After a key conference I was set to travel to was cancelled by the Covid-19 crisis I was persuaded to register for its alternative, an online “improving your decision-making” webinar.
The promise of how much better this virtual interaction would be for my judgment and decision-making abilities, along with the other 450 people already registered for the event, did not sit well with me.
I couldn’t help but respond to the organisers and point out that the best and worst decisions have never been learnt or made from a distance in such an impersonal manner.
Our ongoing research into corporate leadership shows that whether choices are made by the CEO of Enron or Lehman Brothers, the reasons behind resulting scandals or corporate failures were already known by an assortment of staff and management before they happened.
The real deficiencies in organisations are never found on the risk register. Many staff accurately predict the demise of their enterprise well before it happens, but the reasons are rarely discussed beforehand because of the dysfunctionality between leaders over complex issues that are too sensitive to openly raise.
Decision-making cannot be learnt in a crowd, so how can remote learning help us understand and work through tense, known concerns which herald long-term and damaging consequences?
Remote learning as a trend
Despite this we all continue to be inundated with invitations to join webinars, online seminars and other forms of virtual gathering to learn the skills that will make a “real difference” to our lives.
In line with this trend, a recent Gartner survey highlights the determination of chief finance officers (CFOs) to make remote working a central feature of the employment landscape. In fact, of CFOs:
- 81% plan to have hourly workers adopt remote, flexible working
- 20% report reducing office technology spend, as homeworking will substitute this.
The same survey reports that of top executives:
- 60% have cut back on leadership events and offsite gatherings
- 58% have frozen hiring
- 58% have frozen travel and conference attendance.
The new substitute for all of these challenges has become remote learning and working.
While operating online may be well suited to a set of specific and clearly defined tasks, it fails drastically for organisations that have to differentiate from their competition, showcase a competitive edge, and make a substantive difference for their clients.
Highly competitive markets require leadership capabilities that are not catered for by online training or remote learning.
The development of leadership and high-performing managers requires a deep appreciation of significant obstacles that must be overcome on a case-by-case basis. This in turn develops an individual’s ability to navigate through a host of misaligned interests, enabling them to pull an organisation together.
Leadership demands that we enhance core behaviours, intellect and personal qualities, such as resilience, sensitivity and humility. Capability development is contextually determined. Each different circumstance requires an alternate combination of capabilities to deal with it.
In contrast, online skills training offers little more than generic bundles of delivery modules. These packages quickly become indistinguishable from one another and the only competitive advantage available is a lowering of price.
To be clear, remote working and the delivery of online skills training was always going to take hold in some form, regardless of the Covid-19 crisis. However, convenience, simplicity and pricing offers nothing towards becoming a better manager or leader.
Leaders need to be guided, intellectually stretched and coached towards thinking how enterprises can be steered through the challenges of the day.
In the current climate there is a desperate need for practical wisdom, and definitely not a bundle of slides or self-proclaimed expert videos forcing their way onto our screens. Click to skip.
Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School.