Reaching People Globally With The Same Learning Experience
Dispersed employee populations, whether across a large area or around the entire world, are hard to reach with a consistent learning experience. Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses how virtual learning not only makes the challenges of dispersal solvable, but can become the new normal for a forward-thinking organization.
Ten years ago I was responsible for developing the leadership development agenda for mid-level leaders in a large, global pharmaceutical company. That meant around 5,000 leaders in something in the region of 70 countries. It was one of the more challenging and interesting tasks I’ve undertaken in my career. I learned a lot.
Particularly I learned quickly that I was not going to be able to create a solution that would be entirely replicable in every market, for every leader or even for every division of the company. This jarred for me. If we were going to create a world class leadership development experience I wanted to ensure that reached as many people as possible.
The challenges that faced me were ones of physical distance, language and cost. Our leadership populations were concentrated in three countries. They didn’t share a common language, but supported large enough populations that we could run many sessions with groups from just those countries. A further 10-15 countries, with a further seven languages had sufficient leadership populations that several cohorts of 20 or so leaders could be brought together.
However, some of these countries were very large and the leaders distributed regionally, beginning to add significant cost. Outside of these larger markets I was faced with a further 50 countries with between one and 20 leaders that presented a real challenge. In particular I remember South America – several markets with a small number of leaders that on paper looked sensible to bring together as language wasn’t a problem. I quickly learned about the difficulties of bringing people together in, say Buenos Aires for example. It’s very expensive, flights are irregular and often indirect.
It is easy to forget sitting in London that to fly across the Amazon rainforest alone takes 3-4 hours. At full speed in a Boeing 747. We didn’t run that event in Buenos Aires. Crazily it was cheaper and easier to bring everyone in South America to Miami for the events. And it was definitively not cheap or easy.
And that was the easy continent. When I got to Asia I was faced with a staggering array of languages. English isn’t a lingua franca outside India and Singapore. The Kiwis could “pop” to Australia, but after that it just got complex. And then the real challenge came in Africa, where we seemed to combine South America’s geographical challenges with Asian language complexity and combine it with many, many, many small markets where the standard mid-level management population was about two.
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I began to see why time after time the “rest of world” had been neglected when it came to leadership development. The challenges seemed insurmountable. In the end I was immensely proud of what we achieved and what actually happened – and more on that story in another blog, but as I look back now I realise that we were hamstrung back then by a huge assumption – that there needed to be a face to face element in the programme.
Sure – we had elements that were virtual, but the core was live, in person facilitation with a fantastic set of providers who created a simulated environment that was really stretching and really allowed people to explore their strengths and development areas.
Today I look back and cringe. Just ten years later and I would go about it all so differently. The challenges we had back then are great big juicy opportunities when you look at them through the lens of virtual. I remember our smallest market was the Ivory Coast with just one leader in my target population. That one voice representing a completely unique market was completely lost. As were the two from Rwanda, the six from Ecuador, or the 14 from Vietnam.
Today we could develop a programme where those voices could be put on a pedestal, where everyone’s experiences could be shared across the whole cohort. Fully integrated, fully virtual, we could create a consistent learning experience where everyone benefits from the diversity of people’s experiences. Sure, we’d need to deliver in a number of languages – but when we analysed how many languages we’d need to cover our huge global network we found it was only around 10. That’s 10 different versions of an event to cover one of the biggest, most complex companies in the world – most would need far fewer.
But why is this important?
When you roll out anything like this, a leadership programme, a set of messages, a culture, a change programme across a large organisation all too often there is an epicentre at which the message is made loud a clear. But as you radiate out you find the message having less and less impact, leaving your organisation running at different paces across its network. This is a real problem when you’re trying to change a culture, and can become seriously risky if the issue is compliance. Leaning into virtual and e-learning solutions such as a global coaching app solves so many problems, and in many cases can even prevent nascent issues from becoming problems in the first place.