How to design the best possible digital experience for an international learning expedition — when no one can travel…

Once upon a time in 2020, there was a two-module leadership program powered by HEC Paris Executive Education for 3 cohorts of international managers from Total Energies. Copenhagen, Singapore and San Francisco were the destinations for their learning expeditions.

Then Covid came along and everything had to be turned digital. For a long time, HEC and the client hoped that at least the learning expedition could take place in real life up to the moment where there was no choice but to transform the learning expedition into some form of digital experience.

That’s when, I came into the picture, curious to experiment how to design the best possible experience in what looked a bit like an “impossible mission”. Over Autumn 2021, we worked hard with the HEC Executive Teams to deliver the best possible digital experience for these 3 cohorts of participants — which to some extent was also about delivering the least worst experiece considering their high level of frustration with going digital after so much time and hope !

Anyway, the result was surprisingly good. Like much better than what we initially thought possible. Of course, the digital experience cannot compete with the physical version — people want to feel, meet, smell and move away from their computers. That’s good news ! Still there are promising avenues to consider — especially when it comes to better understanding the leverages of online learning and collaboration — which I am passionate about.

One client, 3 cohorts, 3 destinations over the Autumn 2021 — it almost looks like an experimental setting — and was a great opportunity to experiment in multiple directions… and here is my attempt to capitalize on the key learnings around different aspects which were key to our success.

Clarifying the journey and the invitation at hand

This was one the key aspects of my contribution: defining the exploration topic at hand throughout the week — aka the overall invitation giving a purpose and a coherence behind the different visits, workshops and activities.

For the 3 cohorts, the common invitation was to explore how those smart cities were reinventing themselves and innovating at the ecosystem level — a topic I am passionate about since my PhD.

  • This investigation journey was supported by short teaching moments on my side — about the dynamics and challenges of ecosystemic innovation and the specific mindset and behaviors of innovative teams
  • Then the focus was as well explored by the different guests
  • The overall journey was illustrated through a common Miro board where inspirational and practical resources were available and where workshop ideas were collected. It stayed as a tangible way to illustrate the journey

Fostering inspirations and insights from external speakers

HEC Paris Program managers were in charge of finding the best speakers to share inspiring stories, taking different perspectives — including the one of large companies (such as Schneider Electric or Cisco), start-up incubator (such as Schoollab in San Francisco or Block 77 in Singapore), start-ups inventing the new energy business models and universities (NUS, Stanford).

  • For this part, the success comes from the quality of the speakers. Being dynamic and concise are definitely essential qualities to keep the attention of participants…
  • Then, just like a bouquet, the variety of perspectives was also greatly appreciated
  • Every guest speaker session was followed by a workshop, whereby participants were invited in groups of 5 to reflect on their key learnings and the implications for their company. Part of my role was to come out with engaging workshop questions each day

Fostering networking and peer learning

In any leadership program, a critical benefit comes from the networking and peer learning going on between different participants. International leadership programs are a unique opportunity for managers to meet, share experiences and challenges, develop connections and trust and nurture a form of precious informal social capital.

The digital format severely hinders this — informal conversations disappear, non verbal cues cannot help… especially when the majority of people keep their video off in plenary. I paid great attention to this dimension and tried to reinforce it in multiple ways.

  • Every session started with a 10-minute “Get together” moment, in group of 3, where participants would connect around a “question of the day”
  • We did our best to change participants in breakouts throughout the week to increase the likelihood of discovering new faces
  • For one cohort, we created a “Tell me your story” exercise — whereby participants could “identify” the colleagues whose jobs or experiences they were curious about. Then we oarganized a serie of 20 mn talks where they could present their job or an experimentation they were currenty working on. Taking time to discover each other was highly valued
  • For the 2 other cohorts, we created the “exploitation / exploration individual roadmap” as a way to collectively identify where the expertises were in the group — hence who can you call to get support — and the exploration areas — who was experimenting with what

Contributing to the organizational learning and transformation

Gathering top leaders is a unique opportunity to trigger new insights about what is going on within the company, enabling participants to get broader perspectives, across regions, functions and businesses. For these cohorts, the expected learning was mostly around their individual leadership styles. However, on specific topics, we encouraged collective discussions mostly around two topics being the implications of the renewables business models to TotalEnergies overall transformation as well as sharing ideas about how leaders could bridge the innovation gap. For those topics, I felt it was quite important to host common conversations whereby learnings could be shared and put into perspective collectively. From a facilitation perspective, it find it always quite hard to appreciate how “fruitful” those exchanges are to the overall group in a digital setting.

Living a common memorable experience

Leadership programs are highly experiential and create some common experience, here again reinforcing cooperation and trust among leaders. The digital experience simply kills this experiential dimension. We tried to make it better through a series of small touches — that remain quite unsatisfactory to me….

  • Welcoming participants with music and backgrounds related to the visited city
  • Encouraging cameras to be turned on
  • Inviting participants to rename themselves each day according to their geographies, favorite colors or an innovative person that inspires them as a way to change perspectives
  • Systematically including a teambuilding moment in the week (escape game) to foster fun and cooperation in small groups
  • Experimenting design fiction workshops with Schoollab
  • Organizing a “farewell speed-dating” fostering quick connection moments in pairs around the exploration topics in pairs

Securing a smooth experience

This could be not worth mentioning unless the digital pain points had not been still very present in the life of our participants. We tried to have the smoother possible experience with a mix of Zoom (very convenient to create breakouts) and Miro board (to share common knowledge). It worked nicely… Still, I find it important to keep in mind how “complicated” the digital experience remains for most of the participants:

  • When Zoom is not your “corporate solution” and requires you to install a new add-on / web interface
  • When Teams might be the company solution — but different IT specifications for different countries — makes it impossible for everyone to use the chat
  • When leaders connect from different areas of the world and struggle being logged on and off sometimes 15 times throughout a 3 hours meeting — due to network variability
  • When Zoom breakouts mode is going wild— for whichever reason — and participants never arrive to the assigned breakout rooms
  • When participants have emails bugging them throughout their time with us and it is just impossible not to read them while contributing to this program
  • When participants try to engage in small group discussion (sometimes intimate) discussions) while being at the office in the middle of the open floor — being interrupted by colleagues or listened to by 20 people in their surroundings
  • And more importantly as we remain seated in a passive mode — even with multiple breaks our bodies, so essential to digest learning, stay useless…

Fluidity is not a source of satisfaction. It is a must-have. But for reasons out of our reach it still remains a strong source of dissatisfaction that only humor, fatality and pugnacity can solve…

If I had a magic wand…

We are only at the begining of our experimentations with what is “digitally” sound, acceptable and desirable… after these 3 cohorts, I still wonder and dream about ways to drastically improve the overall experience around different dimensions :

How to make it more immersive ?

How to “talk to our bodies” as well (I am so tired of being sitted) ?

How to better process networking throughout the module to develop trust and peer connections ?

A couple of the challenges that still remain to explore…

By Chloé Renault, December 2021

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Chloe Renault

Chloe Renault

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Un brin d'écriture pour ralentir, explorer et questionner mes apprentissages et pratiques professionnelles. Par touches, essais, et expérimentations !