In­tro­duc­ing Next-gen­er­a­tion Vir­tual Learn­ing

Rotman Management Magazine - - POINT OF VIEW -

A num­ber of years ago, a ma­jor re­search univer­sity asked me to write about lessons from the U.S. Mil­i­tary that had in­flu­enced how pri­vate sec­tor or­ga­ni­za­tions deal with change. One key ex­am­ple I shared was the de­vel­op­ment of Af­ter Ac­tion Re­views (AARS), dur­ing which a squad would as­sess the gaps be­tween what had hap­pened and what had been ex­pected. This prac­tice im­plic­itly rec­og­nizes that in an un­cer­tain en­vi­ron­ment, it is the learn­ers that sur­vive.

Fast for­ward a few years and the acro­nym ‘VUCA’ — volatile, un­cer­tain, com­plex and am­bigu­ous — has be­come the defin­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment in which we op­er­ate. Suc­cess to­day doesn’t come from plan­ning fur­ther and fur­ther ahead; there is sim­ply too much un­cer­tainty. In­stead, it comes from learn­ing your way for­ward. Two par­tic­u­lar work­force shifts present chal­lenges to con­tin­u­ous or­ga­ni­za­tional learn­ing, and de­mand close at­ten­tion.

1. Vir­tual Work. Vir­tual or re­mote work ar­range­ments have be­come com­mon­place. In a study last year, my firm [ In­ter­ac­tion As­so­ci­ates] found that over 30 per cent of mid- to se­nior-level global re­spon­dents worked three or more days a week re­motely, and over half did so at least two days a week. Re­cent re­search by World at Work con­firms that 88 per cent of or­ga­ni­za­tions now of­fer for­mal tele­work ar­range­ments. In ad­di­tion, mod­ern-day di­verse work groups now of­ten span mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions to in­clude sales reps, au­di­tors, pro­ject team mem­bers and con­sul­tants — mak­ing re­mote com­mu­ni­ca­tion a re­al­ity for most or­ga­ni­za­tions.

On­go­ing suc­cess in sup­port­ing re­mote work­ing rela-

tion­ships re­quires a higher level of trust, be­cause man­agers need to be able to em­power work­ers that they can’t di­rectly su­per­vise. We have found that one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to build that trust is to pro­vide peo­ple with the tools, skills and re­sources they re­quire to suc­ceed. Over 40 per cent of our global sur­vey re­spon­dents pri­or­i­tized this fac­tor from a list of over a dozen trust-build­ing lead­er­ship ac­tions. Pro­vid­ing on­go­ing ac­cess to learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties not only pre­pares your work­force to per­form, it in­creases their sense of con­nec­tion and will­ing­ness to con­trib­ute.

2. In­com­ing Mil­len­ni­als. We’re also in the midst of a ma­jor de­mo­graphic shift, as Baby Boomers re­tire and the ranks of Mil­len­ni­als swell in the work­place. Over the next five years, those born in the last quar­ter of the 20th Cen­tury will ac­count for over half of the global work­force. Count­less sur­veys and re­search point to some key dif­fer­ences be­tween these in­di­vid­u­als and the Gen Xers and Boomers who pre­ceded them: their ex­pe­ri­ence as ‘dig­i­tal na­tives’, their ad­dic­tion to multi-task­ing and so­cial media, and their im­pa­tient ca­reer as­pi­ra­tions, to name just a few.

As re­mote work be­comes the norm, these dig­i­tal na­tives are highly likely to be part of vir­tual teams. But as in­di­cated, Mil­len­nial vir­tual work­ers dif­fer from the cur­rent work­force — par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to the de­gree of con­nect­ed­ness they are ac­cus­tomed to. For these dig­i­tal na­tives, phys­i­cal prox­im­ity will be a sec­ondary con­sid­er­a­tion to con­stant dig­i­tal prox­im­ity.

It can be dis­ori­ent­ing for a Baby Boomer (like me) to see a Mil­len­nial (like my son) work­ing on a team pro­ject with col­leagues whose pri­mary mode of col­lab­o­ra­tion is via their lap­tops — even when they are face-to-face. Dig­i­tal na­tives are ac­cus­tomed to life online, whether that en­tails work­ing, so­cial­iz­ing, con­sum­ing en­ter­tain­ment, or learn­ing. Their re­al­ity is the world of Web 2.0 — the so­cial layer of the In­ter­net where plat­forms like Face­book, Youtube and Twit­ter al­low them to in­ter­act seam­lessly and con­sume in­for­ma­tion and media ef­fort­lessly. Bring­ing these dig­i­tal habits to the work­place will drive shifts in the com­pa­nies Mil­len­ni­als join, as their habits even­tu­ally be­come cul­tural norms.

