On May 21, we taught the first Rady School Center for Executive Education (CED) course completely in the VirBELA virtual world. The course was aptly titled “Managing High Performance Distributed Teams” and we had participants as far away as England in VirBELA with us.
VirBELA is an innovative, 3D virtual world (first developed at the Rady School) where people interact with each other using avatars. It was particularly suited to the Distributed Teams course because, not only could we make the class accessible across the globe, we could also employ a variety of virtual tools and scenarios to augment the teaching methods. For example, participants used the metaphor of forging an invisible path to signify completing a project, with all its ambiguities and twists and turns. Teammates guided each other along the invisible path with limited information. There were deadlines and budgets to meet and distractions to avoid, just like in the real world.
Guess what happened? The teams entered into the invisible path game and immediately started running ahead with no plan, no discussion, and no shared expectations. Do you think they met their goals? Not even close.
The class focused on trust and communication as key components to leading a successful distributed team. We emphasized the importance of sharing expectations at the outset to improve communication and to build trust. When the participants had a second chance at the invisible path, both teams immediately went into planning and communicating before running down the path. The difference in team performance and coordination was astounding.
While executive educators generally try to simulate the real world in the classroom and offer activities to practice and demonstrate, VirBELA provided a platform where the sky was literally the limit. In addition to the invisible path game, we used “cones of silence” (pictured below) to allow participants to pair up in the virtual classroom and talk without being distracted by others talking at the same time.
The sky was also the limit in terms of resources we could make available to participants during and after class. We created a museum of resources, with each room focusing on a specific theme, such as communication or document sharing tools. The resources consisted of videos, peer reviewed articles, podcasts, blogs, and useful websites. Participants could browse the museum and click on a screen to see, read, or listen to the item.
From an instructor’s standpoint, the class was a lot of fun to design and teach. It wasn’t easy though (at least the first time through). Teaching to avatars is teaching to a room full of blank stares. I had to be creative in finding ways to solicit feedback. Fortunately, VirBELA has ways to do that. Gestures and movements include waving, dancing, being impatient, and laughing. Once participants got used to doing that, we had a livelier class than we would have face-to-face. I mean, how often do students dance in class?
VirBELA proved to be a particularly successful venue for team building, especially for virtual teams. Participants raved about the Invisible Path game and it gave people an opportunity to work on communication and trust in a completely different space than at work. Having that shared experience gave them a language to use when they got back to the workplace as well. “You steered me clear off the path” takes on a whole new dimension when you have the experience of flying off an invisible path into a land of cubicles with your teammates at the helm.
Joanie Connell, Ph.D., is a Rady School CED instructor, the CEO of Flexible Work Solutions and author of “Flying Without a Helicopter: How to Prepare Young People for Work and Life.” Visit CED’s website for upcoming program information and registration.