Learning to Lead – The Digital Potential – My Commentary

dreamstime_xs_55894278As an Associate of the Institute of Consulting – an organisation within the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), who authored this report, “Learning to Lead.  The Digital Potential”,  I hope the report’s authors will approve me penning some of my own thoughts based on their recent research, particularly as my two L&D passions are digital learning and leadership and management development.  And, of course, I recently shared my own thoughts on using digital learning for executive development.

In her forward, Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the CMI, wrote:

“Just dumping textbooks onto smartphones is a dumb way to upskill managers.  Managers want personalised bite-sized content, to share knowledge and learn from connected peer networks, to ask questions and get feedback in real time.”

I couldn’t agree more and have also referred to this in my previous posting on micro-learning.

Ann goes on to conclude that:

“Younger managers – those most savvy about the digital world – are the group least attracted to digital learning.”

That’s a real shame, as we need this group to become champions of all forms of digital learning.  They are also individuals who already have access to some pretty swanky apps from iTunes and Google Play, so setting a high quality bar for those of us in L&D to meet when it comes to creating our own digital learning content.

The Bigger Picture

The fact that managers aren’t convinced their leadership training is aligned to the business isn’t a surprising one.  For a long time, there was a tendency to deliver quite generic programmes in this subject area.  But that is changing and we are seeing more and more organisations tailoring their training accordingly.

Similarly, the measurement of the effectiveness of leadership training has only been on the radar for a short period of time, even though the event at the BBC that made people start to taking notice happened way back in 2005.  But it’s good to see that a sensible approach to this via appraisal and line manager feedback is proving popular, with even an encouraging sign that business results are being considered.

I’m also not surprised that the majority of survey responders felt their organisation wasn’t delivering enough digital content to support management development.  But give them time.  The priority has been in other areas and soft skills content has always been a more difficult nut to crack, but I believe more and more organisations are now getting to the point when they are ready to look at this subject area.

The Digital Experience

In terms of the current use of digital methods, the data is supportive of what we are trying to achieve.  I’m not surprised that usage is so high.  The question I pose is how much of that digital content came from the organisation, versus other external sources.  We know that there is a lot of material out there, over which the L&D department has no control.  The authors talk about “instant skills” and my own experience shows that learners can easily find content out there on the World Wide Web, often easier and faster than on our learning management systems.

Being able to learn at the time, pace and place of one’s choosing continues to remain the dominant factor amongst learners.  It’s clear more work needs to be done to ensure the content is relevant and up-to-date and better aligned to the needs of the individual.

For some time now, I’ve promoted the use of digital learning as a post-classroom transfer of learning tool and the survey shows that this isn’t seen as high a benefit as it should be.  I’m sure, over time, as we put more learning apps in the hands of our people, they will change their view here.  Of course, as trainers we also need to recognise the critical time period after a piece of learning has taken place.  I referred to this when I talked about budgeting for learning impact.

I do agree that the lack of social connectivity is a key factor as to why so few younger managers are embracing digital learning for their leadership training.  You still need some human interaction – at any age actually – with this subject matter and my own experience has shown that where it’s been lacking, learners have turned to other digital channels, including WhatsApp, to create that social channel.  But as I remarked in my blog posting on using digital learning for executive development, as the research here shows, learners like to balance self-paced with the knowledge that someone is out there to support them if needed.

Overall, we are still a long way off truly capitalising on the power of social media to support corporate L&D.  A few years ago, when I spoke at a conference on so-called “social learning”, I suggested that trainers “went where the conversations were already happening”, rather than trying to generate their own.  I have also had experience of younger learners being suspicious of centrally-triggered discussions, preferring to instigate their own.  And earlier this year, I saw an example of where an organisation ditched its plans to launch a new social-learning based LMS and instead just deployed its learning solutions from within the business’ already well-used internal social-enabled corporate intranet.

In my own analysis of how leaders like to learn, I saw that case studies that made the learning relevant and realistic were very popular.  The survey showed the same.  It was good to see eBooks high up the satisfaction list too.  Hopefully, this also included executive book summaries.  I’m sure games will rise through the league table, as we learn more about how we can use games and gamification in our programmes.  This is actually an area where a number of generic providers have already invested a lot of resources to create some leading-edge solutions.  I’m sure they are eagerly waiting for a greater uptake from the market.  It’s also good to see that using social networks to augment the learning process will eventually rise as a method of choice.

I was interested in the data about the length of content that the survey responders currently consume; and slightly disappointed by it.  It’s clear that still too much content lasts more than my absolute maximum duration of 20 minutes.  For a few years now, I’ve driven down learning durations to less than 10 minutes and increasingly favour durations of between 3 and 5 minutes.  My posting on micro-learning refers to this.  I’d have loved to have asked the responders what their preferred learning duration was.  I’ve based my own parameters on what learners have told me.

