Through necessity, other organisations are seeking to undertake vertical development through digital means. The necessity is not simply the inability to deliver face-to-face – the necessity also derives from the needs of their people to develop mental models and behaviour shifts necessary to survive and thrive in the pandemic and economic downturn context of 2020, writes Anthony Mitchell
More than any other time in living memory, organisations are compelled to help their people (and especially their leaders and people managers) with major, rapid shifts in their mindsets and mental models.
These new mindsets are needed for a diverse array of serious challenges, including:
- Working more virtually and remotely than ever before
- Being overwhelmed by a greater surge in demand
- Struggling to survive financially, and managing massive redundancies and shutdowns
- Needing to pivot rapidly as existing business models or service delivery models have been obsoleted overnight
- Rapidly redeploying and retraining people from low-demand to high-demand business areas
- Having to provide crisis leadership to employees who have an array of serious professional and/or personal challenges, with no idea when things will return to normal or what normal will look like
So, what to do?
In the years since digital learning has become a practical option, learning approaches have divided into two almost binary types:
- Face-to-face methods: used for ‘vertical development’, where participants evolve their mindsets and mental models
- Digital methods: used for ‘horizontal learning’, primarily for foundational knowledge and skills
There have been many reasons for this dichotomy, some good and some bad. A good reason is that vertical development requires ‘heat experiences’, where participants move well outside of their comfort zone. Such heat experiences have been almost impossible to achieve in traditional digital contexts, which takes us to one of the bad reasons: to date, digital learning has been rudimentary and this has greatly limited its impact.
How many of us have undertaken an e-learning module and been bored senseless by basic technology and pedestrian learning experiences, as we click through information and activities that compel only a small portion of our attention? When we conducted our own research into the best formal learning experiences, almost all respondents cited a face-to-face example, not a digital one.
But what happens when a pandemic comes around, eliminating the option for face-to-face learning? The only answer is to find ways that vertical development can occur digitally.
The good news is that this is not only possible but can occur very effectively. Ironically, making the shift is first and foremost about both learning designers and learners themselves changing their mental model about digital learning.
In 2019, well before any talk of a pandemic, my organisation Bendelta was engaged by two large corporations – one a bank, one a telco – to design transformational vertical development programs for wholly digital delivery. Several other clients took similar approaches, though not to as radical an extent. We were able to design and deliver very powerful high-impact solutions through REACH, our 100 per cent digital delivery suite.
Why did these clients take this approach? For many reasons, including greater reach, greater flexibility, reduced carbon footprint, to support dispersed employees, and more generally, a desire to be pioneering and embrace new technology in their learning in the same way that they were in their products and service delivery.
Now, through necessity, other organisations are seeking to undertake vertical development through digital means. The necessity is not simply the inability to deliver face-to-face – the necessity also derives from the needs of their people to develop mental models and behaviour shifts necessary to survive and thrive in the pandemic and economic downturn context of 2020.
Everyone is now playing catch-up. So, what did they do and how can this be adopted by everyone else?
If you are seeking to achieve significant, rapid shifts in mindsets and behaviours, the solutions must inculcate three design features:
- Heat experiences that disrupt a leader’s habitual way of thinking or behaving and initiate a search for new ways
- Exposure to different views, backgrounds, and experiences and ways of thinking which increases the number and complexity of perspectives
- A process to assist participants to integrate and make sense of perspectives, to develop a larger, more advanced worldview
The great news is that this can all be done virtually. It just needed the pandemic to compel both organisations and learning designers to rise to the challenge.
Key enablers for digital learning to deliver vertical development are:
- Get the basics right. Select the most effective platform and complementary tools. Design for the operating rhythm of the participants (e.g. time of day, frequency, etc.). If participants are not experienced in virtual working/learning, include a preparatory element of the program to build up their readiness (in both skills and mindset) for this context.
- Use multiple modes and sub-modes. Design an overall approach that complements virtual workshops with other program modes. For example, pre-work and post-module application and reporting become more important. Within the virtual mode, use a variety of sub-modes (e.g. video, virtual whiteboard, chat, breakout, self-driven, etc.) and change between them more often than in face-to-face settings.
- Design for high active participation. This can include anything from breakout rooms and live polling to a variety of approaches that involve everyone in collaboration, writing, speaking and moving. Importantly, get people involved early and often. Use real examples (including participant-generated examples) and practical application almost all the time, to increase stickiness.
Will face-to-face learning come back after the pandemic? Of course. Will digital learning have improved out-of-sight and play a much more significant role in deep development in future? You can bet on it.