What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning helps teams learn fast, stay people-centric, and distribute ownership.
Collaborative Learning
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L&D leaders everywhere are fighting for attention. Unfortunately, they’re losing.

Right now, organizations are facing a crisis of learning. For most organizations, average training course completion rates hover around 20-30%. There are too many competing demands on your teams, and learners don’t have the space they need to learn the way they want to. 

This disparity is about more than just the pivot to remote working or budgets getting tighter. It’s bigger than the ever-increasing expectations to get more done during the day.

So, how can we help people lift their heads above water and learn the way they want to? And how can we view learning not just as a requirement but as something to be celebrated?

We need to get people excited about learning again. We need to connect people, get out of the way, and let them grow together in their learning communities. Your organization’s institutional knowledge is its greatest asset. You need a way to put it to work.

Years ago, when we began applying the collaborative learning methodology to organizational learning, we were looking for a way to help businesses share their internal expertise quickly and easily. We had no idea just how urgent and vital collaborative learning would become.

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What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning is a training methodology where employees share their knowledge and expertise, teaching and learning from one another at the same time. 

A group learning approach enhances the training experience by capitalizing on each employee’s skills, ideas, and institutional knowledge. It leverages social interactions such as on forums to maximize learning and engagement.

Collaborative learning is often confused with cooperative learning, where students work together in small groups to solve a problem or master a concept. Cooperative learning is a useful learning tool but difficult to deploy on an organizational scale. It's most commonly used in high school and higher education settings. Like cooperative learning, collaborative learning encourages higher-level thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork but is much easier to scale across teams.

Collaborative learning is part of a larger trend toward interdependence. Organizations are moving away from more hierarchical top-down management styles and toward low-authority, high-accountability models. Instead of individual project ownership, we’re relying more and more on group work to achieve outsized results.

In other words: We work in teams, so why wouldn’t we learn as a team?

5 benefits of collaborative learning

5 Benefits of Collaborative Learning

In contrast with traditional corporate training, collaborative learning is democratized, relevant, fast, iterative, and impact-driven. Here’s what that means in practice:

Collaborative learning is democratized

Most traditional corporate training is top-down, meaning management or L&D determines training needs and then creates or buys learning materials to meet those needs. In contrast, in a collaborative learning methodology, anyone on the team can make a request or create a learning need.

This allows everyone in the organization to contribute to the learning process, making them feel more engaged and focused. Employees suggest training needs, and other employees use their unique skill sets to create content to fulfill those needs. 

Then as a facilitator, L&D assists others in completing courses, runs quality control, and makes sure learners have what they need to succeed.

Because employees declare learning needs, they can learn about the things they care about. The result is greater employee buy-in and smoother knowledge-sharing between employees and departments.

Collaborative learning is relevant

Collaborative learning courses are created by your fellow team members, which means the content is more nuanced and specific to your company than third-party courses would be.

In a traditional L&D model, the team creates the learning content or purchases courses from a third party. The process for commissioning courses typically involves a group of instructional designers with technical backgrounds. Classes can take months to produce and be very expensive.

Conversely, with collaborative learning, L&D and employees create and fulfill learning needs together. As a result, employees are more invested in the learning process. They help create quality content that L&D doesn't have to buy or source through expert interviews.

Collaborative learning is fast

One of the biggest contributors to the current crisis in learning is the sluggish response to training needs. By the time L&D teams have realized there’s a gap in their resources and responded with the right learning content, the chance to make the biggest positive impact has long passed.

Collaborative learning connects people together, allowing them to declare learning needs, share their skills and expertise, and create learning content quickly to answer urgent questions. This way, organizations can respond to opportunities for growth quickly and more effectively.

Collaborative learning is iterative

Because course creation has traditionally been slow and expensive, updates and refreshes have been infrequent. Collaborative learning prioritizes making it easy to create and edit course materials, which means it's far easier to update them based on new information or employee feedback.

Now, iteration is more important than ever. Courses frequently become dated due to technological or organizational changes. Static course design hinders flexibility and slows down employee learning.

With collaborative learning, you can disseminate information and iterate it later based on feedback. This way, crucial information gets into the hands of employees exactly when it is needed, empowering them to make better decisions.

Collaborative learning is impact-driven

Traditional L&D programs are deliverable-driven, focused solely on counting things like course completion. In contrast, collaborative learning is impact-driven and looks at the impact your training is having over time.

In most L&D departments, success is measured by the number of courses shipped and completed by employees. This approach offers very low visibility into how employees are interacting with the courses or what they’re getting out of that experience. It also makes it more difficult to demonstrate training ROI.

In contrast, collaborative learning is impact-driven because it doesn't define success as simply course delivery. Rather, because teams are active in the learning process, their feedback indicates whether a course is successful.

How collaborative learning works

All of that sounds great, but what does collaborative learning actually look like in practice? How can it help employees learn occupational and social skills and therefore, help your company to succeed?

Higher-level learning benefits aside, collaborative learning works because it lets learning programs be nimble, peer-driven, and distributed.