I’ve seen for myself the drive for much shorter pieces of content.  The report authors’ concept of “grazing” is a good one, though my experience is that “grazing sessions” often last less than 10 minutes, significantly shorter than the “hour” reported in the research.  As the research reveals, leaders and managers are more likely to kick-start their own development, but in bite-sized chunks and at the precise moment of need.

As to the place of learning, the data supports the shift I’ve seen in learners’ own preferences to study away from the busy desktop environment.  My own experience has shown a greater propensity for people to want to take their learning with them “on the road”, “on the commute” or to grab time whilst waiting for something.  That is why I moved towards creating content that suited that place and time of learning.

The Organisational Perspective:  Key Reasons to Use Digital

It would seem that we’ve done a good job over the years on communicating the cost-savings that can be realised from using digital learning.  The more mature organisations are, fortunately, now moving to a situation where improving the quality of learning is a priority.

The trend for learning to take place in the learner’s own time is one that I started to see seven years ago and is the main reason I began to include mobile learning approaches in my strategies.  I call this time “discretionary learning time” and as learners told me this was their personal preference, it’s not concerned me, so I possibly don’t share the thought that “learning is being squeezed out of the workplace”.  Of course, I hope that the organisation recognises this fact though when it comes to evaluating the learners’ performance.

I also see a link between perceived quality and the move towards more targeted and individualised training (to use the survey’s terminology).  In the eyes of the learner, the more the content is tailored to their needs, the higher the perceived quality, as it’s regarded as both more relevant and timelier.  As we get smarter with our digital offerings, this will only improve.  Recently too, I’ve started to lament the quick demise of the learning content management system (LCMS).  It’s my hope that these can make a come-back, now that both digital learning approaches and learners’ own identified needs are more conducive to using such systems.

The Barriers to Digital Learning

Looking at the reasons presented to the survey responders and their responses, I’ll skirt over the learning styles reason, for I have seen if you successfully address some of the other barriers, most people are able to learn through most channels including digital.

I’ve long promoted the need to design to take into account distractions and this is highlighted in the research.  We need to design for the modern workplace and the decreasing attention spans of our audiences.  If we succeed here, then other barriers such as finding the time to learn and – through better “mobile first” designs – the navigation through and structure of content issues can be addressed.

Good digital learning should learn from the wealth of web-content and apps that are out there and which are designed according to what the technologists call “natural user interfaces” or NUI.  Even toddlers are mastering NUI, so if our learning behaves the same, the report’s cited barrier of low technology skills will be addressed.

Adding in a collaboration element will help to reduce the isolation felt by some digital learners and we need to revisit the notion of blended learning to develop new solutions that are based on today’s learner insights.

Finally, we all wish we could do better about making our digital content more easily accessible to learners, both in terms of knowledge of what’s on offer and getting hold of it.  As we move more and more to using mobile channels, always “start with the end in mind” and make sure your mobile digital content can be seamlessly accessed, even before you start to build it.

The Future of Digital Learning

The research presents an optimistic outlook.  It would appear that all parties know the direction we’re taking is the right one.  We just need to keep working harder at improving the offer.  Then we should see more managers believing that this format will become a first choice and that they’ll be receiving cutting edge learning solutions.

It’s not surprising to see that face-to-face is still the preferred approach for leadership development.  That said, the fact that managers are equally likely to prefer to seize the initiative and use digital leaning is a positive sign and reinforces my view that – regardless of learning styles – when motivated to learn, our preferences are flexible.

It’s good to see that managers do want more personalised learning approaches.  This is the direction that learning is going anyhow and the whole process is facilitated by digital learning.  That said, we have to design our content accordingly to suit a more micro-learning format and that’s something where our thinking is still evolving.

We’ve already touched on the topic of making sure digital learning channels include a social element, added to which is the strong desire for the content to have a practical edge to it.  I’ve often talked about my wish to see a move from “pure learning” to “performance support” and this is borne out by their research.  There are already a handful of popular apps out there providing this type of content for managers and leaders and it’s a format I’ve rolled out too, but with organisational specific flavour and content.

The high levels of interest in MOOCS (massive open online courses) was an interesting result.  The web is buzzing with these, so this is an indication that L&D may need to do more to develop internal versions of these, although possibly the current attraction of these is that they are not run by L&D.

I have written about the use of wearable technology for learning and whilst I’m not surprised that those questioned aren’t yet sure of this channel, that will possibly change over time as more and more people adopt this still relatively new type of technology.  Until you’re tried it, it’s hard to see the potential.

So, in summary, this is a great piece of research which continues to give me hope that the trends I’ve already started to see will continue; and that we really will be able to transform how we develop our managers and future leaders using digital learning approaches.


Learning to Lead – The Digital Potential – My Commentary

3 thoughts on “Learning to Lead – The Digital Potential – My Commentary

  1. I read it that those surveyed weren’t fortunate in seeing some of the better mobile learning content, so were basing their views on what they had seen, which was inferior to the other apps they interact with on a regular basis. Let’s hope standards rise generally, so we can win them back around.


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