We recognize the strategic importance of learning, leadership and management in modern organisations. We understand the values and principles which are the foundation for leadership, and our experience with senior leaders as consultants and advisors has developed for us an appreciation of how they like to learn, and the challenges they face engaging in traditional learning programmes. This understanding has led us to some of the fundamental principles we use in designing and delivering learning programmes.
Off the shelf delivery of learning material is rarely successful for adult learners. It is always necessary to modify any existing design, and sometimes craft special delivery modules to suit an audience. There are numerous ways to perform this customization, including: pre-session interviews with learners, a review of participants’ profiles (e.g., age, gender, experience, current work environment, education, learning styles) a formal needs identification survey, discussions with knowledgeable internal resources, or interviews with other external resources who have worked with the prospective learners. On occasion we have convened design teams of the learners themselves, and involve them in the building of the learning materials.
We also believe that the delivery of the material must be responsive to the developing mood in the event. Accordingly our designs call for the event facilitators to carefully monitor participant reactions, seek feedback, and retain the flexibility to make adjustments within the framework of the learning objectives.
Reinforcing Key Messages
Most learning events have a few key messages or strategies to embed with the learner. It is important that the design clearly identifies these messages, introduces them early in the course, and repeats the messages at key junctures of the delivery. Our designs typically summarize progress during a learning event by using a framework (often visual) of the key messages. We employ various techniques in our designs to accomplish this including;
- Identifying participants’ expectations at the beginning of a delivery, and relating them to the key messages;
- Asking participants to summarize key points at various stages;
- Ensuring that participants generate “take aways” at the end of the session;
- At the beginning of each segment reviewing the overall messages and making links to the next activity.
Balancing Theory and Practice
Our experience has been that material has to be balanced between theoretical concepts and applied learnings in a practical situation. This balance depends on the characteristics of the learning group, and has to be re-balanced for each delivery.
ESTA always tailors the length and number of conceptual lectures to fit the learning style of the group. We develop practical exercises that build on key concepts and reinforce their meaning and we use case studies heavily to make concepts “real”. Our designs frequently employ ‘action learning’ to bring participants’ real workplace situations into the classroom and apply the concepts to them. We often take learners off-site for visits to other workplaces to see the concepts in action and we invite outside practitioners into the classroom to balance the theoretical material we have presented.
Emphasizing State-of-the-Art Concepts and Practices
Executive learners come to an event to see something new. It is our responsibility to ensure that the material is always state-of-the-art. Our practice fortunately takes us to many different parts of the world, and we always bring home new learnings to incorporate in our designs. As part of the design and development phase we review the latest academic and management literature, participate in professional associations (e.g., the Canadian Association of Management Consultants).
We always ensure that “best practices” are integrated into our designs. But at the same time, we demand our learners keep “best practices” in perspective, and often refer to them as “alternative practices”. We use best/alternative practices in our designs to help learners extract the value from these practices and apply them to their workplace.
Emphasizing “Real-World” Problems
Many learners are rightly skeptical about academic theories and conceptual models. We always try to build into our designs real examples of situations that demonstrate a theory.
We believe that the learning content should link directly to the real world problems of the workplace of the learner. Accordingly, we draw upon our extensive experiences in a wide variety of national, international, and sectoral settings when developing a learning event. Our designs frequently call for the learners to modify academic theories or concepts and develop their own models that work in their workplaces. Our learning design and facilitation style ensures each participant is able to extract value that is tailored to their specific needs and unique workplace situation.
Engaging the Audience
We don’t subscribe to the “star” model of delivering an event. The person at the front of the room is there to facilitate the learning of the group, and often must take a back seat to the conversations of the learners. Accordingly, our design and development assignments are guided by the following “rules of thumb”:
- We work hard to engage participants in a conversation about the subject;
- Adult learners (especially leaders) want to engage in a discussion, and share their experiences around a topic;
- We always invite participants to provide their own experience and examples, and use them to demonstrate key themes.
Maintaining an Appropriate Pace
Pace is often the key factor affecting perception of success of a learning event. Accordingly, we always review the needs of the learners when it comes to setting the pace of the event during the design and development phase. We also design so the facilitators can adjust the pace if the learners seem bored or overwhelmed.
We design in the appropriate length and frequency of breaks; vary the pace in our designs with a mix of “active” and “passive” activities and by shifting from small group work to plenary discussions when facilitating in a traditional face-to-face environment.