If you were to poll CEOs about the likeliest sources of advances in corporate management, digital learning would almost certainly rise to the very top of their list. Changes within the business environment demand innovative learning solutions.
Decision-making is increasingly distributed, so managers deep within the ranks require more development.
Emerging leaders are dispersed globally more than ever before, so assembling them face-to-face can be prohibitively expensive. Frequent market disruptions pose more difficult challenges for executives early in their careers. All these factors (among others) test the viability of traditional learning approaches in modern corporate environments.
At the same time, senior leaders can’t help but notice the explosion of social networking. While executives are struggling to find time for personal development, they are spending hours per week on social platforms. Might there be a way for us to capitalize on the stickiness of social technologies in a way that also harnesses the power of collective thinking to accelerate development?
While only a tiny fraction of the $20 billion executive education market is spent online today, billions of dollars in capital investment are pouring into digital learning experiments, reflecting a belief in their potential to complement or transform traditional corporate learning.
As high-profile experiments boost the visibility of the field, it’s no wonder that so much executive attention is focused on digital learning. But capturing the digital learning opportunity has not been easy. Past attempts to bring the high-end residential experience in house have been less than successful. As L&D functions have discovered, pressing “Play” on a video of a Stanford lecture for an internal audience does not make for gripping television.
On the other end of the spectrum, professional skill training (think Skillsoft) has not proven effective for developing a generation of emerging leaders. With rare exception, digital platforms have proven better at filling heads with knowledge than teaching judgment or leadership instincts.
Efforts to apply collaborative tools like Jive to achieve learning and development objectives haven’t been particularly effective, either. While collaboration tools can certainly help teams get things done, the world is still waiting for them to reach their potential and harness the power of collective thought to help teams learn.
THE HIGH-EXPECTATIONS CONUNDRUM
All of these challenges leave corporate learning functions in a tough spot. The “high expectations/uncertain solutions” box is an uncomfortable place to be. We’ve all heard the truism, “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM.” When it comes to digital learning for emerging leaders, no such safe choice yet exists.
Learning and development professionals must assess a slew of unproven options, all of which sound great on paper. Assessing the gap between technological promise and actual value, however, is truly difficult.
The challenge is made harder by the fact that we have little room for error. If we disappoint emerging executives or executive sponsors, it will be a long time before they’ll be willing to take another bite of the digital learning apple. No one missed the irony earlier this year when the Georgia Institute of Technology’s MOOC, “Fundamentals of Online Education,” fell apart in its first week due to technological glitches — and the e-learning community is rightly concerned that corporate clients will be even less forgiving of early stumbles than higher education.
As a result of these fears, L&D professionals are either placing small bets to test the potential of various technologies and content terrains, or they’re sitting on the sidelines to see how the space matures. Meanwhile, they are confining digital learning to the relatively safe space of vocational skill training.
A TIPPING POINT
We are at a crucial point in the evolution of digital learning. There are (at least) two paths that learning functions can pursue.
The first path is to try to get digital learning as close as we can to the in-person exec-ed experience. “If we could give a thousand executives the experience of being in Larry Susskind’s ‘Program on Negotiation’ at Harvard,” an L&D leader might say, “we’d really be on to something!” Susskind’s course is excellent, and in-person participants have a fantastic experience. But honestly, even with the best connectivity technology in the world, sitting in front of a computer will never feel the same as (or have the same impact as) the live experience. Using that measuring stick, digital learning will have the permanent stigma of “almost as good.” Rather than trying to replicate the strengths of face-to-face development, the wiser path is to capitalize on the strengths of digital platforms while addressing the weaknesses of face-to-face. Participation in residential programs is expensive, and, cost aside, seats are limited. Participants have to disrupt their day jobs to attend. Teaching flows primarily from teacher to class. In classrooms, the most assertive hand in the room dominates discussion. And finally, the burden of contextualizing lessons falls on the student.
Unlike face-to-face, a well-executed digital learning experience has the potential to (1) integrate directly into company-specific projects, (2) engineer dialog among participants, (3) tailor the learning pace to the day jobs of participants, and (4) contextualize outside expertise with teaching from internal leaders. The question, then, is whether well-crafted digital learning has the potential to trump premier face-to-face programs for audiences.
