As action learning expands across the globe we are increasingly being asked to deliver action learning virtually. Working with global companies, as well as organisations keen to reduce their carbon footprint and lower travel costs, virtual action learning offers an attractive option.
Participant’s first reactions are often sceptical, recalling telephone conference behaviours, thinking of the technical challenge as well as finding it difficult to imagine forging a real connection with people virtually.
Our experience is that doing action learning virtually has its own learning curve. Setting the ground rules and contracting between the participants is even more crucial than in face to face action learning. We need to make explicit simple things like being in your own private space and not having your computer screen on. Lacking visual clues means that you have to assume people will accidentally speak over each other on occasion – especially where people have an activist learning style. We can’t assume that everyone can distinguish everyone else’s voice. Voices I find easy to identify may sound similar to someone else. This is an interesting point of reflection on perception – while we are hearing the same thing it is being received differently. In such sets, people need to identify themselves as they speak – certainly not required in the face to face setting.
But the lack of visual cues means participants report they concentrate more on listening. Participants are often surprised at how much of the presenter’s personality and feeling is evident in these virtual sessions. Deeper listening means picking up on the content that has been presented and for many, this in itself reduces the inclination to give suggestions and advice. The reflections at the end of virtual presentations are often exceptionally insightful – which seems to be as a result of the focus on listening.
While for some not having the face to face contact remains a loss, it is always fascinating to hear from those who present early in the life of a virtual action learning set. They report surprisingly positive outcomes from working this way, while any concern for the process is with other set members. That presenters from the very beginning, experience virtual action learning as safe, challenging and supportive is strong evidence that the medium succeeds. It does require both discipline and focus – great qualities to bring to our listening, in an action learning set or where conversations matter.