We have all witnessed it, many of us are living it: new technologies and business models are changing the workplace rapidly. This trend is unlikely to slow down. What it means for organizations is that, now more than ever, staying relevant will require a commitment to lifelong learning.
The solution may be clear but its implementation – far from it. Several main obstacles need to be tackled.
Employees want to upskill but for many, work is already very stressful. How to motivate them to add one more item to their long to-do lists? There is also the famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve which explains why employees may love the exhaustive three-day training seminar but are able to retain only a fraction of the knowledge just days later. Finally, as the experience of many companies shows, outsourced learning materials are often quite generic and fail to truly engage users.
Collaborative learning can solve the above challenges. It is cost-effective yet highly personalized and empowers employees to take more responsibility for their professional development. It provides room for repetition and for distributed practice so that new knowledge is retained. Most importantly, it can support the emergence of a culture of lifelong learning within an organization.
What is collaborative learning?
Schools and universities all over the world – at least those establishments that rely on modern teaching methods – are already well-aware of the incredible potential of collaborative learning. Many employees may have already experienced this learning approach at highschool or university. Typically, a teacher or instructor divides the class into teams and asks them to work together in order to solve a problem. Each group then presents its findings to the class.
Collaborative learning uses several aspects of group dynamics to its advantage. Firstly, adding a social component engages learners more effectively and is particularly enjoyable for extroverts. Secondly, teamwork typically involves a fair amount of discussions. As team members bounce different ideas and perspectives about a problem, key theoretical concepts are repeated and thus reinforced. This means that typically, learners are better able to retain the knowledge they have been taught.
Peer learning is a type of collaborative learning in which two people are engaged in problem solving and discussions.
Advantages of collaborative learning at the workplace
Just like it does in schools and universities, collaborative learning within a corporate setting engages employees very effectively. Indeed, with a whopping 87 percent of companies either finding skill gaps in their workforce, or expecting to do so in the next few years (according to a survey by McKinsey&Company), L&D teams cannot afford to ignore this valuable approach.
Below are the seven main advantages of collaborative learning:
Engages learners and does not feel like a burden
Gives employees more freedom to determine their learning needs
Successfully reinforces key concepts and best practices
Provides learning on demand
Saves organizations time and resources
Breaks down silos
Unites learners in a community.
How collaborative learning works?
In a nutshell, most companies already possess the necessary knowledge and skills. However, the levels of expertise of individual employees differ greatly. Collaborative learning facilitates the transfer of institutional knowledge by connecting highly-skilled employees, sometimes referred to as subject matter experts, with others within the company.
For example, instead of hiring outside consultants to run a training course on customer service, a company may approach one or more of the top performers in the customer service department, asking them to share with colleagues tips on how to manage challenging situations. The knowledge passed on by someone from within the company will be a lot more relevant as it is derived from the specific context of the company.
In addition, such exchanges are quick to organize, compared to outsourced training sessions. Managers who notice staff are facing challenges can take the appropriate steps and see quick results.
Engaging staff members in such short training sessions also has a positive social aspect. Not only are employees given a chance to exchange ideas, but also – to get to know each other better. The increased interaction means team members are more aligned and stiff lines between departments – blurred. The outcome is more innovation and a more motivated workforce.
Surely, collaborative learning does not completely remove the need for formal training, nor does it diminish the value (fresh perspectives, cutting-edge expertise and knowledge) that outside consultants can sometimes bring. But it is the best approach to transfer institutional knowledge. In addition, it can help L&D departments reinforce classroom sessions by providing the opportunity to repeat and practice key aspects and concepts until they are mastered.
Is collaborative learning the secret to employee happiness?
Surely, a question like this does not have a simple answer. Many factors need to align for someone to come in enthusiastic and motivated for work every day, on most days. However, collaborative learning is part of a management approach that does result in happier, more motivated staff.
Collaborative learning allows employees the freedom to point out their specific needs, to pursue the kind of knowledge and skills they deem important and also to share their own expertise with others. Not only are people more engaged in the learning process but also they have more control over their professional development.
We have already written about the importance of making employees feel like they belong at work. Collaborative learning can help connect everyone in a community where helping each other grow and develop, rather than competing with one another is the key focus. This kind of support and the ties it helps foster will make employees feel like they do belong at work. The result? A happier, more competent and more loyal workforce.
In conclusion, collaborative learning is decentralized, flexible, agile and highly effective. The companies which manage to integrate this approach successfully will see a number of benefits beyond the higher competence of staff, namely: increased retention, more satisfied employees, and greater levels of innovation.