Learn­ing How to Learn Dif­fer­ently

So, what hap­pens when you try to pre­pare an or­ga­ni­za­tion full of Mil­len­ni­als to com­pete in a vir­tu­ally-con­nected VUCA world? Un­for­tu­nately, most or­ga­ni­za­tions find them­selves with a mis­match be­tween their learn­ing strate­gies and the needs of both the en­vi­ron­ment and of the new learn­ers in their midst.

The class­room-based in­struc­tion that char­ac­ter­izes so much of cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment re­flects the learn­ing ap­proaches that the in­struc­tors and course de­sign­ers grew up ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Some have tried to ac­com­mo­date the need to ‘go vir­tual’ by adapt­ing class­room meth­ods to online plat­forms, but with only mod­er­ate suc­cess. On the up­side, this shift to First Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing has re­duced many of the an­cil­lary costs of train­ing, such as travel, rent­ing class­room space, cater­ing, and lost time away from work. On the down­side, learn­ing ap­proaches de­signed for face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions of­ten don’t trans­late well to re­mote con­texts.

For dig­i­tal na­tives ac­cus­tomed to a quick pace and fluid in­ter­ac­tions, vir­tual lec­tures and break­out-group ex­er­cises can quickly be­come frus­trat­ing. Fur­ther­more, in First Gen­er­a­tion pro­grams, class sizes are gen­er­ally lim­ited to no more than a cou­ple dozen par­tic­i­pants — sim­ply due to the lim­i­ta­tions of en­gag­ing and man­ag­ing spo­ken com­mu­ni­ca­tions — so there are few gains to be had from scale eco­nom­ics.

Some or­ga­ni­za­tions and univer­si­ties have tried to ad­dress the scale is­sue through Mas­sive Open Online Cour­ses (MOOCS). These cour­ses of­fer the ben­e­fit of large scale (ac­com­mo­dat­ing hun­dreds, some­times thou­sands of learn­ers), and con­ve­nience, since many are de­liv­ered asyn­chronously, with ma­te­ri­als avail­able on-de­mand when­ever a learner has time to take the class. De­spite their prom­ise, MOOCS suf­fer from high at­tri­tion — a sit­u­a­tion ex­ac­er­bated by the multi-ses­sion com­mit­ment re­quired for com­ple­tion — and rel­a­tively lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion or real-time en­gage­ment due to

the chal­lenges of co­or­di­nat­ing work­ing ses­sions among par­tic­i­pants.

What if you could achieve the scale economies of a MOOC cou­pled with the high en­gage­ment lev­els of Web 2.0 prac­tices tai­lored to the learn­ing styles of Mil­len­ni­als?

This is pre­cisely what is emerg­ing as Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing. Whereas First Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing is de­signed ‘class­room-out’, by try­ing to adapt face-to-face teach­ing meth­ods to an online plat­form, Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing is de­signed ‘dig­i­tal-in’, by tak­ing the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity of Web 2.0 plat­forms and lever­ag­ing them in ser­vice of learn­ing.

Re­gard­less of its topic, Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing has the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics:

Most MOOCS and much First • IT IS LEARNER-CEN­TERED. Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing is all about ‘the sage on the stage’: pro­grams are pri­mar­ily about an in­struc­tor im­part­ing knowl­edge. In con­trast, Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing is learner cen­tered: it em­pha­sizes con­tent that can be prac­ti­cally ap­plied, and pro­grams are de­liv­ered in a short for­mat — gen­er­ally un­der 90 min­utes — to min­i­mize dis­rup­tion of other work ac­tiv­i­ties. The in­ter­ests and time con­straints of the learner are a pri­mary con­sid­er­a­tion.

When speak­ing the pri­mary way that • IT IS TEXT-BASED. par­tic­i­pants in­ter­act with the in­struc­tor and with other par­tic­i­pants, the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants is lim­ited by the chal­lenges of man­ag­ing con­ver­sa­tions. But when in­ter­ac­tions fol­low the text-based norms of Web 2.0, mul­ti­ple con­cur­rent learn­ing con­ver­sa­tions can oc­cur. The in­struc­tor’s spo­ken con­tri­bu­tion be­comes that of a mod­er­a­tor or fa­cil­i­ta­tor of the writ­ten di­a­logue — draw­ing out key points and keep­ing the con­ver­sa­tion mov­ing, in ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing in­struc­tion on con­tent el­e­ments. With over a hun­dred peo­ple typ­i­cally par­tic­i­pat­ing in a syn­chro­nous learn­ing ses­sion, con­tri­bu­tions in mul­ti­ple con­cur­rent ‘chat win­dows’ can range from ob­ser­va­tions, to sug­gested links to other re­sources, to side­bar dis­cus­sions of a point that has cap­tured the in­ter­est of a sub­set of the learn­ers. This con­trib­utes to the next fea­ture of Next-gen­er­a­tion Vir­tual Learn­ing.

