“The way we learn has changed beyond all recognition. Surprisingly, leadership development has not.”

Changing the Way We Learn – how Digital Technology Improves the Impact of Leadership

In November 2016 a client asked us: “What ideas have you got for 
using digital technology to deliver leadership development?”

In this webinar discussion, we share the design principles Accelerance applied to come up with its own digital solution to Leadership Development, using the advantage of On-the-Job, Self-Directed Learning.




Thirty years ago, before the internet, if you wanted to do a better job by learning something new, you would read a book, or a magazine, go to a conference or a course, or ask for some precious time with an expert in your field. Imagine how long it would take to get the insight you were looking for!

Today, within seconds, we can ask a question, get a range of pre-qualified answers, browse a few, refine our question, find good practices that work, put our question to colleagues, and formulate insights, collaboratively. All without leaving our desks.

In fact, if I wanted to leave my desk, I could ask a cobot to do it all for me, while I did something else. With the internet, we can learn as we perform. There is no need for the classroom, as we knew it.



The beauty of digital technology lies in its ability to improve learning where value creation takes place – in the continuous conversation of on-the-job, problem-solving, innovation and action – not in the classroom, library, bookshop or conference hall.

By coincidence, the most effective leadership development also takes place on-the-job, in the continuous conversation of developmental assignments and real experience, with support from constructive feedback and coaching.

Despite this, the majority of digital learning services focus on replicating what the classroom, library and discussion group can do. Through digital media, they offer greater access to massive knowledge resources, experts and collaborative work teams. While this is good, we know that exposure to on-the-job, developmental experiences, supported with constructive feedback and coaching, is far more effective in building the behavioural capability leaders need.

So, our question was not, ‘How do we use technology to deliver more knowledge?’, but, ‘How do we use technology to develop leadership effectively, on-the-job, where it matters most?’


In contrast to the blistering pace of digital innovation, the speed with which leadership development has adopted innovative pedagogy has been glacial. Despite an advantage over classroom and online expert-led tuition, the traditional providers who employ those experts have barely touched on-the-job experiential learning, self-directed learning and collaborative enquiry. Migration to these more effective learning methods has been led by internal leadership specialists who see much more advantage in development through the challenge of real experience.

In 2000, the same McKinsey consultants who released ‘The War for Talent’ one year later, published research that showed how much more effective ‘challenging assignments’ combined with ‘feedback about performance’ were over ‘classroom training’. And the rough guideline’70:20:10’ reinforces the conclusion that, if we want to improve the impact of leadership development, we should focus our efforts on on-the-job learning with feedback and coaching from managers who know how to provide it.

Of course, there is still a place for expert-led tuition and face to face dialogue with experienced leaders about their teachable point of view. But, in designing our digital solution, we decided it should not focus on delivering more knowledge, but on enabling developmental experiences, supported by feedback and coaching.


As if to confirm the validity of our preference for on-the-job learning, research by the Corporate Executive Board shows the productivity of teams in which managers are rated as ‘very effective’ at developing others, is 25% higher than teams with managers not rated as highly.

Leader-led development not only increases capability, it improves performance, too.

As this is so clear an endorsement for leader-led development, we decided our digital solution should also engage line managers, as well as peers and mentors, in giving feedback and coaching.


The opportunity to learn and grow continues to be a key driver of employee engagement. As does the need for autonomy, empowerment and self-direction.

At the same time, as the primary purpose of leadership development is the effective execution of corporate strategy, there is an understandable ‘top-down’, and sometimes prescriptive, feel to it.

These two factors present a challenge for designers: how to enable the freedom of self-directed engagement within a prescribed framework of corporate values and leadership standards?

For the leader’s perspective, Winston Churchill put it well when he said, ‘I don’t mind learning but I hate being taught!’

For authentic personal development to take place, for that’s what leadership requires, a digital solution must find a way to harness the power of self-motivated learning. And we believe this means giving leaders more autonomy in deciding what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.

And, for a leader’s self-directed learning to accelerate value creation for the company, this freedom must be aligned within a framework of company-specific, strategically relevant, leadership expectations.

We decided our digital solution needed to deliver both the individual and the corporate advantages of this ‘freedom within a framework’.


Performance management is under-going a radical makeover. The main shift puts more focus on development for the future vs. accountability for the past, and lends more weight to peer feedback vs. exclusive appraisal by your boss.

While these trends are yet to stabilize, the interest in peer-to-peer feedback focused on development is evidence of a broader change in corporate culture with favourable implications for leadership development.

With reinforcement from the shift to a more democratic and collaborative society at large, there is a growing desire inside organisations to manage the old-school linear hierarchy of top-down accountability. They want to enrich it with a more inclusive, collective and collaborative culture in which peer-to-peer feedback is driven by a self-motivated interest in helping colleagues learn and achieve their goals.

The shift to collaboration in corporate learning, and especially in leadership development focused on resolving real-time business challenges, is further reinforced by research which shows that teams with a higher level of collective intelligence, outperform teams with a higher average individual IQ.

We now know that collective intelligence beats individual brilliance.

For this reason, we wanted the design of our digital solution to fully utilise collaborative learning, especially in face-to-face and voice-to-voice conversations.


The internet has given us immediate access to massive knowledge resources. What was once in the ivory tower, is now at everyone’s fingertips.

Content curation makes it possible to pre-qualify, select and send knowledge assets according to corporate and individual learning priorities. Then, as we browse it, tag it and link it to our learning purpose, it builds a data-rich profile of who I am, how I learn and how I succeed.

As in other walks of our digital lives, we should not be surprised to see more relevant knowledge resources in our digital learning feeds, once the system detects our online learning behaviour.

The brilliance of digital learning does not stop with the personalised delivery of resources we never knew we needed.

Data collection related to the online behaviour of successful leaders will make it possible to model excellence in self-directed leadership development. With this data providing the fuel for artificial intelligence, the application of analytics will allow leadership development specialists to progressively describe, diagnose, predict and then prescribe the patterns of digital learning most likely to ensure future leaders succeed.

In simple terms, if online learning patterns are accurately captured, the data will help reduce inefficient and ineffective learning behaviour; and, by designing (prescribing) learning patterns that work, it will accelerate everyone’s ability to learn, succeed and create good value for the people they serve.

At the cost of removing luck and the pleasure of serendipity, data and analytics can raise everyone’s game.

So, as we designed our digital solution for leadership development, we paid careful attention to the advantage offered by data collection related to online learning patterns.


As this article explains, when we approached the challenge of designing a digital learning solution for leadership development, we gave less attention to the question, ‘What does digital technology do?’

And we spent more time asking, ‘What makes leadership development effective?’ and then, ‘How might digital technology augment and enhance it?’

It helped us conclude that digital learning for leadership development must do six things:

  • Shift the focus from replicating the classroom to learning where value creation takes place
  • Promote more effective use of on-the-job, developmental work exposure and experience
  • Engage line managers in providing developmental feedback and coaching
  • Align the advantage of self-directed learning with accelerating value for the company
  • Use peer to peer conversation to improve collaboration and develop collective leadership
  • Capture data and use analytics for modelling excellence to help everyone improve

On the face of it, these criteria are not particularly ‘digital’. They are human. And that’s the point.

They are the design criteria for building a digital solution that augments and enhances those things we already know make leadership development work.

To meet our client’s expectations, we have since built a solution that meets this specification. It’s called How Do Now and we are currently offering free webinar demonstrations to show you how it works, and how you could use it to compliment your leadership development programmes.