Is it possible to develop leadership skills effectively in a virtual environment – or is face-to-face delivery really the only way to equip managers with the high level skills they need to meet the challenges of leading in an increasingly complex business environment?
There has been much debate in recent years over this question. As companies have become more global, and as technology has advanced, the use of virtual learning has increased rapidly. Studies suggest that 77% of organisations in the US are using online corporate training of some kind, while in 2015, around 30% of training hours were delivered online.
But while organisations have been happy to use the on-line environment for ‘training’, they have been less convinced about its suitability for developing leadership capability.
So while L&D practitioners are frequently using the virtual space to help employees learn new technical skills, keep up-to-date with health and safety or assess their level of unconscious bias, they are still sceptical about whether sitting solo in front of a computer will help managers develop the skills to motivate and engage employees, deal with conflict or influence others.
One of the key concerns has been whether the virtual environment offers enough opportunity for the feedback that is so critical in helping leaders develop self-awareness.
Lack of social interaction and the opportunity for people to feed into each other’s learning is another objection that’s often raised.
To maximise learning, leaders need to be stretched, challenged and ‘stressed’, but in a supportive environment that stops them tipping over into cognitive shut down.
And of course organisations also have concerns around the lack of opportunity for delegates to build relationships, given that the development of stronger internal networks is often one of the desired outcomes of a corporate management development programme.
Changing client needs
These are issues we have been grappling with at Hult International Business School too – where we are increasingly seeing a demand from clients for shorter, more cost-effective, scalable programmes. This is driven by the increasing pressure that organisations find themselves under.
They are struggling to fill leadership roles with individuals who have the agility and resilience to navigate constant change and ambiguity. They want to develop leaders with the qualities to lead in the new ‘normal’, but they need them now and simply don’t have the time or appetite for the traditionally lengthy programmes of the past.
We have just come to the end of a major research project, which aimed to examine some of these issues around virtual learning and in particular to find out whether it was possible to achieve equally impactful development of ‘soft’ skills in the virtual environment.
Our findings are fascinating – and suggest that it is not the environment in which the training is delivered that matters, but the methodology behind the design and delivery of the programme.
What we did
We used our management development programme ‘The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE) as the basis for our research.
The TLE is an innovative programme which taps into what we already know about the way people respond to stress. When we experience a moderately stressful experience, for example, we experience a challenge response. Blood and neurotransmitter activity is increased in the brain, optimising cognitive processes such as decision-making and learning.
If, however, we don’t believe we have the resources to meet the challenge, the body treats it as a threat, sending blood away from the brain towards our limbs and impeding our cognitive performance.
To maximise learning, therefore, leaders need to be stretched, challenged and ‘stressed’, but in a supportive environment that stops them tipping over into cognitive shut down. The TLE creates these conditions by putting participants through high pressure behavioural simulations, while using heart rate variance monitors to measure their stress response.
It also provides an important opportunity for participants to practice dealing with stressful situations so that they can develop the ‘muscle memory’ that will prepare them for managing these situations when they arise in real life.
The TLE is traditionally delivered face-to-face. Our research compared this traditional version with a fully virtual version, as well as a version that used blended learning. In the virtual and blended versions, the ‘Zoom’ platform was used to allow participants to interact in real time.
They were able to see, communicate and collaborate with their fellow participants live on screen, giving feedback and sharing their learning synchronously.
The same content was taught on all three versions, over two days, by the same faculty. The face-to-face programme was residential, the blended programme combined one day virtual and one day residential, with the virtual version being taken by participants who were either at home or in their office.
A variety of psychometric and self-reported tests were conducted to help us set a base-line and measure the learning gained by participants during the programmes.
What we found
Analysis of the results showed that all three environments were equally effective in enhancing specific leadership skills, such as learning about ‘self as leader’ and being better able to deal with difficult situations. All three environments were also as effective as each other in raising heart rate and inducing a level of stress during the experiential simulations, which was also related to improved learning.
“The programme provided very profound insight regarding my blind spots and insecurities as a leader,” said one participant on the blended programme. “I think the most I got is from the exposure in the simulation, which highlighted even more what I have to overcome to feel better and become a better manager/leader,” said one of the virtual participants.
Another significant finding was that all three environments served to increase learning agility – the ability to learn through reflection, from others and to manage one’s emotions.
In summary, what this tells us is that if leadership development programmes that are delivered in the virtual space are well designed, they can be just as effective as conventional face-to-face learning. In particular, programmes need to include opportunities for interaction, collaboration and experiential learning, and for participants to receive feedback on their learning.
If leadership development programmes that are delivered in the virtual space are well designed, they can be just as effective as conventional face-to-face learning.
Implications for practitioners
The research offers a number of take-aways for L&D practitioners:
At a time when development budgets are under extreme pressure, the fact that the virtual environment can be an effective medium for management development should come as welcome news to L&D practitioners.
It means that organisations can effectively develop leaders across the globe without the impracticalities and environmental impact of travel or long periods of time spent out of the office.
It will allow them to extend their initiatives to a wider audience, and also enable them to develop their leaders in an environment that reflects the global, virtual one they are increasingly expected to operate in.
Benefits of experiential learning
The research has shown that virtual environments are not only effective in helping managers develop specific leadership competencies, they also support better learning agility.
This makes experiential programmes a valuable tool for L&D professionals, who can use the medium to help develop their leader’s capacities for learning and dealing with change and uncertainty.
Development programmes need to challenge
If programmes are to lead to lasting learning, the development needs to be real, challenging and induce a certain level of stress.
By taking leaders out of their comfort zone and into the ‘stretch’ zone, programmes can improve cognitive performance both during the experience and afterwards in real life situations.
Learning takes time to embed
‘Happy sheets’ don’t always capture the full extent of participant learning, and with well delivered experiential programmes, learning continues to grow and develop over the following months.
The research showed that although there was no significant improvement in learning one week after the programme, there were improvements three months later.
Programme evaluations should therefore be followed up three months’ post programme, to get a meaningful picture of impact on both learning and learning transfer.
Experiential learning works for all
Our research also looked at whether different personality characteristics had an effect on the impact or application of learning across the different approaches.
We found that all personality types are equally and positively impacted by interactive, experiential learning and there is no need for L&D practitioners to be concerned about whether programme participants are introvert, extrovert, anxious or behaviourally inhibited.
To download a free copy of the research report, visit the Ashridge site.
Lee Waller is Director of Research Fellows and Specialist Services and Research Lead for Transforming Behaviour at Hult International Business School. Her recent research projects have explored the digitisation of leadership development, the neurological processes involved in experiential learning, and the transfer of learning. Lee teaches in...