Collaborative Learning in the Corporate Setting

By Alicia Newton

By definition, collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning, that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. The ultimate goal is synergy and speed of learningResearch has validated, and organizations from K-12 to Corporate extol the benefits of collaborative learning. However, successful implementation has been touch and go.


Collaborative learning is one leg of a three-legged stool: the independent learner, the social learner, and the collaborative learner. All three legs must be sturdy with the stool sitting firmly on behaviorally-aligned leadership.

In the Pew Report: Digital Readiness Gapsonly 17% of the population are digitally ready; meaning they are confident about their digital skills and abilities to find trustworthy online information. This describes the essence of the first leg, the independent learner. In an interview with Rich Beudrie, Director of Learning at Understory, and Founder of The Organic Learner, we discussed the digital readiness gap. 

What Has Changed?

When I first started training, I thought the magnitude of my personality would make me a great trainer. People seemed to be drawn to my energy, and I mistook that for engagement and learning. It was the nineties, and I had been promoted from instructional designer to trainer. Truthfully, besides being extroverted, I did not know what my qualifications were as a trainer. However, my boss saw something in me, and decided to develop it.

I worked hard, learned, and excelled. Back then, training was assessed by trainer evaluations, and limited pre- and post-tests. Due to positive evaluations, I was promoted again, this time to help create the first “Corporate University” for my employer (a Fortune 50 retailer). It was at the University that I started to question the level of impact we were having, and how to raise the bar.


Our mission was to develop leadership: to prepare the department managers, store managers, and district managers to increase sales and to lead effectively. We spent days figuring out how to make the learning relevant, engaging, and effective. Back then, our tools were breakout rooms, overhead projectors, binders full of transparencies, flip charts, and the wonder of “scented” markers. E-Learning was just coming on board; reserved for cashiers and other operational functions. There was no mindset for leadership development outside of the classroom. Mindset shifts would come later after denial, learning new technology, and growing pains.

The History of Collaborative Learning in Corporations

Formal training in the workplace began in the 1950’s. Structured learning environments carried over from high schools into the workplace as vocational or “trade” high school courses became the norm, and learning was teacher-centered. Formal training in the workplace really established a foothold in the 1970’s. At that point, the American workforce consisted of people who had persevered through the Great Depression, World War II veterans in their fifties, and young Baby Boomers who had come of age in the 1960’s. One shortcoming of early training methods was that they tended to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Knowledge resided with the instructor, and learners were expected to drink from their cup; the “Sage on the Stage” approach.

By the 1990’s, we started teaching our instructors and instructional designers to embrace new adult learning principles. Malcolm Knowles’ principles of andragogy, and research into the characteristics of adult learners, fertilized the soil for collaborative learning to begin to root.

Although many “sages” resisted, we fine tuned the skill of “facilitated collaboration” at our Corporate University. In this learning environment, I came to understand the knowledge and motivation to change anything, rested in the individual, and the team or group. It did not matter how charismatic the instructor was. Adults have real-world experience, need to see the relevance of the learning, and need the autonomy and safety to explore, create, try, fail, and learn. Learning to facilitate, instead of train, was a skill and major mindset shift. To be successful, collaborative learning requires a “letting go” by the teacher/facilitator.

What’s Going Well?

Rich Beaudrie, Co-founder of The Organic Learner, and Director of Learning at Understory, discussing what is working well in collaborative learning in the workplace.

According to 2015-2016 Maturity Benchmark study best in class Learning and Development, L&D organizations are doing the following well:


Realization that learning technology is the best option for scalable learning solutions is going well. There was a time when e-Learning for leadership, and “soft” skills, was not widely considered: e-Learning was the domain of operational and technical training. More and more organizations are looking for best options to leverage learning technologies; not just operations and technical topics, but for leadership development as well.


For collaborative learning to work the second leg is the social learner. The independent learner is socially connected: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. They have a digital footprint of thoughtful and playful engagement. They know what is trending, and engage in collaborative and independent learning.

Social learning is a prerequisite to collaborative learning. Organizations that have a social media strategy, with leadership engagement and support, are moving forward. A CEO who says they want a collaborative learning culture, but fails to engage themselves, is not supporting their organizational goal of a collaborative learning culture.  This way of learning lends itself to what organizations need most: communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers.

Best-in-class organizations support learning in the flow of work. Problem-based learning (PBL) is a construct to support this process. PBL is working well in face-to-face courses in some corporate learning spaces. The challenge: how to extend PBL to the workplace, where learners are facing these problems? PBL is a student-centered andragogy, incorporated to some degree, as a best practice in learning. Despite inconsistent implementation, organizations want and need PBL. 

PBL, in practice, looks like learners finding answers to sticky problems: researching and partnering to listen, brainstorm, receive feedback, and test/practice possible solutions. PBL is not new. The method evolved out of constructivist theory.

