Logo Bridge the Gap with Cécile Guinnebault

Development programmes: keeping the best from both worlds

Mis à jour le : 21 November 2022

Looking forward to in person development programmes again? With participants hardly ever looking away from their smartphone screen? Maybe not...

18 months working from home gave me the opportunity to experiment with new learning formats. Some of them have a lot to bring to more traditional classroom learning formats. Of course, I was delighted to go back to in-person development programmes and team offsites, which remain more effective than virtual events to offer networking and bonding opportunities. But for the rest, adapting my design and facilitation skills to virtual formats and tools took my practice to another level. I will not go back to the good old 2-3 consecutive day-programme, and here's why.

This article is inspired by Professor Robert Brinkerhoff's High Performance Learning Journey approach, which I had the pleasure of discovering with my favorite adult-learning sherpa, Shilpa Subramaniam, co-founder of The Learning Gym ltd. Grateful thanks to both of them.

Working from home in lockdown accelerated pre-existing trends

3 consecutive days in my calendar for a leadership development programme? Are you joking?

Back in 2019, before the Covid pandemic first broke out, some highly rated leadership development programmes were already struggling to attract participants. It was no longer possible to squeeze 3 consecutive days + up to 2 days travel time into senior leaders' ever more constrained calendars. Yet, it did them good to cross off those few days in their calendar, to tell their PA "I'm off", and finally take a step back from their frenetic daily pressure. Those who did all said so. The fact remains that the cohorts were more and more difficult to recruit and last-minute withdrawals more and more frequent.

The need to shorten and / or split development time was already there before the pandemic. Working from home under lockdown only made this new need unavoidable.

90 minutes without looking at my phone? Seriously?

I must confess that until Covid, I used to be one of those facilitators who would complain about those participants who could not spend 90 minutes in a room without compulsively looking at their phone. I even remember asking a dear client, may she forgive me, what she thought about taking her Exec Team to a dream location and seeing them spend their whole time sending text messages.

Scattered attention is a scourge, but very few of my clients expect me to tackle it, as a consultant, a facilitator or as a coach. Even with mindful contracting at the beginning of a session, mobile phones and tablets reappear at the first break... And never disappear again. On the other hand, policing the group after every break ends up hurting the relationship with the participants.

Attention span shortening is a fact. It became much worse with full-time remote working, but again, it was there earlier.

We don't need to sit together in a room to watch a presentation or a video!

Back in 2019 (when was that again?) meetings in which the participants were asked to sit and listen were known to be improductive. Why not send a video or a written document, that everyone can discover at their convenience and pace. The trend towards scripted lectures is telling: who fills a room by reading their speech from behind a lectern nowadays?

Videoconferencing has made these monologues unbearable for all my clients, without exception. And this is true for keynote speeches, development programmes as well as daily meetings.

Our budgets are shrinking, we need maximum ROI!

The momentary disappearing of travel, room rental and facilitation equipment expenses helped my clients cope with drastic budget cuts at the beginning of the pandemic. And although virtual formats require more design and preparation time, many professionals got used to meeting higher expectations with tighter budgets. In 2022, travel costs are back in the equation, inflation and recession forecast take a heavy toll on budgets, whilst talent retention challenges, leading to increased L&D demand, are on the rise. 

ROI expectations have never been higher and this trend is here to stay.

These constraints support the development of efficient learning formats.

Leadership development programmes do not look like instructor-led live group sessions + a few individual follow-up coaching sessions any longer. They are designed to make the most of the participants' learning processes.

Stretching the learning process over time

Splitting the live group sessions over several weeks gives learners time to think, experiment and practice between two group sessions. Those are focused on debriefing, exchanging feedback and grabbing more learnings to take the leaerners' practice to the next level. This stretch is necessary to acquire complex behavioural skills.

One doesn't learn how to listen or manage conflict in 3 days, even with the best role playing activities. It is absolutely necessary to practice, fail, receive feedback, reflect and start again. To plan learning in multiple steps enables this process to unfold.

Stretching the learning process over space

Reducing classroom learning time doens't mean reducing the overall learning time. It means creating learning moments outside of the classroom, in other contexts, by other means.

  • At home, reading documents or watching videos on one's own,
  • At the office with peers, to experiment new ways of thinking,
  • On the job, to practice.

Learning has always taken these many paths, more or less formally. Optimising each of them has become indispensable.

 What remains to be done in the classroom with a facilitator or a coach is: creating collective psychological safety, share experiences, help each other. This kind of session doesn't have much in common with traditional didactic presentations!

Stretching the learning process over various tools

Videoconferencing, reading, writing, asynchronous video watching, games, facilitation and revising apps... Using a variety of tools is more than ever necessary, especially to address the shrinking attention span mentioned above. Rather than control the incontrollable and fight endlessly to keep mobile phones out of sight, launching a quizz the participants will take on their phones is a smart way to have them use their phones for the benefit of their learning. A variety of tools also enables the learners to connect when and where they need to access the resources they need.

When used purposefully, tech is a precious ally to channel attention, make resources accessible and plan the learning journey.

Creating opportunities to learn in real-life situations

Since learning time is reduced at the benefit of time on the job, "real life" becomes the place where practical training happens. Designing and planning these experiments to be meaningful without putting the business at risk is a skill L&D professionals need to develop.

For these experiments to be insightful, it is necessary to ignite and guide the reflection the learning will emerge from. Learning comes from reflecting over the experience, not from the experience itself.

Multiplying learning relationships

To learn well, one needs support:

  • from peers who experience the same challenges
  • from managers who invest time and energy in their team's development
  • from mentors, who are a few learnings ahead,
  • from L&D professionals, who will create and organise these relationships, instead of playing every role like they used to in the old days.

Moving forward, a facilitator / group coach / instructional designer's job is to:

  • create a group dynamic where the learners will find enough psychological safety to take risks
  • encourage learner-manager conversations where learning follow-up will happen
  • facilitate an alumni network where people who are making similar learnings can keep learning from each other over time.

Instructors standing in front of a powerpoint presentation should no longer exist.

The most impactful development programmes I've witnessed recently have a few features in common:

  • A brief plenary session to orient the learners,
  • Sessions in small peer learning groups, focused on their ongoing challenges. The role of the coaches is "only" to create and maintain a group dynamic and suggest a conversation process matching their chosen topics.
  • Frequent informal moments, to break the ice and start building a network,
  • Individual and / or collective follow-up sessions several weeks after the face-to-face sessions.
  • Individual or buddy-pair homework between each session,
  • A wrapping-up plenary session to share learnings, reflect back on the learning journey and look forward.

Such development programmes can be hosted partly face-to-face partly online, or 100% virtually.

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