Here’s how to leverage some of the latest trends in online learning

by | Dec 9, 2020 | Managing Teams, Lindy Greer

Even before COVID-19, businesses large and small were embracing the digital economy through e-commerce, telecommuting, virtual teamwork, and online learning. There’s no doubt that the prolonged experience of working from home has accelerated the adoption of these trends. Let’s reflect on what this means for leadership and organizations and how leaders can leverage them in the new normal.

Online Learning and Development

The global head of HR of a leading financial institution mentioned that by partnering with a business school on a leadership training program, he had trained 250 people in three years. His organization had nearly 40,000 employees, of which 1,800 qualified for training. Smiling a bit meekly, he quipped, “How many years will it take me to train all my leaders?”

Traditional executive education programs are excellent for high levels of engagement and exchanging ideas in real-time. And yet, these programs are not scalable. Besides the high tuition, organizations are disrupted when leaders leave for days at a time. Realistically, traditional business education remains limited to a select few. What’s worse, many promising leaders are excluded from such opportunities for reasons beyond their influence. One governmental agency admitted it was easier to spare executives in the head office for training rather than pulling leaders from peripheral locations.

Using online tools for talent development as a nimbler, more scalable, and more affordable option was taking off well-before COVID-19 appeared. The prolonged experience of relying on telecommuting tools, however, is undoubtedly speeding up widespread adoption. The search for online courses has doubled on Google, the demand for Coursera courses has increased six-fold, and business schools’ webinars and online courses are oversubscribed. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a significant portion of this demand retreats in the post-COVID era.

Yet many wonder if online learning is effective. The data comparing online learning to face-to-face learning are encouraging and suggest that online learners do not lag face-to-face learners in retaining and applying content. In fact, at times, online learners can even exceed face-to-face learners on these measures.[1] And even if online learning is lagging face-to-face in some areas, there are reasons to optimistic: Instructors’ abilities and tools for online delivery are continuously improving.

How can companies best leverage existing and emerging online tools? Our experiences in offering online courses in Executive Education and launching an Online MBA program, led to the following ideas:

  • Start Learning Online. Use this extended digital hiatus to introduce your team to online learning. Start small. Chose a course or webinar for your team’s benefit. Encourage employees in non-central locations to participate. Take 30 minutes from a standing meeting to discuss key takeaways and debrief on how the learning applies to work.
  • Go Interactive. Today, online learning is more than passively watching videos. In designing the Ross Online MBA, we learned it is critical to maintain variety for sustained learning. For example, at the Ross School of Business, we developed executive education online courses that include computer-based simulations, self-assessments, group activities, personalized feedback, and live virtual interactions with faculty.
  • Gauge Commitment. Many leaders have confessed they have difficulty deciding whom to send to in-person talent development programs. Considering this quandary, use participation, engagement, and performance in online courses as criteria to gauge interest and commitment to continuous growth and development.
  • Empower Agile Learning. To complement face-to-face talent development programs, consider providing employees with an allowance for online learning. Netflix, for example, gives each employee a budget to pursue courses relevant to their professional needs. Not only are employees committed to learning, but this flexible approach potentially accelerates how quickly employees update their skills given changing job demands.
  • Sustain Continuous Learning. Don’t limit training to a few days a year, which typically characterizes in-person programs. Explore making online learning bookends—before and after—face-to-face programs. Cohorts who completed face-to-face training together can also do the bookend learning together. Doing so supports continuous learning. In addition, residential programs are often used to facilitate relationships among diverse leaders, and continuous access to educational opportunities could maintain and solidify those relationships.

[1] Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class Difference$: Online Education in the United States. (; Zhang, D., (2010). Interactive Multimedia-Based E-Learning: A Study of Effectiveness.; Neuhauser, C., (2010). Learning Style and Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction.


Lindy Greer headshot

Lindy Greer, Faculty Director & Associate Professor of Management and Organizations

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Maxim Sytch, Faculty Champion & Associate Professor of Management and Organizations