Is Virtual learning the future of leadership development?




As our world becomes ever more global, our ways of working become ever more virtual. Operating across countries demands digitized communication and collaboration – a trend which is also being reflected in the way in which we develop our leaders.
But can leaders really learn how to lead, can they develop the competencies, resilience and resourcefulness to step up to the challenges of leadership through learning that is online? Or are there limitations to the benefits that can be afforded through virtual methodologies?
This research report addresses these questions, exploring whether the learning gained through a face-to-face, experiential behavioral simulation might be replicated in virtual or blended environments, and in addition considers whether different personality characteristics might moderate the impact on learning or application of learning from these different approaches.
This research project addressed these questions, investigating whether it is possible to develop the skills, competences and resilience that leaders need to lead in our complex environment through virtual, online learning. Globalisation now necessitates virtual working and with the advent of new technologies, leaders are now able to operate and collaborate through virtual means. Leadership development is moving in a similar direction and offers the potential for scalable, cost effective learning initiatives that mirror the environments in which leaders work. 
However, there are real challenges, and significant reticence, about the possibilities of developing soft skills in a two-dimensional environment, and evidence is needed to demonstrate the impact of virtual learning on the development of leadership behaviors.

That was the aim of this project?

To compare the impact of three programmes, all designed to develop leadership skills but through different environments – one face to face, one fully virtual, and one blended. A key feature of these three programmes was that they were all experiential, involving critical incidents which offered opportunities for emotional engagement and practice, peer and faculty feedback, and the development of relationships. 

Who took part?

Our 37 participants came from our cohorts of MBA and Executive MBA students as well as from our clients from around the world.

What did we find?

Heart rate increased significantly during the critical incidents and this was related to improved learning
Capabilities in terms of self as leader and handling difficult situations improved post program
Learning agility was improved following the programs in terms of ability to learn through reflection, learn from others, and manage emotions during challenge 
Majority of participants reported changes in behaviour at three months 
There were no differences between the three programmes for any of these measures
What this tells us is if leadership development is well-designed and incorporates stress-inducing emotional experience, feedback and interaction, it can be just as effective as face-to-face learning.  
In other words, it’s not the environment that matters, but the methodology

To find out more about the method, results and implications, fill in your details below to download the report.

Research Team

Lee Waller, Sona Sherratt, Vicki Culpin, Sam Wilkinson