Berlin (GER), October 2011 - The German government's Gesellschaft für Internatioanle Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH recently organized an international Communication and Leadership Course in its GC21 E-Academy. During this project, candidates from Jordan, Kenya, and Zanzibar worked together in a virtual team. Most of the members were able to immediately integrate their experience into their daily work.
What are the key elements of good communication and leadership? This question was discussed in GIZ's eight-week online course held from mid-April to mid-June 2011. Five participants formed an international team in order to gain practical experience with this topic. They had to spend fifty to sixty hours to complete the six modules: Interpersonal Communication, Management Styles, Motivation and Teamwork, Presentation Skills, Cross-cultural Communication, and Negotiating Successfully.
If interested, people could receive additional material - the complementary, self-paced module Corporate Sustainability. The target groups included facilitators, HR managers, line managers, consultants, and learning- and-development managers. Besides good English knowledge, participants were required to have had professional experience in the realm of communication - in a business as well as multi-cultural context.
It soon became obvious how different countries cultivate different management styles, and it was one of the challenges to bring them together in the virtual team. During the course the members discussed management styles and agreed that, for instance, an autocratic approach was not effective. Instead, they preferred delegating, convincing, and participation, which ensured that all team members were involved in the problem-solving and decision-making process.
As the participants did not know each other at the beginning, a tutor helped them establish a team structure and start communication. In stage one he gave clear instructions on how to deal with the content and provided regular feedback on the learners' results. In the second stage he took a back seat, but was still available to answer questions and assist when problems occurred. In stage three his role was limited to coaching and mentoring.
After a socialization week, the participants had to work on the modules and present their results at the end of each section. To make sure that everybody had the chance to try out their skills, a rotating system was implemented: During a fixed period of time, each member took over the role of the team leader and coordinator. All participants had already worked as project managers, which helped them find their place in the team.
GIZ did not prescribe a certain approach nor expected specific results, but rather counted on the responsibility and performance of a self-organising team. Individuals could propose their own ideas and were encouraged to ask questions. Even the guidelines for online communication could be modified by the team, depending on their own experiences and opinions.
When it came to the negotiations part, however, there were a few rules to follow. In case the team did not reach an agreement, some basic guidelines helped them find a solution. According to BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) the members should, e.g., never sacrifice quality for cost, promise what cannot be delivered, jump at the first offer, or pass up a good deal based on personal conflicts. "We handed out weekly assignments that were presented as a case study", says Silvia Luber, "and lessens learned were later integrated in their teamwork." It was crucial that the members hat a practical approach to the subjects instead of theory lessons.
There were no specific tests to undergo, but with a permanent, active participation, a certificate was issued. At the end of the course, the participants were asked to give detailed feedback. Silvia Luber was very content to see that many team members - already during the course - were able to integrate their course experience into their daily work and successfully implement new management strategies in their environment. In virtual learning measures, this is often the most difficult part of all.
Silvia Luber is convinced that the transition was easy to handle because - by the course structure - the team was obliged to organise itself from the beginning and practice leadership and management in real-life situations. Some participants said that knowledge transfer to routines and projects was easy. Today they use their new skills for personal and interpersonal communication, as well as to build capacities of other staff members in their working environment and other organisations. The course even enables the participants to use different management styles to lead different target groups according to their needs.
This multi-national, multi-cultural training offers another very important advantage: "Some participants have developed networking abilities that are sustainable beyond this course", says Luber. So even after the end of the professional training, some participants will continue to exchange their experiences on the platform. But, of course, there were also difficulties, which are inherent in this form of virtual cooperation: time difference, limited personal relationships, language barriers, and a lack of attention and effectiveness. Unfortunately, the internet connection proved unstable in some of the participants' countries, which occasionally led to misunderstandings and a loss of commitment in the course.