Collaboration Boosts Learning

As training and travel budgets continue to decrease, more people need to learn fast and get quick results. Instead of embracing formal delivery methods, learning leaders have focused on getting just the right amount of learning at the right time. This concept is not new, nor is collaboration.

Today’s workflow requires constant collaboration, regular status reports and a more nimble approach to day-to-day business. The response times expected in the marketplace are decreasing.

Cultivating a collaborative environment creates a synthesis effect. Learning is reinforced at all levels as employees leverage each other’s strengths on the job. Collaboration not only fosters smart resource management, it can be fun.

What Is a Collaborative Workforce?
A collaborative workforce is not only more effective, it’s faster. Consider the project team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who won a North American balloon hunt in nine hours. The team members hunted down 10 big weather balloons scattered across the continent by collaborating with each other on the Web while they completed the task.

The intent of the contest was to test the way social Web-based techniques help to accomplish time-critical projects better and faster. The team used collaborative Web-based technology to invite their friends and their friends’ network to participate. Then they selected technology people already knew how to use to make the experience shareable with others.

As a result, the group was able to apply what it learned in real time, using collaborative learning technology to open up communication streams — and the learning process — to better compete. This example illustrates the happy ending many business leaders want when managing their talent: encourage people to collaborate to improve business results.

In addition to organizational benefits such as higher employee engagement, cost-effectiveness and faster results, collaboration contributes on the individual level as well.

Collaboration sparks higher performance, creativity and productivity to enrich what authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer refer to as a stronger inner work life in their book, The Progress Principle. When employees feel they are progressing toward a goal, they remain more engaged in the task, take fewer sick days and contribute to a faster time-to-market production.

People, Processes and Tools
Three building blocks are required in an effective collaborative learning environment: people, processes and tools. Each building block is designed to ensure collaboration is fostered throughout the enterprise.

The people: Effective collaboration allows employees to brainstorm and share ideas in a low-risk environment — that is how learning takes place and new ideas emerge. In a presentation at the 2011 Chief Learning Officer Executive Network at Symantec in Mountain View, Calif., Jay Cross, CEO of the Internet Time Group, said most people only know about 9 percent of what is required to fulfill their jobs. The other 91 percent, he said, gets fulfilled by other people.

To build a collaborative workforce, talent managers must be willing to invest in their people. Collaboration is about getting results, but it also must be a part of the culture. It should be simple, effective and embraced from the top down.

Craig Malloy, CEO of knowledge-sharing platform Bloomfire, said he has seen firsthand how effective on-the-job learning can be for optimizing business performance. “To have an environment in which people are encouraged to share and teach each other is going to result in a dramatically better and more effective workforce,” he said.

The process: Due to its organic, social nature, collaborative learning is not process- but people-driven. Formal communication is structured by a specific protocol and is often hierarchical. Collaborative learning is about trusting that workers will ask for what they need, will find meaningful information and have fun while doing it. Anyone can be an expert.

“The collaborative workforce has been an evolutionary process,” Malloy said. “What used to be a top-down hierarchy of knowledge transfer has now been leveled so that everyone has something to contribute to the organization. You can learn from anyone at any time.” The process is simple: Pose a question, get an answer.

The tools: Collaborative learning technologies don’t have to be complicated. They can be content management systems, social networks, instant messaging or cloud computing technology that is easily accessible to everyone. A video, podcast or audio file are just a few examples of tools people can use to get quick answers.

Elizabeth Griep, vice president of advanced workplace learning at Forum Corp., said tools should be used to support collaboration, not to create it. “Define what you want individuals to gain from the collaboration, select the tools to support that goal and identify any limitations the tools might have,” she said. No one tool will fulfill every business need, but tools can foster the collaborative culture needed to meet goals faster.

Collaborative learning will not take the place of e-learning, virtual learning or traditional instructor-led training. However, it does have a place on the menu beside those other modalities. When time is short and the workload is large, social learning technology allows employees to learn from peers, subject matter experts or people in another country.

An example is energy firm BP’s Peer Challenge program, which is based on the idea that performance is optimized when people engage in collaborative learning. Instead of having a top-down performance review, the company encourages collaborative conversations for real-time problem solving and performance improvement.

Collaboration doesn’t always happen automatically — it can be planned. When aerospace manufacturer Airbus commissioned its German and French partners to create its flagship A380 aircraft, the two teams worked with different versions of Dassault Systemes’ design software. This system’s setup led to incorrect readings between the different versions, which caused a two-year delay to the tune of $6 billion in cost overruns. The problem was not just with the software; the company had no collaborative platform or process with which to manage issues as they arose.

Can Collaboration Be Measured?
Any collaborative learning program should be able to measure the same principles as more formal, instructor-led training or e-learning. However, employee engagement is the ultimate test.

No matter what the delivery mode, at some point the business sponsor will ask if the investment in collaborative learning is worthwhile. To ensure a substantive response, incorporate five principles into the measurement strategy to provide a deeper perspective on stakeholders’ program investments.

Quality: Describe the learners’ experience. What will they be able to do better as a result of the collaboration or experience?
Learning effectiveness: Did the participants acquire new skills? What skills do they now have, and how are they being used to enhance results?
Job impact: Was the training or collaboration relevant? Will the participants be able to apply the new knowledge and skills on the job? How?
Business results: How and to what degree will job performance improve? And what business results will they be able to impact: Decreased risk, improved productivity, decreased cost, increased quality?
Return on investment: Was the experience worthwhile? If yes, in what way? What evidence of a return on investment for the program exists?

In a collaborative learning environment, learner engagement is an important metric. How engaged are participants in the community? Evidence of engagement can be measured by the number of new members invited to join, the conversations, evidence of sharing best practices or lessons learned, the number of questions posed, the number of views and “likes” of content, login rates or time spent in the community.

Measuring collaborative learning requires talent managers to think beyond customary metrics to find data evidence of social-based engagement. When developing a collaborative workforce, carefully identify the organization’s needs, match talent with the right tools and encourage feedback across all levels.

Patrice T. Collins is the vice president of global learning, technology and delivery at training company ESI International. She can be reached at