"If you want to invest for one year, grow rice. If you want to invest for 10 years, grow trees. If you want to invest for 100 years, grow people."
(Confucius, 551-479 BC)
These days we tend to rely heavily on the technological potential of society. Modern multimedia means facilitate the management development (MD) process, such as interactive cd roms with simulation games, recruitment, practice cases, instruments, and professional development opportunities. MD websites (e.g. http://opal.ddiworld.com/opal , and http://www.sylvan.net ) enable the new domain of virtual MD.
In this article we will use the concepts of the managers (trainees or managers) and their coaches in the online MD environment (learning and/or working). We will concentrate on the issue of online coaching and explore essential competencies (knowledge, skills, behaviour) of online coaches. First, the state of the art of virtual training will be described. It will be shown that currently attention is mainly focussed on the technical competencies of online coaches. The Open University Business School (UK) is a pioneer in identifying competencies of online coaches. The cultural and social competencies will be analysed in cultural competency and in social competency. Both competencies are essential to make the online MD process a success. Outlook offers some suggestions for further research.
State of the art
A competent conventional coach is not always a competent online coach. In an online MD environment, the coach is not able to present his/her personality in the same way as a real learning situation. The coach has to give some control to the manager. After all, it is questionable whether the power of a competent coach can be condensed digitally. Virtual communication is much more informal and managers work more independently. In everyday practice many bottlenecks remain unsolved. Especially senior coaches have serious difficulties working in an online MD environment. A forced transfer to online work is almost as unrealistic as asking someone to change his/her religion. The online manager has the feeling of listening to a talking head which can isolate him from the real MD process. Unfortunately, there are very few training courses for online coaches. The Business School of the British Open University is a pioneer in this respect (Salmon, 1999).
Currently, the OUBS has 650 part-time tutors and associate lecturers, spread over Europe. These teachers have advanced managerial and educational experience. The OUBS considers Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) an important new instrument to be used by management students to share knowledge. The OUBS has completed a large scale investigation among their online teaching staff. It was concluded that online teachers should be able to develop conferences for various purposes, undertake counselling and online assessment by e-mail, use the available online student and lecturer time efficiently, and learn online communication and e-moderating methods.
The OUBS acknowledges that there are very few online teachers with the empathic skills described above.
A hidden dilemma of online MD concerns the issue of culture. Increasingly, online materials are being developed in western universities/organisations, and subsequently disseminated world-wide. Companies are facing the portability problem ; how can we transfer online materials to different (learning)cultures. And how can we coach people from different countries to work effectively; in other words how can we increase the degree of connectedness . This issue goes far beyond creating a new software package. Like Gerrissens (1999, p.58) comment concerning African students: "Can we expose students from the South to the cultural change in instructional design and organisation, from face-to-face lecture/seminar-oriented learning to a discovery-based self-study through ICT-supported virtual classroom?"
In many countries, the learning culture is completely different from the Dutch one (see http://www.emdcentre.com for measuring international management competences). The teaching style is more directed from the teacher to the student, and is more based on memorising than the western style of learning. The western style of online learning is based on self- directed instruction. Textbooks are replaced by a kind of travel guide.
Online coaching lacks the social synergy of the actual coaching environment, whereby managers and coaches can react to each others emotions. Feelings of fear, friendship, humour, sorrow, aggression, and groupthink create an emotional stability in the actual group. Social distance in work or learning situations can result in an erosion of confidence among managers. In many organisations the MD environment is very abstract and constantly changing. It is precisely these kinds of situations where humans need trust and confidence. A mouse click is not the same as a pat on the back.
" It Takes two to create distance " (S. Raghuram et al., 1998). The authors point out that teleworkers, after a longer period of time, feel isolated from social activities. The authors mention the irony of teleworking. Geographical distance is the less important barrier. More important, is the psychological and social distance. The psychological distance is huge, because one is not able to walk and talk with colleagues.
How can we explain this kind of behaviour? While communicating with his colleagues, the online manager feels the need to get to know more about the surrounding tacit information, the informal aspects of the culture of the online counterpart. Usually, one only gets access to this tacit information through physical presence. Faust (1999) introduces personalisation techniques to break through the isolation of the online manager. By creating an informal atmosphere, managers become more committed which, in turn, enhances the MD process.
Subjects of a group chat may vary from favourite ice cream, grand children, animals, hobbies, place of birth, to favourite cars. The individual at a distance has become a real person. By sharing informal facts, the online manager or coach is no longer a faceless and voiceless participant, but a personality.
