Collaborative Learning – this year’s fad or a business imperative?

Collaborative Learning – this year’s fad or a business imperative?

Think back to that really great course you were on. The chances are that your memory of time well spent will have been informed by the debate, the discussion and the sharing of ideas.  Maybe it was just the network you created which endures to this day. Maybe it was that sense of shared endeavour, of being on a collective journey with like-minded souls.

If, like me, those are your memories, then it seems a shame that getting together in a group with our colleagues and peers has become trickier. While face to face training delivery is still a significant part of corporate learning toolkit it’s far from the only option. Even where people can take time away from the day job, time has been squeezed. Five-day courses have slimmed down to two-day programmes; the one-day team session has become a lunch and learn event (bring your own sandwiches). The content to be covered is rarely cut down by the same amount and so what time is available is given over to presentation after presentation after lecture (while the audience consult their smartphones – presumably seeking a wakefulness app).  

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In any case, many would argue that traditional classroom courses are too far removed from the work to be relevant to individuals and that learning undertaken as we work and where we work is more effective, long lasting and has greater impact. Collaboration in this context has typically been paired with social learning as a form of self-directed self-development by the eager and ambitious.  It is modern learning for connected millennials and those with their sights firmly on the furthest reaches of whichever greasy pole they wish to ascend.

But random self-directed learning does not make a corporate development strategy. There are right ways of doing things. There are lessons (painfully) learned over many years which need to be shared. The agreed strategic route to efficiency and effectiveness is unlikely to be stumbled upon by a loose affiliation chatting about their work problems on Slack. To be blunt, there are times when people still need to be educated and trained to play their role in the organisation’s strategy.

Typically, the informal knowledge sharing and coaching components of these formal education programmes is expected to naturally occur.  Assertions about the presence of a coaching culture are a sufficient balm to optimistic senior staff and HR teams. In truth, our research has found wildly different experiences and expectations of coaching being implemented on the ground.  For some, this is subsumed into supervision in which progress updates, targets, expenses and annual leave take equal billing with performance improvement. For others, improving capability is someone else’s job or consigned to the ‘too difficult box’.

If these issues sound like they apply to you and your organisation, help is at hand.  Numerous technology platforms make varying claims about supporting learning interventions with chances for peer to peer knowledge sharing and putting individuals in touch with resources or expertise to assist with the process of doing things differently and doing different things.

But in our experience, the issue is not the platform – any collaborative space can be made to work, though ones designed by L&D specialists work best. The issue is the mindset and the intentional design of collaborative activities as part of the learning process.

In our experience there are three things which turn collaboration from a millennial tinged fad into a business imperative:

Divide the learning process into clear phases – and support transition between phases. Typically these will be know why and know what (knowledge acquisition); skill building and implementation (applying the skills in real situations).

Create meaningful collaboration activities.  Activities can be at any stage of the learning process. In the acquire knowledge phase, these can be about integrating new concepts with the existing way of doing things. Incremental practice activities as part of the skill building process and reflective logs in the implementation phase. Sharing outputs publicly encourages peer to peer discussion and drives completion rates.

Guide line managers to support. By giving team leaders specific roles in the process – with guidance on how to provide support activity by activity, the learning process becomes much more integrated into every day work.

Line managers as effective enablers of capability building drives a high degree of personalisation.  Individuals can set goals in association with their line manager and activity outputs can be tied specifically to the requirement of the team and the aspirations of each individual.  This delivers the ‘three justs’ of effective collaborative learning:

Just in time, just enough, just for me.

Remember that really great course?  Building the capability of your teams and enabling them to share knowledge and expertise may be different in 2019, but no less memorable.

Discover how to make your training programmes more effective.

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About the Author
Robin Hoyle

Written by Robin Hoyle

Robin has spent almost three decades as a strategic L&D leader, trainer and consultant. As a writer and blogger he focuses on workforce development policies, learning strategies, tools and techniques. He has written two books, ‘Informal Learning in Organizations: How to Create a Continuous Learning Culture’ and ‘Complete Training: From Recruitment to Retirement’, both published by Kogan Page. Robin is a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute and the Chair of the World of Learning Conference. In his role as Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International, he is exploring routes to enhancing the learning experience and the impact of all Huthwaite’s training and learning interventions.