"E-learning's real potential as a tool for developing leaders is around interactivity and networking, but accomplishing its potential is going to take dynamic e-platforms"
"Everyone sees the potential of e-learning, but the movement forward is at a glacial pace at this point. What people are looking for in a learning experience is the opportunity for learning and exchange," says Al Vicere, professor of Strategic Leadership in Penn State's Smeal College of Business. He has co-authored several studies on e-learning and leadership development, and his research is featured in a white paper, "Hope or Hype? Can Leaders Be Developed Online?" for the Linkage Learning Network.
He envisions a new role, called an e-coach or personal learning consultant. Such an advisor diagnoses each learner's developmental needs and connects them to the right resources, based on his or her time, budget, bandwidth, and personal needs. The entire relationship may be conducted online.
"New technology can enhance coaching and leadership development if it enables people to engage in spontaneous, interactive exchanges, versus longer, prescheduled meetings. We need to stop thinking about learning as a set of discrete events or transactions, he says, and instead approach it as an ongoing, interactive process. To do so, we'll need to redefine how we manage our time and expectations about interpersonal access," says Vicere.
Instant Messaging and other ways of getting people interacting and more engaged are going to drive the field forward.
"We've got a generation of kids who have grown up with Instant Messaging. They've got no problem sitting in front of the screen. What keeps them engaged is not just the content or the flash of the graphics. It's the opportunity to connect spontaneously. Learning is, to a very large extent, sharing. So if we get people interacting and sharing on the network, we're going to create a learning platform inside a company that will be pretty intense."
This will be a huge benefit to learners as well as leadership development instructors and coaches but it's time to rethink what industries mean by accessibility. Instead of the traditional, 50- or 60-minute coaching session, Vicere predicts the advent of much shorter, online coaching session, which will benefit clients.
"When I first started out in an organization, I had a couple individuals who thankfully took me under their wing and gave me advice and actually helped me along. If you think about that natural interaction, it wasn't by appointment. I just ran in to this person and I'd say, 'Do you have three minutes? Can I share this with you?' Or they happen to be walking by my office and they say, 'How's it going? You look a little perplexed.' In the real world, interaction with a mentor and a coach is very spontaneous, kind of catch-as-catch-can. It's done in three-minute bursts or 20-minute bursts, not in formal, regularly scheduled appointments," says Vicere. "If we start to look at where coaching and mentoring need to go, we've got to get out of the formal mode of let's-schedule-an-appointment. We've got to have the platforms in place so it becomes more spontaneous."
Currently, e-learning for leaders is alive but not all that well, reports Vicere. "Two factors are slowing the growth. First, there's the complexity of the e-learning field. People are still trying to figure out what kind of platform to use, how to migrate more activity to that environment, how to make things work and make them engaging and exciting. That leads to the second problem: Unless there's some teeth in the system, like certification requirements, it's just really hard to get people to stick with an e-learning process."
Vicere likens it to where companies were a few years ago with enterprise software.
"Back then, you could see there were great opportunities, wonderful leverage to be gained, but there was also the complexity of deciding what platform do I use? What system's going to work? Are we willing to go through all the pain that's necessary to get one of these things up and running? It's the chaos and confusion around it. And anything that's complex and involves technology is also very expensive. You have to spend tons of money to deal with all of this. That's exactly where I saw people a few years back when they were reviewing SAP and Oracle," says Vicere.