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Leader development is the question. Is mobile the answer?

When you look at the numbers associated with workplace learning and development, the investment in leader performance jumps out. Bersin Associates, now a unit within Deloitte, wrote this in 2012: U.S. companies have increased leadership development spending 14 percent over 2011 levels to an estimated $13.6 billion in 2012. The Bersin group notes that this spending is extending beyond senior leaders and to mid-level and even first-level managers. Talent Edge 2020, a longitudinal study of the matters weighing on executives’ minds, identified leadership as their most pressing talent concern.

Can we rely on training and development for leaders? Although studies, such as Collins and Holton’s 2004 meta-analysis in HRDQ and Bruce Avolio and colleagues’ 2005 study in Leadership Review point to the positive influences associated with leadership development, current and expensive initiatives often attract raised eyebrows, reflecting skepticism about transfer from leader development events to performance, habits and results.

No surprise, there is great interest in alternative methods to develop and support leaders and managers. How about mobile devices?

When you think about it, it makes sense. Mobile messages go where tasks, needs and people are. A tablet and smartphone are patient, nearly inexhaustible. The assets can take many forms, from podcasts that motivate to checklists that guide. The issue of transfer is tackled by reminders and abbreviated lessons and examples there at the moment of need. And participation in communities and conversations happens on the very same omnipresent device used to look up a policy, order a pizza for the team or locate the best pizza place in Naples, Italy or Florida.

However, as enticing as they are, mobile devices are not major players in enterprise workforce development, in general, and in leader development, in particular. Not today, not yet.

I first noticed this enthusiasm-action gap when Jim Marshall and I surveyed workplace learning professionals. To our surprise, only 4% of a professionally active sample reported that they were using mobile devices for enterprise learning and support. ASTD’s 2011 Annual State of the Industry (SOIR) Report found even punier use of mobile for learning and support, with reliance on mobile technology used for not even 1 percent of available learning hours. Late in 2012, Elliott Masie released his mobile study. It revealed hefty interest but little programming.

Gina Yusypchuk and I looked at the question of mobile apps for leader development in an article published in CLO Magazine. What we found was intense interest, both in the marketplace and in the publisher/developer world, but few programs up to the gnarly challenge that is leadership. Developers are going in that direction, for sure, but no cigar, not yet.

What’s wrong? When we looked at apps, we found:

  • Too many words obscuring high value nuggets 
  • Too much legacy material, way too much
  • Too much content squeezed on the mobile device 
  • Too little analysis and thus insufficient attention to mobile sweet spots, such as practice, review, reminders, and outreach to experts, peers and community
  • Too much training, not enough appreciation of performance support 
  • Too little reliance on the nifty functions that come with mobile devices, from location services to accelerometers and video players
  • Too much isolation of the mobile device from a blend

If leader development is the question, mobile can be an answer, should be an answer. Learning professionals are eager for it. Employees will appreciate it. Let’s make it happen soon, through the next generation of mobile programs.




  1. Allison, you make a good point – mobile learning is a must for leadership development. As you say, learning professionals and employees are eager for it and technologies must rise up to the challenge. You can’t simply repurpose PC content for mobile – screen size and learner content make a different to what works. Content must travel seamlessly across different devices and kept short and relevant. My take is that if you’re not already considering mobile learning, you may find yourself left behind.

  2. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful info I was looking for this info for my mission.

  3. Chad Udell says:

    Have you evaluated the Leadership Challenge Mobile Practice app? It builds on the series by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.

    • I did look at it, perhaps 18 months ago. Is there a new version?

      Very much built on the Kouzes and Posner work, to its credit, with some nice use of technology to drive commitment and participation. My comments in the blog post do apply to it, however. While valuable and definitely some steps in the right direction, it felt like it needed a fresh look with mobile in mind.

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