Middle managers live in a difficult place at work: They supervise team members of their own while also managing relationships with their supervisors. The required “vertical code-switching” between two very different types of relationships can be challenging and exhausting. At the same time, the unique skills required of middle managers are often overlooked in training, according to a DDI report.

Furthermore, “as commercial life becomes more productivity-conscious, middle managers – by virtue of their pay grade – find it harder to justify taking time away from their desks,” says Liz-Ann Gayle, global head of innovation for the Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance. In fact, FT | IE CLA’s predictions for learning and development in 2019 included the projection that mobile learning would be “key” for training middle managers this year.

Mobile learning, of course, provides “anywhere, anytime” learning – on the commuter train, on a lunch break or at the point of need throughout the day. In this way, it becomes a performance support tool that enables “career progression for middle managers,” Gayle says.

Blended Learning and Soft Skills

Adam Charlesworth, international marketing director for mobile learning company Teach on Mars, says that “significant numbers” of the company’s clients are using mobile learning for middle and executive management training. “Some of the management training projects our clients are using Teach on Mars for are full-digital,” he says, “while others deep-integrate our mobile technology as part of a ‘phygital’ [blending physical and digital] strategy involving other learning experiences, such as conventional classroom training, social learning opportunities and point-of-need peer-to-peer or manager-to-peer coaching.”

Indeed, this blended approach is critical to the types of development middle managers need, says Samantha Caine, managing director of Business Linked Teams. In addition to instructor-led training (ILT), she adds, no middle manager training program should be without coaching.

The skills required of middle managers include business acumen, change management, communication and influence, learning agility, and managing up as well as down. Gayle says mobile learning is a better fit for “strategic technical subjects like finance or business acumen” rather than for behavioral competencies, which often require ILT, coaching or another in-person approach.

These so-called soft skills are “essential to accommodating and responding to changing workforce demands and making the right decisions,” says Caine. While mobile learning can introduce or reinforce concepts, practicing them in simulations and on the job is key to their reinforcement and application.

Mobile Measurement

One benefit of mobile learning, according to Gayle, is the ease of measurement and analytics, which are more important than ever due to increased investments in leadership development. And because mobile learning has “a different costing model involved, with different returns on investment and/or returns on expectations,” careful measurement is important. Fortunately, the measurement applications incorporated in many mobile learning platforms “go beyond simple measures of how many people successfully completed a course, or the ‘happy sheet’ results at the end of a program.”

Thanks to the rise of mobile coaching apps, measuring the impact of coaching is becoming easier, too. Artificial intelligence is helping to automate the process of coaching and track data from 360-degree assessments, employee and customer satisfaction surveys, and even coaching conversations themselves.

Learners still find traditional approaches like ILT and coaching effective for leadership development, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Still, in a recent survey of leadership training participants, on-the-job training and on-the-job coaching were rated the two most effective modalities for leadership development. Mobile learning, as a performance support tool, a just-in-time training method and even a medium for coaching, can be a great way to provide that on-the-job development.