Leadership development professionals are wrestling with big questions of program timing. With the pivot to virtual sessions, there is a world of possible options for the sequence and timing of learning activities. From self-paced eLearning to virtual instructor-led training (VILT), companies are exploring how to support leaders with critical skills during this challenging time.

Virtual leadership sessions can come in many flavors, from a set of synchronous group activities compressed into a single morning to an extended series of sessions every other day, once per week or once per month. The labels of “compressed” and “extended” are only indicators of the ends of a spectrum. Once you decouple individual activities (e.g., reading, watching videos and journaling) from the group activities (e.g., engaging with an executive), the possibilities are infinite.

We are seeing organizations all over the map. One company moved from a four-day, in-person session to a 12-hour experience over three days (compressed). Another shifted from a four-day, in-person program to an experience delivered in one- to two-hour chunks over 20 weeks (extended). A third decided to make all content presentations individual, asynchronous activities and made the interactive portion of the class take place in less than one day (really compressed!).

The jury is out about which works best. What we are learning — not surprisingly — is that a wide range of options can work if the design matches learners’ need. So, which is best for your program? Here are six questions to ask in order to answer that question.

1. Do Your Program Objectives Have a Time Frame?

If the learning objective is to support a change in corporate priorities or direction, a more compressed format may be better. An immersive format allows for more emotional buy-in, more “reprogramming” and commitment. The energy of the people around them — even on a screen — helps put participants on a new path. This type of bootcamp atmosphere may require additional periodic learning to support it, but the extended format doesn’t usually create the excitement necessary to make a sharp shift.

2. Are You Introducing Skills That Would Benefit From Between-session Application?

Skills that learners could deepen with rapid cycles of application and reflection are good candidates for an extended learning experience with exercises between sessions. More strategic concepts may not be immediately applicable, and it may be more appropriate to present them a compressed time horizon so that participants will be prepared to apply them when the need arises.

3. Do You Want to Generate Deep Connections Across Your Group or Offer a Wide Net of Organizational Contacts?

Deep connections require the opportunity for shared experiences. If you want to mix participants and enable them to work together on activities in a meaningful way, an extended format might work well. If your intention is to introduce a broad group and let them define the next steps, a compressed experience is probably better.

4. How Many New and/or Complex Ideas Are You Planning to Cover?

If you are delivering training on one or two major concepts, participants can probably digest the information in a compressed time frame. A program with multiple complex topics is more similar to a collegiate course and may be better suited to an extended learning experience with specific modules.

5. How Would an Extended Experience Fit Into Your Business Cycle?

If your business has a distinct monthly or quarterly cadence, be aware of “good” and “bad” times to ask participants to attend a learning session. Extended programs run the risk of overlapping with critical business deliverables. This challenge is more complex than when your learning and development (L&D) programs were a three-day, concentrated workshop.

6. Do Your Participants Have Relatively Consistent Schedules?

Consistent schedules enable extended learning; participants can book every Tuesday morning for a month, for example. On the other hand, inconsistent schedules make a concentrated learning experience easier to schedule and attend.

Your answers to some of these questions may be contradictory, so there will always be judgment involved when you consider your design. Hopefully, these questions will focus your design discussions and thinking. No matter which approach you select, the offering needs to engage and hold your leaders’ interest. A shared experience like a simulation can be a powerful way to engage remote learners and sustain the connection of ideas and relationships over even a multi-month design. The more extended the program, the more connectivity you need to create.

The L&D pivot to virtual delivery is likely here to stay. Let’s deepen our understanding of what works and what helps leaders grow in this challenging time when, more than ever, organizations need effective leaders.

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