virtual development

Virtual development

Technology has given us a new, virtual, space in which to develop our people.

It’s a long-held belief of mine that the best development experiences are created outside of the classroom.

When I trained as a teacher, I soon recognised the limitations of a traditional “expert” led approach to education. A lecture or presentation may be a convenient methodology for disseminating knowledge, learning information or even acquiring a few new skills, but as an approach to changing behaviour, in my view, it is severely limited.

As learning technologies become more advanced, the “classroom” becomes an even less desirable place to be. The multitude of technologies that can be adapted to access training material in a location of your choice or even on the move is almost mind blowing! Mobile video, multi-player gaming, “virtual presence” facilities, e-books, on-line diagnostic tools, webinars, podcasts, on-demand TV to name just a few.

The danger though, is to confuse new technologies that create opportunities for more efficient training through the gathering and imparting of information, with more interactive methodologies for experiencing different ways of working and developing new behaviours.

The intelligent use of “virtual” technologies as part of a well-designed learning architecture can increase the options for human interaction in a learning environment little constrained by time and geographical location. These platforms can be combined to form sophisticated learning portals, amassing and disseminating stories, research, case studies, articles, statistics and all other imaginable business intelligence. When integrated correctly, they become virtual worlds that are both social and collaborative, providing users with instant access to a supportive, knowledge-rich community.

Distance learning is no new phenomenon. In the mid 18th century an entrepreneurial Mr. Caleb Phillips placed an advert in the Boston Gazette for his lessons on short-hand which could be sent out to students in weekly instalments. In 1858 the University of London launched a pioneering “External Programme”. Perhaps most well known, however, is the Open University, established in 1969, which relied on radio and television broadcasts for much of its delivery.

Things have moved on, and the vehicles for delivery have changed beyond belief. The appetite for distance learning has also increased - as training and travel budgets are cut, on-line options become increasingly encouraged. In this year’s Learning Trends Index report, 85% of Learning Managers predicted a shift towards greater use of technology with 25% predicting a major increase. No surprise that, consequently, figures for predicted travel for learners dropped, with 49% of respondents predicting a significant reduction in learner travel.

From virtual learning to virtual development

As a leadership development provider, it is essential to respond to these trends and adapt our offering accordingly. This raises fundamental questions. Can these technologies, which are essentially a sophisticated way of delivering information, be used as a means through which to develop and enable people to change the way they behave? What about personal contact? Is this really a suitable alternative? Can we really collaborate with integrity and warmth, over the miles and through the ether?

Over the last few years we’ve been working with our clients to develop new learning architectures that combine these technologies with experiential learning, in an attempt to bring the virtual space to life. This has raised many debates internally. Can we adapt what works face to face into a virtual environment? What demands does this place on our facilitators? What new skills would they need to acquire? How can we measure the outcomes?

Our subsequent results have shown that, in the right hands, the virtual and the experiential can be combined to powerful effect. There is testimony to this even before a programme begins, with complex yet highly effective design processes that involve face-to-face meetings, group problem solving sessions, facilitated video conferencing, virtual coaching and on-line collaboratively produced documents.

Now is the time to look at Virtual Learning and Virtual Development in a new light. This is not about cutting costs by replacing face to face with e-learning, or staring into a screen to learn what can be learned as easily by reading from a book. Nor should it be seen merely as a supporting mechanism, which knits together the “real” modules of a longer intervention. Technology has given us a new space in which to develop our people. This brings new challenges but also many new possibilities. Not least of these is the fact that virtual learning is a great way for people to become virtual leaders. Designed and facilitated in the right way, the experience can give them the chance to work in their own live learning lab, practicing becoming more effective at building relationships and leading complex tasks in the virtual world. This mindset allows us to view virtual development as a method in its own right, not a cheap, second-best alternative to face-to-face training.

Top Tips for delivering Virtual Development:

  • Personality is key: When delivering on-line don’t “hide” behind a perfectly polished slide deck. Just as in the real world, your success will rely on your ability to bring the space to life, to engage the listeners and flex to their feedback.
  • Tap into the technologies and networks that your audience are already using. Incorporating these channels into your learning architecture will maximise accessibility and minimise any resistance.
  • Dealing with the absence of visual clues and physical presence can be a challenge – Emotional Intelligence is tested and must be fine-tuned. The virtual facilitator must work hard to really think about who is participating and who is not. Humour and informality can be picked up as key signals. Trust your innate ability to evolve with the technology.
  • Careful planning of your curriculum will go a long way. What are people doing during their independent learning? How can you weave this meaningfully into the time you spend in a webinar?
  • Well-designed virtual experiences are powerful enough to allow facilitators to make links between the on-line activities and real life. Highlighting behaviours and eliciting feedback and discussion
  • As with any intervention, attention to design, delivery and evaluation is essential