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Facilitating leadership development online

02 Jun 2020 | Alastair Work As higher education adapts to life on-line, Alastair Work, Senior Associate at Advance HE, reflects on the experience of learning to facilitate leadership programmes at a distance.

“Pubs and restaurants to close”, “Sport to be postponed”, “EasyJet to ground all aircraft”, “Higher Education to move online”.  These were the lockdown headlines back in March.  Simple solutions to grave problems, ticked off like items on a shopping list. Done. Next?

I was about to fly South to start another week delivering leadership programmes; most likely passing my evenings in a bar watching football.

Instead, like all of us, I was at home, trying to “move higher education online”: but what did that mean for Leadership Development?

Firstly, an urgent explosion of creativity. Rapidly arranged video conferences with the Leadership and Organisational Development community. Generously exchanging experiences, skills, ideas, fears. Previously marginalised voices were sought out for their expertise; lists generated of top tips for working online. I discovered the International Association of Facilitators, a disorderly trove of resources.

I learned one thing: don’t shove business as usual on-line and expect it just to work. Business as unusual means starting again with the learning outcomes and building new ways towards them.

I learned another thing: experiential learning matters – for years we’ve heard about on-line education, most of us have hung around on the shore, watching a few bold (eccentric?) souls go in for a swim; but so often we delay true learning until we face and feel the need for it. It is perhaps the curse of ancient wisdoms that each of us has to re-live them to discover them for ourselves.

I learned something else; we don’t yet know how to do this well; it is hubris to pretend we do. Nevertheless, from an urgent plunge into on-line leadership development, here are some findings:

  1. On-line provokes anxiety. This ranges from hating to see oneself on screen, fearing inadequate broadband speed and dreading being undermined by intrusive domestic distractions, through to a deeper systemic unease about what we are doing to higher education by abandoning centuries of face-to-face delivery; how could we presume to disrespect generations of professors surrounded by disciples touching the hems of their gowns. Or perhaps we just dread the awkwardness of not having the skills.
  2. On-line is exhausting; the energy required to pay attention to a two-dimensional tableau of faces is far greater than what we experience in the room. We can spend whole evenings at home together with friends and family, relaxing and being energised by their company. An hour of family Zoom is enough for most.
  3. On-line can bewilder. If we are used to being in the same workspace as others, seeing them out of place both blurs the boundary between work and home and reminds us of the reason we are not together. It has been suggested that we may actually be mourning the absence of our colleagues, even while we speak with them.
  4. On-line is physically inhibiting. We need regularly to walk away, stretch, breathe, dissociate for a while.  On-line might also be physically demanding, if, as we should, we seek to compensate for a lack of person to group meta-language with deliberate physical and facial responses on camera.
  5. On-line presentations dement. Screen-watching or listening in real time to the sage on the stage deliver their 30 minute lecture on leadership, strategy and organisational culture uses up precious energy. Presentations are better viewed at our own time and pace. We must ask ourselves if the content can more easily be read, viewed or listened to a-synchronously. We also have to trust people to access it.
  6. On-line from home, particularly in lockdown, needs to be normalised. We have children, dogs, partners and doorbells. We are blurring boundaries. We all need to be human (and humane) about that.
  7. Participants report being more engaged and working better in smaller groups. This is why Zoom has, for many, emerged as first choice for facilitation. Zoom’s breakout rooms enable people to cluster in fruitful communities of 4 or 5. This, they tell us, is where the real work gets done on-line.
  8. On-line needs explicit structure. Deprived of the ebb and flow of a group in the room, where emergence, audience reaction and mood can be skilfully surfed by a competent facilitator, we need clarity. This means a detailed agenda in advance, sharp questions and explicit tasks for each discussion.  We need to harness the software’s wiki, chat and polling facilities in order to share our feedback elegantly in text form.
  9. On-line needs a different balance in our roles and in the allocation and use of time: distinct but linked spaces for preparation, for self-study, for interaction and for reflection. The responsibilities of both learner and facilitator are altered.

As facilitators, we enable groups to learn; facilitating online, we must be even more concerned with structuring learning processes and holding open the learning space for others. Our job is to shape the best learning experiences we can and monitor how they land with the group. We are working on it. How is it working for you? Do please let us know.

Alastair Work is a senior associate at Advance HE, based in Scotland, who has facilitated many of our programmes, open and bespoke, over the last 14 years.  He has worked in-house with 60 different HEI’s. He is currently preparing to co-facilitate Advance HE’s Strategic Leadership Programme, two new programmes in the Republic of Ireland and is working in-house with three prominent universities in England.

Advance HE's Leadership Summit 2020 - Leading with Humanity will now run as an online event on 10 June due to Covid-19. The summit will provide the opportunity for colleagues to share, debate and network to ensure a strong sector for the future. Click here for more information and to book your place.

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