Online learning has proved that it can create cost and time savings in different scenarios at different companies across a variety of industries, but the type of learning offered is usually based on fact or skill acquisition. Leadership development has, for the most part, remained a focus for traditional instructor-led learning, which offers a broad platform for in-depth interaction, coaching and mentoring.
The U.S. Navy may have discovered a way to mesh the value of an online learning with the benefits of classroom-based leadership development. The organization released a study titled “Is Online Leadership Training Effective?” which highlights marked benefits for nearly 4,000 chief petty officers who used Situational Leadership II courses from Ninth House to build skills in aviation and information technology, increase organizational efficiency, improve performance and provide business skills for civilian life.
The chief petty officer is the highest-ranking officer of all the Navy’s enlisted members—the corporate equivalent of middle management. The training was deployed to accelerate skills on the aviation side of the Navy, the Air Wing, and to get chief petty officers more involved with the IT systems. “They weren’t really missing functional skills,” said Jeff Snipes, CEO and co-founder, Ninth House. “Their challenge was the leadership skills, the thinking and partnering needed to manage that part of the Navy. They did the 360-degree multi-rater assessment as a benchmark to understand how their peers perceived their leadership skills. They took Situational Leadership, and six months later they were given the multi-rater again. The feedback asked what was their peer improvement and leadership skills and secondly, how would they apply that improvement to functions of the aviation and technology?”
The results: 44 percent higher skills improvement and retention, savings of $3 million for one course, and time savings—online learning took less than one-tenth of the time required for classroom courses. “It was a breakthrough for the Navy for a couple of reasons. One, it showed them that online learning by itself was a very effective means of increasing retention long term. It also pointed them to some specific results around how well they would transfer that learning back to the job,” Snipes said. “They found they also had a statistically significant change in leadership behavior.”
The courses mirror classroom training, yet offer the economies of scale and efficiency found online. The online leadership courses also help to expand on the business skills Navy personnel need for civilian life. “The types of skills that make them better when they leave the Navy are to some degree functional because they do learn technical skills, but more importantly they come out of the Navy with a lot of self-discipline,” Snipes said. “You really understand how to manage a team and how to be a leader in any organization. They spend a lot of time and money developing what they consider to be their strategic advantage, which is: How do you run a team with discipline? How do you execute? How do you lead people in very complex situations? The courses are focused exactly in those skill sets.”
“I believe that classroom training has a valuable role to play and it always will in that for small groups of people dealing with complex skills, ideally at the executive level, you need to get those people together,” Snipes said. “But if you’re trying to reach a large population with ever changing skills with a remotely distributed workforce, it’s just no longer feasible.”
Bob Mosher, director of learning and strategy evangelism for Microsoft Learning, agrees—sort of. “I think in many ways the value of a traditional classroom has faded,” Mosher said. “With online learning and synchronous online, there are a lot of cost-effective ways to get information through other means. The classroom though, where I think it still has huge value, and where I think it’s misunderstood, is the value of community and the value of collaboration. I think the classroom has huge value in bringing folks together to do group work, critical thinking skills, problem solving, to have a mentor or coach do demonstrations (and act) as a guide to further someone’s learning.”
Learning is not always about getting information, Mosher said. There are certain skill areas, such as soft skills, project management or executive-level development, where classroom learning is more beneficial and ultimately produces better results. “When we put together classes that are more scenario-based, more job-role-based—not just what we used to call ‘straight skills’ classes—we see a need and a place for those kinds of classes. It’s just that from the buyer’s perspective, if it’s just transfer of skills, it’s tough. I personally would prefer to go to a class, and I think a lot of learners would, but unfortunately we’re living in a time where it’s not a matter of preference. It’s a matter of being realistic about what the outcomes going to be,” Mosher said. “For some, myself included, I’m directed toward what I would perceive as a lesser environment online because if it’s just to get skills, I get it. If it’s to do other things, I think the classroom is really very rich. If you want to make it richer, get that coach or mentor up there or the subject-matter expert and create environments where we talk about stuff, work on projects, and can bring our own work to class. I can’t think of anything else that would even come close to doing that.”Filed under: Leadership Development, Technology