The con­tent of a Next Gen­er­a­tion • IT IS CO-CRE­ATED. learn­ing pro­gram is al­ways a col­lab­o­ra­tion. The in­struc­tor brings mod­els, frame­works, tools, ex­am­ples, video and sto­ries — a va­ri­ety of con­tent on the pro­gram’s topic, which may or may not be in­tro­duced and ex­panded upon. But par­tic­i­pants are equal col­lab­o­ra­tors, bring­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences, ques­tions and of­ten adding ‘hot links’ to out­side re­sources to their chat con­tri­bu­tions. Such con­tri­bu­tions don’t dis­tract from the learn­ing, they are an in­te­gral part of it, as learn­ers pool their per­spec­tives and even coach each other in real time.

Not only can Next Gen­er­a­tion Vir• IT IS CROWD-SOURCED. tual Learn­ing easily en­gage a hun­dred or more learn­ers, the ex­pe­ri­ence will be bet­ter with more peo­ple in­volved. By crowd-sourc­ing con­tri­bu­tions us­ing a se­ries of mul­ti­ple chat pods, polls, open re­sponse ar­eas and an­no­ta­tion tools, a large group of learn­ers can gen­er­ate rich con­tent for the en­tire group to process.

To il­lus­trate the im­pact of this ap­proach, let’s look at the case of a For­tune 500 global soft­ware de­vel­op­ment firm that de­cided to tran­si­tion its lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment ef­forts from class­room-based cour­ses (which had re­ceived rave re­views) to Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual pro­grams. The firm wanted to use the vir­tual pro­grams to in­tro­duce a new lead­er­ship model. The pro­grams it cre­ated were 90 min­utes each or less; media rich, with streamed video fea­tur­ing com­pany lead­ers and il­lus­trat­ing the skills in the new lead­er­ship model; and highly in­ter­ac­tive, with con­tin­u­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties for par­tic­i­pa­tion through­out.

The re­sult? Sat­is­fac­tion with the pro­grams and will­ing­ness to rec­om­mend them to peers was 95 per cent or higher. More­over, in the first two months of the pro­grams, learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties were pro­vided to more em­ploy­ees than in the pre­ced­ing twelve months. This ex­am­ple points to an emerg­ing op­por­tu­nity for vir­tual learn­ing: with the abil­ity to en­gage large groups of learn­ers, Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing lets us move be­yond con­sid­er­a­tions of how we teach and learn to con­sid­er­a­tions of how learn­ing can quickly im­pact our or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In the past, the eco­nomic and lo­gis­ti­cal con­cerns of class­room-based pro­grams and First Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual ses­sions have of­ten meant that lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment ef­forts were a tar­geted in­vest­ment re­served for a se­lect few. Be­cause de­vel­op­ment ex­pe­ri­ences rep­re­sented sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­rup­tions to work sched­ules and of­ten cost thou­sands of dol­lars per par­tic­i­pant, they had to be care­fully ra­tioned. First Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual pro­grams brought the cost per par- tic­i­pant down, and less­ened the sched­ul­ing dis­rup­tion, but they were still lim­ited in reach.

By lever­ag­ing the po­ten­tial for large group en­gage­ment on dig­i­tal plat­forms, Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing al­lows us to reach the cru­cial masses. This rep­re­sents an op­por­tu­nity to de­moc­ra­tize learn­ing in or­ga­ni­za­tions and to rapidly syn­di­cate ideas and skills both down through the or­ga­ni­za­tion and in peer-to-peer in­ter­ac­tions within the con­text of large group pro­grams.

In clos­ing

Our past re­liance on class­room-based ap­proaches to or­ga­ni­za­tional learn­ing lim­ited the reach of our ef­forts to a cho­sen few. While this was cer­tainly im­por­tant to en­sur­ing or­ga­ni­za­tional con­ti­nu­ity and suc­ces­sion, it also re­in­forced a view that suc­cess is driven by a cho­sen few key con­trib­u­tors.

Sus­tain­ing large scale or­ga­ni­za­tion change re­quires help­ing the cru­cial masses in our or­ga­ni­za­tions make these changes. With Next Gen­er­a­tion ap­proaches, learn­ing can be­come a scal­able tool for or­ga­ni­za­tion de­vel­op­ment. The learn­ing strate­gies de­scribed herein rep­re­sent a welcome shift to­wards the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment.

Next Gen­er­a­tion vir­tual learn­ing rep­re­sents an op­por­tu­nity

to de­moc­ra­tize learn­ing in or­ga­ni­za­tions.

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