Creating effective “personal learning clouds” for leadership development

By Elisabeth Goodman, 25th March 2019

Illustration by Nathaniel Spain in Elisabeth Goodman’s “The Effective Team’s Facilitation Workbook”, RIverRhee Publishing, 2018

The March-April 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review features an article by Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas on “The future of leadership development” (pp. 40-48).  The article focuses on the need to build “personal learning clouds”(PLCs) that embrace remote learning platforms to compensate for the shortfalls of more traditional forms of face-to-face training.

There is no doubt that those shortfalls do exist, and that MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other forms of online learning platforms (see notes) can help to address them as part of an individual’s PLC.

(See also previous blog: “Research on online courses confirms imperative for company learning and development strategies”.)

However, at RiverRhee , we are still experiencing a growing demand for our face-to-face courses.  So I thought it might be helpful to the HR contacts, senior leaders and delegates that we work with to reflect on how to make any form of training in their “personal learning clouds” as effective as possible.

Here then are my thoughts on some potential ways to address the shortfalls identified by Moldoveanu and Narayandas.

Anchor individual learning goals to those of the organisation

The authors highlight the fact that organisations don’t always benefit as much from any learning intervention as the individual does.

We always ask individuals to reflect, before our courses, on their learning objectives or expectations from the training.

HR and other senior managers could help to anchor individuals’ learning to the goals of the organisation by discussing these goals with individuals before they identify and take part in specific learning interventions.

This reminds me of a previous HBR article which my colleague Liz Mercer wrote up as a blog: “Why leadership training fails..”  This article also highlighted the leadership team’s responsibility for articulating the organisation’s strategic goals and how talent development should be linked to it.

Gaining organisational value from investing in learning was also the theme of a RiverRhee newsletter in June 2017 which featured a CIPD report “Driving the New Learning Organisation”.

Choose and influence learning interventions so that they are tailored to your requirements

Given that HR and other senior managers, and the individuals concerned, can indeed choose what form of training interventions they use, why not make sure that these reflect requirements as closely as possible?  This should be possible for online as well as face-to-face courses. After all, time and money are involved, so it’s important to make sure that these are well spent.

Moldoveanu and Narayandas highlight that one of the problems of traditional executive learning programmes is that they focus on such things as strategy development and financial analysis.  They argue that this creates a real gap in terms of the “interpersonal skills essential in thriving in today’s flat, networked, increasingly collaborative organizations”.  What is more, these leadership skills are needed by employees across the board, not just at the very top levels of the organisation.

RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching can be tailored to meet your requirements

These are skills that are receiving growing attention in RiverRhee’s offerings, both within our supervisor, management and leadership courses, and as stand-alone offerings in courses on communication and assertiveness.

And, we get a tremendous buzz when we know that what we are offering has really ‘hit the spot’.

So talk to us, and other training providers like us, to make sure that what we deliver really does meet your requirements.

Ensure that the learning context is as close to real life as possible

The HBR authors quote the results of a century of research into cognitive, educational and applied psychology, and more recent work on the neuroscience of learning.

This research emphasises the importance of close links between several factors that will impact the effectiveness of training:

  • Time. New learning is easily forgotten unless it is applied straight-away. Make sure the learning happens as close to the time as it will be applied as possible.
  • Space. Whilst attending a course away from the place of work can help minimise distractions, it might also create a barrier to applying the learning. Weight one against the other for the learning required.
  • Other learners. If the other learners that the individual is interacting with are doing similar work, then that will better support an effective exchange and development of knowledge.
  • Subject matter.  Learning interventions that include case studies and discussion that are related to the individual’s area of work will also reinforce their learning.

We ask delegates to commit to how they will apply their learning, and, in most cases, follow-up with a mini-coaching session about 4 weeks after the course to see how they have got on.

Most of our training takes place within a very tight geographical location in the UK, and our one-to-one coaching is mostly delivered ‘in situ’.  It would be interesting to see whether travelling to courses from elsewhere in the UK, and from other countries, has had a negative impact on our delegates’ learning.

Our open courses brings delegates together from related industries and/or disciplines.  Our in-house courses make that connection even more robust.

We have delegates bring their own case studies and challenges as examples to focus on throughout their learning.  Delegates at one of our recent courses on Project Management said that what they valued most about the course was:

“Opportunity to apply learnings to real life situations”

“Felt very relevant”

“Real case study”

How could you, if you are an HR practitioner or other senior manager responsible for identifying training interventions, ensure that individual’s “personal learning clouds” are as close to ‘real life’ as possible?

Measure return on investment to demonstrate value and for continuous improvement

If an individual’s development goals have been clearly defined before any learning intervention, then it should be possible to measure return on investment, to demonstrate value, and to provide feedback for continuous improvement.

RiverRhee’s June 2017 newsletter on gaining value from investing in learning, describes Kirkpatrick’s four levels for measuring the impact of learning:

  • A ‘happy sheet’ at the end of a training course (level 1)
  • The level of learning gained (level 2)
  • How it has been applied (level 3)
  • What impact it has had (level 4)

Whilst levels 1 and 2  can, to a certain extent, be determined immediately after the learning intervention, levels 3 and 4 will come some time after.  RiverRhee’s follow-up 4 weeks later will help to obtain this feedback.

It is up to those responsible for an organisation’s learning and development programme to routinely collect and make use of information on the effectiveness of individuals’ “personal learning clouds” – both online and face-to-face.


There is a wealth of useful information in the HBR article on accessing online resources as part of an effective “personal learning cloud” for leadership development.  However, those organisations and individuals that still want to make use of face-to-face learning interventions, can also benefit from just a few tips to make those interventions more effective.


Platforms and other resources for a “personal learning cloud” identified in the HBR article include Coursera, edX, 2U, LinkedIn Learning, Skillsoft, Degreed, Salesforce Trailhead, McKinsey Solutions, McKinsey Academy, BCG Enablement, DigitalBCG, SmashFly, Yello, Phenom People).

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.


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