The COVID pandemic has turned corporate training upside down. Instructor-led training in classrooms is discontinued for the foreseeable future. Job roles, business processes, and work situations are constantly changing, requiring a steady stream of ad hoc learning resources to keep employees informed and prepared. Employees, many of whom are now spending most of their workdays in front of computers or on Zoom calls, are suffering from digital fatigue. And budgets are being squeezed.

While online content libraries, now in place in most companies, can fill some learning needs, their effectiveness is limited and typically confined to static subject areas. Many online resources are downright boring. Instructional design quality can vary widely, as can learner retention—especially if employees are distracted by at-home children or work pressures.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative online learning is perfectly suited for current business conditions and widely dispersed workforces. Many solutions incorporate aspects of social learning and collaboration into their offerings. However, most do not integrate social and collaborative functionality tightly and methodically into instructional design.

Following are some of the characteristics of a well-designed collaborative learning solution:

Cohort-based learning

In cohort-based learning, a group of learners goes through the programs in a time-managed sequence. Learners interact with each other in debates, challenges, and other types of thought-provoking exercises. All cohort members see comments from other cohort members and have the ability to engage in further conversations.

Our research has shown that the optimal cohort group has 40 to 50 people. Small cohorts can intimidate learners, while people can get “lost” in larger groups. We have also found that the most successful cohorts are mixed. That is, they are comprised of employees at different levels, in different geographies, and even different jobs.

Gamification of social elements

Gamification can increase participation and bring positive competition into the learner experience. For instance, in some solutions learners have the ability to “vote” on comments. These votes translate to points which, along with other factors such as completion rates and quiz scores, can determine a learner’s position within the cohort. Leaderboards show learner scores and ranks on an ongoing basis.

We have found that gamification elements definitely add an element of friendly competition among individuals in each cohort. They also introduce competition among cohort teams.

Intentional use of social elements

We have learned much about the optimal use of social elements in a blended learning program. For instance, for today’s mobile-centric generation of learners, touching the screen or a key every three to four minutes will help keep individuals engaged.

Therefore, it’s important to vary social and collaborative activities throughout programs to keep learners interested. Debates, learner challenges, thought-provoking questions, and suggestions for work-related applications are just a few of the activities that can keep learners engaged and interested.

Use of high-quality, mixed media

Today's learners are media-savvy and exposed to high-quality, well-produced content throughout their daily personal lives. Well-designed collaborative solutions incorporate a variety of content, along with social and collaborative activities. Videos should be short and professionally produced; real-world case studies make information timely and relevant; curated resources can add supplemental learning for those wanting to dive deeper into a subject or explore a topic more broadly.

Best uses for collaborative learning

Organizations have increasingly been looking to team-based collaborative learning for topic areas where there aren’t fixed remedies or protocols and that require critical, outside-of-the-box thinking. Leadership development is one such area. Traditional leadership is built around hierarchy, set performance goals, structured communication, and well-established decision-making protocols. In today’s post-COVID world, all of that has been thrown out the window. Goals can change weekly, employees need to have more autonomy in decision making, and face-to-face meetings typically don’t happen. Collaborative learning can help managers work together to learn news ways of communicating, managing dispersed workforces, supporting team agility, and empowering employees.

Collaborative learning is also well-suited for aligning and transforming teams or even entire business functions, such as sales or HR organizations. Collaborative learning can also facilitate a critical, rapid change—such as a move to remote working. Well-designed programs can impart foundational knowledge to large groups and create a common vocabulary—all while giving employees the opportunity to offer perspective and process and discuss ways to apply pending changes to their jobs.

Collaborative learning can also introduce employees to topics that are still evolving but will likely be important to the business in the immediate future. For instance, AI is an area that will definitely impact almost all businesses (or already is doing so). Collaborative learning can help employees understand its potential, discuss how it could be applied to their job roles and improve business processes, and learn how it’s being used in other industries.

Critical thinking, clear communication, teamwork, agility—these power skills are among the skills deemed most critical for today’s business world. Well-designed collaborative solutions help hone these skills at all employee levels. In the traditional world of corporate learning, such training was typically available only to the senior-most employees. Collaborative learning solutions can help companies cultivate these essential skills at all employee levels.

Other benefits of collaborative learning solutions

When evaluating collaborative solutions, look for those that offer robust analytics that go beyond standard metrics such as completion rates, quiz scores, and poll results. Some solutions allow drill-downs by program, teams, or individuals. Total and average learning times offer insight into the topic difficulty. Metrics around replies, comments, and votes, as well as the average number of people a learner interacts with, are telling indicators of employee engagement and connection.

Some solutions also offer the ability to mine learner comments for insights into the key themes and issues employees are talking about, challenges or problems that managers may not be aware of, and areas where additional training may be needed.

As we all struggle to adapt to ever-changing business conditions and remote working, we advise all companies to consider adding collaborative learning to their learning mix.