An initiative of the Technical University Delft, Department of Technology and Management, shows that simple methods can solve some of the social isolation problem. Within the framework of a European collaborative programme, the TUD provides a number of online workshops on `professional development in virtual learning environments for teacher trainers, researchers and policymakers. Preferably, more participants from the same company or organisation are recruited. For instance; three students from Iceland experience the geographical distance between their fellow students in other countries. At the same time they do not experience any social distance.
In the coming years further research will be needed to accomplish the online MD environment not only technically, but also culturally and socially. The core competencies of the online coach need further identification. This article will be concluded by formulating some questions for further research. As far as the cultural competencies are concerned the following issues could be raised:
how can we identify the MD needs of managers at a distance; what is their ` internal map of understanding ? Is it possible to develop a software system which can intelligently match the contents with the cultural diversity of the various MD environments. According to Benson-Armer and Tsun-Yan Hsieh (1997) teamwork across time and space can become a nightmare due to different cultures, different languages and lack of face-to-face meetings. In this case of global teams, technology can prove to be a false friend.
The contents of online courses has received very little attention. There is a real danger that large internet companies, in collaboration with large training institutions, will determine the MD contents, and due to the large bandwidth will corner an important part of the educational market. The contents will become more superficial, Americanised and mediocre. Knowledge managers must watch this development critically. A discrepancy could occur between free (and less reliable?) information on websites versus expensive and less accessible online information systems. The manager needs intelligent courseware and user interfaces, tailored to his level, without commercial `fuzzy information but with opportunities for in-depth study. There is a danger of organisations becoming dependent on the Internet, and their course offerings becoming dependent on marketers. A typical example is the ZapMe Corporation, which provides schools with free computers and high-speed Internet access in exchange for a schools agreement to place its student before an ad-laden portal with pre-selected indexed educational sites, for a certain number of hours each day (Barker, 2000).
What does the online training of coaches look like? In fact, an online toolkit for coaches should be available, to offer alternative learning styles and with the right fit in the culture of the local MD environment; one example might be an electronic help desk available 24 hours per day to the manager and coach; the role of the programme developers would then be extended. In the management consultancy world the company Ernst en Young has launched such a help desk ( http://ernie.ey.com) , where predominantly specialized questions are asked by small and medium-sized enterprises (Vergouw, G. 1998, pp.2-3). The commercial price for MD advice may be an obstacle for most MD institutions.
Case toolkits for coaches
There are two toolkits available on the web which are worth mentioning. The first one is www.docent.com . Docent offers online MD institutions the opportunity to plan their MD objectives, to assess the current level of manager or customer knowledge and skills and define knowledge gaps, and to register, manage and deliver individual learning activities. Lucent Telecommunications has founded the Wireless University with the help of Docent, to access thousands of engineers located in more than 90 countries. Lucent is enthusiastic because they can modify the registration process and collect any demographic data they want. Lucent can track how well students in China do compared to students in the US. This gives Lucent the capability to adjust the courseware to the individual or the region. Blackboard ( www.blackboard.com ) is also a practical tool for the teacher in the virtual learning environment.
Other questions are related to the social competence of the online coach:
Is the online MD environment democratic and social enough? There is discussion about a more democratic organisation caused by the use of digital networks. Concepts like intelligent and social communities are real and, to a certain extent, paradoxical. More often employees will not personally get in touch with their subordinates, or the director of the company. The virtual organisation can imply a weakening of democratic and social relations. The gap between the boardroom and the grassroots level is only increasing.
Is it possible to make the MD environment completely virtual? One example is the American company eMpowering eMployers where the HRM department is fully virtually organised, and training, assessments and even leadership tests are offered virtually ( http://www.e.kennis.nl/links/ID=156) .
How can socially competent but technofobic coaches be assisted?
Does online working save time because people do not have to meet anymore? It is doubtful whether the whole work process is faster due to virtuality. If there is a vacant job on the Internet, the applicants expect an earlier answer because of the Internet. Huizing (in BanenNet, p.25) cautions against too much optimism: Only submission of the applicants letter is faster, though the applicant expects the whole process to be faster. But the careful selection procedure cannot be sped up.
Like Sara Kiesler pointed out in 1986: " Today we can perform more and more technical miracles with computers, but real managerial leverage will come from asking what social miracles we perform with them ".
An extended Dutch version of this article will be published in Tijdschrift voor Management Development, Volume 8, Number 1, March 2000.
BanenNet The Second Generation (1999) KeyMark Services, Amsterdam