what I’ve researched, here are some of the benefits and best practices so far:

  • Asynchronous Access: One of the primary benefits to leaders of online education is that it can be accessed on their own time and with their favourite technology. Some listen to podcasts while working out, others access audio/video material through their mobile devices while on the go, still others spend a couple of hours in the evenings after the kids are in bed. The best practice here is to be creative in finding your own grooves, the way you work most effectively and flexibly to take advantage of the material. Most learning programs require reading, reflecting and posting responses within a limited timeframe. This structure can be helpful in keeping on track and preparing for the interactive aspects like a call or coaching session.
  • Learning by Doing: Most online education is designed to incorporate the new awareness or skills into your daily life and work. There are often assignments where you apply the content and share your learning with others. You can of course ‘fudge’ this aspect and probably no one will know or care, but you will be shortchanging yourself and your outcomes if you do. When time is short and you must choose where to put your energy, step into the friction. In other words, do what seems the most difficult rather than the least – that’s where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck.
  • Technical Innovation: If you’re going to take the time to learn something new, be sure you get the most variety, complexity, challenge and support possible. Some online programs are simply reading and listening on your own, and perhaps asking a question or making a comment in a distance format – hard to see the transformative potential in that. Rather, look for a learning platform that includes audiovisual content, workbook support for making sense of it, a chat room to share your views with other learners, and a clearly structured process that moves you along within a given timeframe so you can see your accomplishment. Best practice is to have a coach guide the learning process and provide challenge and support as needed through routine calls and online contributions.
  • Built-in Discipline: A more sophisticated platform has other benefits for the learner and the organization as well. Using a structured agenda over a series of weeks means your individual contributions to the learning community are time and date stamped – each time you log on, or don’t, your coach and fellow learners know it. You can’t just sit at the back of the room, work on your blackberry and get credit for attending. Not only your level of participation but the quality of your reflection is evaluated by the group in your posts. For the organization sponsoring the program, this ongoing assessment provides an immediate ROI on investment. For the learner, it provides a structured discipline to motivate performance.
  • Learning in Community: There are times when being face-to-face is the best way to learn, particularly when personal behaviour is the subject matter. We need to practice in front of fellow learners and get feedback about how we show up and how we might be more effective. Online communities have many advantages and can become very strong teams. However, best practice here is to have some ability to connect in person from time to time. The combination of online and onsite learning is most powerful. Even a learning partner makes a significant difference, someone in your area with whom you can periodically share experience. Peer learning groups are also influential in sustaining commitment and embedding the learning into your organizational context and culture. It also just makes learning more fun. The truth about traditional classroom education, that it’s all about what happens after the event, is also true of online learning – we need a variety of communities to make it stick.