The truth, though, is that it is very hard to get away from the bias we all share that, for all practical purposes, it is not possible to execute a connected learning experience on par with elite residential programs. It’s equally difficult for us to shed our preconceptions about the value of the prestige factor associated with face-to-face experiences at a Harvard or a Wharton. This is understandable, but remember that such critiques are almost definitional to disruptive innovation.
Also remember that, in order to embrace digital learning, we don’t have to believe that it’s better than elite residential programs. We only have to believe that digital learning has crossed a threshold of quality where it is valued (rather than avoided) by emerging leaders — the ones we’re unlikely to send to an elite residential experience today.
Connected learning is at its tipping point. The ability to execute now surpasses the expectations of both emerging leaders and their sponsors. While the technological components of effective digital learning have existed for some time, they have not been deliberately assembled into a system where learning and doing mutually reinforce one another.
CorpU has spent years perfecting a choreographed learning experience that enables networks of emerging executives to learn while doing. “Connected learning” is the future of executive education for emerging leaders.
CONNECTED LEARNING: CHOREOGRAPHED INTERPLAY
Connected learning is carefully orchestrated to build a reinforcing loop between learning and doing. Beginning with a group of emerging executives working together on a corporate project, learning moments must be precisely timed in order to set-up participants to collectively make better decisions. Individuals must complete solo work in order to prepare for live (but not in-person) chats, and live sessions must precede and follow group discussions in order to boost both the quality of decisions and the amount of development that occurs during the decision-making process. Live sessions have the additional benefit of motivating participants to complete their work so they don’t let their team down. Finally, customized content from clients’ senior executives must be integrated into the experience in order to provide context for the lessons offered by outside experts. This context allows participants to connect the dots between what they’re learning and what they’re doing.
Participants in connected learning programs should also take part in a guided, paced cohort led by an academic expert or faculty leader. Individuals access the learning platform, which integrates with popular LMSs, at a time that works best for them. Content is diced into consumable chunks that require little effort to digest and fit into their busy schedules.
Subject matter is matched to project lifecycle, so if a framework for thinking about product innovation will help the team make a particular decision, it is delivered just before that decision needs to be made. Participants can digest the teaching at their own pace, reflect on how to apply it, and then chat with co-participants so that the collective wisdom of the team can inform its decision. Each week, a guide facilitates live virtual discussion to make sure that the team is on track. The cohort can collectively assess results and adjust course and speed down the road.
BENEFITS FOR LEARNERS AND L&D FUNCTIONS
The result of all this careful choreography is that emerging leaders gain access to expert content from world-class business schools in a digestible form that both reduces disruption to their day jobs and increases the relevance of learning to their work. That’s something face-to-face learning experiences can’t claim.
At a manageable price point, L&D functions can dramatically boost the level of development support they offer emerging leaders on a learning platform that reduces the commitment to any particular content source. Want to intermingle lectures and case studies from Harvard and Wharton faculty? Fine. Want to change the content terrain altogether? Great. The learning platform ensures that the underlying teaching approach remains the same (and scalable) even as content on the platform evolves over time. Put another way, connected learning allows L&D to spend its time refining how executives learn best rather than what executives need to learn. Additionally, L&D gains a treasure trove of information about how people learn, which participants warrant additional development and whether development investments are paying off.
TIME TO JUMP IN
For decades, L&D functions have wanted to increase investments in emerging leaders. However, cost and scale issues have kept them from offering elite residential experiences available to the top of the house. At the same time, quality issues have kept online leadership development experiments from moving beyond the pilot stage. They are craving a solution for those emerging leaders in “the middle.”
It’s unrealistic to assume the environmental conditions driving interest in digital learning are going to reverse or even slow. And it’s pretty easy to believe that, at some point, digital learning will meet a quality bar worthy of emerging leaders. So the question is when (not whether) to jump in.
The time has come. At last, an experience — connected learning — can overcome those scale and quality hurdles that have constrained us. Digital learning now exceeds the standard of “good enough” to deploy to emerging leaders.
The true potential is even more exciting. By tightly integrating learning with doing, connected learning achieves more developmental stretch from participants while pushing organizations to higher levels of performance. That is a formula that face-to-face can’t match, and it has the potential to revolutionize talent development.
—The author, Alan Todd, is CEO of CorpU and a pioneer in the field of corporate learning. He served as chairman, CEO and co-founder of KnowledgePlanet, a company that helped launch the online learning.