If organisations are to adapt and thrive in changing conditions, they need to provide high quality, relevant development opportunities whilst keeping careful control over budgets. At the same time, globalisation and new digital technologies are making virtual team-working increasingly common and virtual teams are relied upon to solve organisational problems. If we can provide effective means of working and training virtually, we can cut venue costs, travel and accommodation costs, and reduce environmental impact.
The British Red Cross has 4,000 staff and approximately 20,000 volunteers. Employees and volunteers are spread throughout the UK and around the globe. The organisation identified Virtual Action Learning (VAL) as a way of bringing discipline to problem solving; an effective way to enable staff to cope with the changes that they are experiencing and to more confidently take responsibility for the changes they want to make. They commissioned ALA to deliver a virtual course of action learning facilitator training for five senior staff which would train them to deliver both face to face and virtual action learning sets.
The following points outline some of the key learnings from this programme.
Set up and advance preparation is essential. VAL needs to be positioned as an effective way of working in its own right; and, a clear distinction needs to be made between VAL and the everyday conference call. The practicalities of working virtually can also be discussed at this stage.
Technology is arguably the main differentiator between virtual action learning and face-to-face action learning. For the British Red Cross programme we used Webex, which is a familiar tool within the organisation. Whichever technology is used, it is important that participants are familiar enough with it so that they can use the technology without being distracted by it.
The virtual action learning facilitator training programme is intense because it demands full immersion in the action learning process and high levels of concentration from its participants. Where participants do not physically travel away from work for training, the tendency is to return immediately to their day-to-day work as soon as their virtual session is finished. The possible adverse effects of this on the learning experience should be discussed with the participants and commissioners.
Lengthy introductions to action learning (i.e. its history, theory and practice) can feel one-way in the virtual space. Finding ways to include participants’ views, questions and observations as you, the facilitator, go through the introductory material encourages dialogue and helps new participants find their voices.
The start of an action learning programme typically includes one or more exercises aimed at establishing trust and community. One of these is to suggest that participants make individual introductions, which may include personal and professional stories. Being clear on the length of time that each person should take is an essential part of setting this up. From my experience using VAL, it seems that it is easier for participants to say more when they are not being seen; and, if met with silence on the other end of the line, to carry on talking. Making the new virtual group aware of this and being firm on timing is crucial for keeping to schedule and ensuring equal airtime for all.
Emotional nuances can have greater tendency to go unnoticed in the virtual space. If, for example, a participant is talking about a sensitive personal matter (e.g. a limiting belief), s/he may feel that referring to the matter as an ‘issue’ (a commonplace word in action learning) implies judgement. In a face-to-face set there may be visual cues to accompany any discomfort that the speaker feels. In the virtual space participants need to be reminded to tune-in deeply to the voice, the breathing and the silences in order to really notice the feelings and reactions at play.
The virtual facilitator helps to build trust, rapport, expertise and confidence. In addition to general facilitator skills, the virtual facilitator also needs to develop keen listening skills and precise aural observation.
Working virtually – in the right way – encourages the development of keen listening and acute observational skills. Action learning further develops the skills of active listening, insightful questioning, and giving and receiving constructive feedback. When brought together and set up with care, we can create an enjoyable, powerful and cost effective means of achieving individual, team and organisational objectives. Furthermore, the developed skills are transferable to all areas of work and life.
For more information on ALA’s virtual action learning visit our virtual action learning page.