Students engaging in Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Five strategies that make problem-based learning more effective:

  1. The learning activities should be related to a larger task. The larger task is important, because it allows students to see that the activities can be applied to many aspects of life, allowing students to find the activities they are doing useful.
  2. The learner needs to be supported to feel that they are beginning to have ownership of the overall problem.
  3. An authentic task should be designed for the learner. This means that the task and the learner’s cognitive ability have to match the problems to make learning valuable.
  4. Time for reflection on the content being learned should occur, so that learners can think through the process of what they have learned.
  5. Allow and encourage the learners to test ideas against different views, in different contexts.

“Project- and problem-based learning are not new approaches, but technology today has allowed students and educators to tackle real challenges as part of the learning experience,” –Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.

What Are The Barriers?

A digital readiness gap exists. According to research, only 17% of the population are digitally ready, meaning they are ardent digital learners for personal enrichment. Finding and/or developing independent learners is a challenge. The behavior change needed to break tradition and familiarity and create a new “mindset” requires giving up control. Fear of the unknown: what will happen to me if what I do now is no longer relevant, is a major barrier.  

What teachers, trainers, and facilitators say about the benefits and need for collaborative learning are inconsistent with their practicePractices are still not (yet) aligned with their beliefs about collaborative learning. Some of this can be attributed to the strong history of tradition. Our system of education, while changing, is evolving from a very entrenched 19th century model. Some of the barriers are rooted in our human fears and need for control, skill gaps, and the mindset of learning and development professionals.


Who is not Benefiting?

  • Organizations that are not progressive and agile from the top down and bottom up.
  • Students stuck in tax poor districts and at-risk students; technology is expensive. Talent to utilize and implement technology is challenging to find and direct, to poorer school districts.
  • Students for whom school in its traditional form doesn’t resonate at all.
  • Schools with old school mindsets.
  • Children with parents who fail to acknowledge and address their children’s angst and push back with old learning mindsets.
  • Those who do not have easy access to high-speed internet; 60% of the world is not connected.
  • In some organizations if you are not a high potential (employee chosen for more developmental opportunities) you are being left out. Learning increases the higher one advances in an organization. Your high potentials are often the first audience for social, independent, and collaborative learning projects. As Millennials flood the workplace organizations must grapple with this tension. A major part of keeping Millennial workers happy is providing continuous training and coaching.
  • Organizations that fail to make development of independent learner a performance goal for the majority of their workforce.

Dealing With Setbacks

Many setbacks occur because of mindset, lack of team skills, lack of management engagement, or reluctance to use new tools. Change is difficult and unsettling. However, organizations that are reaping the benefits of collaborative learning and actively supporting the independent/self-directed learner are:

  • achieving improved productivity and engagement from their Learning and Development (L&D) initiatives
  • seeing improvements in their learning culture
  • achieving increased efficiency as a result of their training strategy
  • using learning analytics to improve the service they offer

L&D teams have to acquire new skills and be able to cope with and lead change. Collaborative learning turns tradition upside down. We are finally in the age where all information is a Google search away. The majority of knowledge does not reside on the LMS, with the trainer, or in the classroom; virtual or otherwise. The course is just one option. Supporting learning in the flow of work is the goal.

A manager’s primary responsibility is the development of people. Emotional intelligence is a required competency. Self-awareness, and social awareness and management, are key skills needed to deal with setbacks. Reach out beyond your organization to benchmark against those that are doing it well. Use reflective inquiry to continuously improve.

How is your organization:

  • coping with the changing learning landscape
  • actively supporting the self-directed learner
  • reaping the benefits of collaborative learning
  • using learning analytics
  • leveraging leadership’s digital footprint
  • providing technology-enabled learning opportunities aligned with business priorities

The Future of Collaborative Learning in Corporations

First, organizations must trust their employees. Teachers have to trust their students. Control is impossible in the age of the independent, social learner in collaborative learning environments: self-directed learning is here to stay. 

Information is a Google search away. I see a world where teachers are teaching students how to find the answers. A flipped classroom approach. Teachers will introduce a problem that requires critical thinking and information. Students will be expected to find the information and resources. Schools will also teach students how to determine the legitimacy of information found on the web. The teacher’s role will be facilitating critical thinking and supporting independent and collaborative learning. I see the promise of finding meaning and applications to solve our toughest issues in the future.


Some ideas for creating the agile, collaborative learning organization:

  • Leadership must engage in and support social media, independent learning, collaborative learning.
  • Create a social media, independent learning, and collaborative learning implementation strategy.
  • Remove barriers, improve bandwidth, integrate the Company intranet, LMS, and internet to provide easier access to social media and learning platforms.
  • Develop independent learners who rapidly curate information and collaborate to improve, create, innovate, and compete and reward competency
  • Create great responsive digital content.
  • Use learning analytics. Discover what are learners accessing, when, where, and for how long they engage. Determine what the data is telling you and take action.

PBL is the ultimate goal. The quicker your organization can learn and capitalize the more successful your organization will be. Answers tend to come from those closest to the problem. Empower, require, and encourage your workforce to unleash their collaboration, detective, reasoning, and critical thinking skills to solve problems and innovate. Implement new recognition, and reward processes to support continuous learning and improvement.