Collaborative learning helps companies stay nimble

With a learning platform that leverages collaborative learning, you can keep employees abreast of changes by creating courses in minutes, not months. This lets your company react quickly to accelerating technology, industry disruption, and unpredictable world events.

How Collaborative Learning works

The problem: L&D can’t keep up with organizational change

Recent events have shown us that an organization’s priorities, goals, and infrastructure can change overnight. For example, in March and April of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced workers to transition suddenly to remote work. Employees had to learn new workflows and adopt new technology with zero planning or prep time.

In an ideal world, L&D would have handled this transition, but most learning platforms don't allow for quick course production. Producing even a single training course can take months of group work, and L&D teams frequently rely on instructional designers to build courses. The entire process is admin-heavy and resource-intensive. Also, it's expensive.

The solution: easy course creation that anyone can master

Collaborative learning makes it easier and more cost-effective to create and share learning materials. Anyone at the company can quickly learn how to create a course, with no outside help required.

Sales Enablement can demo new product features. Customer Satisfaction can create a tutorial to help reps deal with a specific recurring issue in a self-managed way. John in management could set up a project centered around a case study to impact a specific leadership skill.

All of these courses can be easily distributed, and educators (course authors) can get quick feedback from relevant stakeholders as they iterate and improve over time.

That accessibility opens the door for a whole new range of training possibilities. You can still create comprehensive onboarding courses and set learning paths. But you can also develop micro-courses that are relevant to only a single department or even a solitary position. You can create courses that address temporary changes, even if they’re only applicable for a month or even a week. You can roll out urgent content quickly and update it later to reflect new developments or real-world changes in the market.

Example in practice: When the company adopts a new billing software, the Customer Ops team is able to quickly create best practices and a course on how to use the software. Employees are able to start using the software right away. Customer Ops can then continue to update the course to reflect employees’ questions.

Collaborative learning is people-centric

Employees are a company’s most valuable resource. A collaborative learning platform helps you leverage that competitive advantage by letting teams learn from one another rather than simply prescribing standardized learning content based on role.

Collaborative Learning is people-centric

The problem: irrelevant and un-engaging training programs

Right now, too many organizations think of learning as a one-way street: L&D creates learning materials, and employees consume them. Everything goes in one direction, with no opportunity for any back-and-forth or feedback. This is industrialized learning, designed with the sole goal of delivering skills to employees. Only it doesn’t work.

Centralized content creation is deliverable-driven, not results-driven. L&D wastes time and money creating or purchasing courses that nobody pays attention to. They pump that content into LMS systems built for administrators, not learners.

This approach to pedagogy hasn’t been effective in the past, and it’s certainly not sufficient now. Media consumption habits have changed to favor peer-driven content. You only have to look at the growth of billion-dollar social media companies to see that people respond most strongly to peer-driven content.

LXPs got us halfway to solving the problem. They made it easier to find and consume learning materials than a stodgy LMS did. But the real crisis isn’t in the presentation of content; it’s a critical lack of focus on creating engaging content that also encourages community interaction.

The solution: learning as a conversation, not a directive

Collaborative learning is a peer-driven, bottom-up method for creating learning materials, making it more effective than traditional eLearning methods. Employees identify specific learning needs based on what they view as gaps in their knowledge. In-house experts then meet those needs by creating relevant courses. Everyone is an active participant in learning together.

Not only is this more democratic, but it’s also more dynamic. There is room for conversation, feedback, and iteration. You can create more effective learning materials and boost employee engagement at the same time.

Facilitating knowledge transfer and idea-sharing among your employees isn’t just a way to drive better performance; it also enables innovation. Course creators are forced to think like educators: employing decision-making and critical-thinking skills to create the best courses. Your teams might not have realized the skills and knowledge present within their teams. Once they’re aware of it, there’s no limit to what you can create.

Example in practice: Instead of a sales enablement manager setting mandatory pitch-assessment modules to be completed by all reps, she could give reps the opportunity to declare where they were running into problems and propose solutions. Then she could create learning paths that offered the support and the guidance needed to improve.

Related: 3 Biggest Challenges of Remote Sales Training and How to Overcome Them

Collaborative learning enables a distributed company culture

In a world where employees are increasingly willing to job-hop, strong company culture matters more than ever. A platform that leverages collaborative learning can help you build that strong company culture, one that’s more flexible, decentralized, and nurturing. One that helps employees develop their skills and careers.

How collaborative learning works

The problem: corporate learning makes employees feel like automatons

Building a company culture that empowers employees is a tall order. Unfortunately, it’s an area where organizations have frequently failed in the past, especially during moments of crisis. A rigid, top-down corporate culture will inevitably be less flexible and in-touch with employees’ needs.

Centralized learning programs only contribute to the problem. They are more likely to be focused on specific deliverables, for example, upskilling large swaths of employees without concern for individual growth opportunities. To do this, they turn to one-size-fits-all solutions, like mass reskilling programs or in-person training seminars.

These solutions are usually expensive, are not effective, and can be challenging to scale. Generic learning programs make employees feel like a number, not like valued team members. This lack of personalization is a major contributing factor to the current crisis of engagement.

The solution: a culture of learning that empowers workers

Collaborative learning techniques such as think-pair-share can play a decisive role in the ongoing struggle to keep employees happy, present, and focused. It encourages each employee to take ownership of organizational culture by creating an environment where they can contribute their skills and experience toward a common goal by creating content. In a collaborative learning environment, each person’s skills and ideas are genuinely valued.

A collaborative learning culture should be focused on training impact. No more pointless videos or interminable webinars: If an activity isn’t helping people learn, it’s not worth their time.

A culture of decentralized learning empowers all people while helping them move forward in their learning journey. Most importantly, decentralized learning is useful in a company of 10 or 10,000. It works whether you’re all in the same building or spread out across the world. It scales as the company grows and is elastic enough to change with the organization’s priorities.

Example in practice: Instead of instituting a corporate reskilling initiative for 1,000 engineers, a company could encourage each employee to set their own learning goals based on their specific aspirations and priorities for development.

Related: Why Collaboration Skills Offer a Major Competitive Advantage (Plus 10 Ways to Unleash Them)

3 practical applications of collaborative learning

Adopting collaborative learning can have positive real-life effects that extend far beyond the L&D department.

1. Build a more flexible and adaptable workforce

Collaborative learning allows people to learn new concepts, products, and processes quickly. It’s significantly easier to create training programs, which, in turn, makes it easier for specific departments, or even entire companies, to adapt to products or processes.

This flexibility is a huge competitive advantage in a world in constant flux. A learning platform focused on quick and nimble responses to training opportunities could have a profound impact across your entire business. 

With an elastic learning platform, you’ll be able to pivot quickly to meet changing market dynamics or counteract world events. In practice, this means smoother transitions for workplace developments, such as the switch to remote working.

Most importantly, next time a crisis hits, you may be able to rapidly reskill employees and avoid layoffs. Here’s a case study: When Scandinavian Airlines found themselves with thousands of grounded flights due to COVID-19, they quickly retrained their service workers as health-care support workers. In this example, the company fulfilled a critical national need even as their primary income generator was off the table.

Related: 5 Collaborative Learning Strategies to Incorporate Into Your Training Programs

2. Encourage robust learning and engagement

Effective collaboration encourages active learning, making it more useful for knowledge retention and deeper learning engagement than traditional passive learning methods.

Studies show that active learning increases knowledge retention. Employees have a more involved learning experience when they create and take peer-generated courses instead of watching training videos or listening to lectures. Employees have the opportunity to interact with the learning materials and can ask questions and suggest feedback.

Collaborative learning is also linked to greater employee engagement. Employees are more motivated to complete courses when they know their peers are counting on them. For example, 360Learning strengthens this motivation by encouraging group members to become learning champions who share their skills with others.

collaborative learning in practice

Educational researchers have also linked collaborative learning activities to enhanced communication and team-building capabilities. That’s because the act of teaching requires employees to flex their communication and critical-thinking skills. Helping colleagues learn builds a layer of responsibility and camaraderie as colleagues work together to conquer business challenges.

Related: 4 Benefits of Collaborative Learning Backed By Science & Psychology

3. Build a learning culture

A collaborative learning platform helps build a shared learning culture by creating an atmosphere where team members are continually collaborating by learning with and from one another. Employees are always sharing expertise and building new skills.

Companies frequently make the mistake of waiting until an immense and obvious skill gap appears before they invest in new training solutions for their workers. Unfortunately, by then, the gap is usually too big to be easily overcome. Instead, you need to foster an atmosphere of constant learning and growth before you end up with a massive skill gap to traverse.

Related: How We Use Peer Learning to Keep Our Company’s Competitive Edge

Collaborative learning is the answer to the crisis in online training

As we’ve seen, L&D teams everywhere are facing a crisis in learning. People don’t have the time or the space to focus on online training the way they want to. We need a drastic solution to get them excited and empower them to share their skills and expertise.

Companies can respond to this crisis by creating a robust culture of collaborative learning. In return, they will be rewarded with a highly-skilled, engaged, and loyal workforce that’s ready to tackle the challenges ahead. They’ll have the means to turn their collective talents into a competitive advantage and the flexibility to solve learning needs as soon as they arise.

To do this, you’ll need the right tools. A traditional LMS or LXP will take you only so far. You need an integrated learning platform that’s nimble, people-centric, and distributed.

We’ve built a learning platform that combines the power of a modern learning platform withcollaborative learning. It can be used as a standalone learning system or in addition to your existing LMS. It lets everyone play a part in your company's learning culture and encourages every employee to actively build their skills and share with others.

For years, we’ve been advocating collaborative learning as a way to transform organizational culture. Now, we believe that we are on the cusp of a collaborative learning revolution. The way we work, communicate, and learn is changing fast, and it’s changing for good. If you fall behind now, you risk being disrupted by your competition.

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Are you interested in joining the movement and finding a solution? Reach out for a demo today.