Teams that learn together grow together

Team-based training taps into collective learning to provide new insights.
By Muriel Draaisma
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/25/2001

Team learning is gaining ground in workplaces in Canada and its advocates say it makes sense for many companies that want to use internal resources to pass on skills.

Training in teams will eventually surpass traditional classroom training as the preferred method in workplaces because the new world of work increasingly requires a faster, more cost-effective and focused way for employees to acquire skills they can use everyday, predicts Sharon VanderKaay, vice-president of strategy for X-Design Inc., a Toronto-based firm that specializes in training and corporate workplace design.

Team learning means executives and employees gather in a group at a workplace, typically once a week for an hour, to work through problems, generate new ideas and learn from each other.

Some call this approach team-based training, others call it problem-based learning, or group learning. It has also been compared to brainstorming, but VanderKaay prefers to call it informal learning.

Unlike much classroom training, in which an instructor gives a formal lecture and provides the material, informal learning is largely based on discussion, is focused on actual business problems in a given workplace and is practical instead of theoretical. Answers develop from insights.

A facilitator gives structure to the discussion and guides the learning process, which can take the form of inquiry and reflection, or in other cases idea generation, evaluation and selection. Communication is two-way and everyone is encouraged to contribute.

This kind of training involves paying attention to clues that one might otherwise miss, thinking through all of the possible ways of handling an issue and finding words that would help to change a situation, says VanderKaay, adding it makes employees more sensitive to areas in which their behaviour is not effective.

“This is a method to train people how to use their judgment. You learn how to express yourself in a way that is constructive. And it’s learning by doing.”

Using collective wisdom, a group could map out a number of scenarios to solve specific problems nagging a particular workplace, deal with a number of situations that are presenting themselves to employees or evaluate current effective strategies to develop even more innovative ones.

“This can give companies a competitive edge. You are solving real problems that can waste time. You anticipate and avoid problems. This is also a method for implementing your strategy.”

VanderKaay says it can be applied to many types of organizations to improve everything from leadership to management skills, from negotiation to conflict management skills. It is also useful for improving customer relationship skills. Informal learning is also of value to sales professionals who must respond to a variety of customers and intervene when something goes wrong.

The approach is well suited to a younger generation of employees who may not have a lot of time and patience for theory that they aren’t going to use, says VanderKaay. Classroom training worked well for the old world of work where tasks were more predictable, repetitive and defined, but it has major limitations for the new work reality. She says informal learning helps people develop skills to cope with ever-changing demands.

“The industrial model of training somehow was extended to the types of skills that you cannot break down into divisions. That just isn’t how people perceive the world.”

Kathy Brooks, president of kbHeadWorks in Toronto, says much informal learning takes place in organizations already, although it is not labelled as such, and it often takes the form of off-site or cross-functional meetings. kbHeadWorks helps with cultural redesign, strategic innovation and leadership development.

Brooks says informal learning, which she calls action learning or communal learning, is not the same as a meeting.

“When we go into a meeting, we go in with the expectation that we will be given information, that we are going to make a decision, but we typically don’t go in as equals and we don’t go in with the expectation that we will learn from others. In group learning, yes, we do resolve issues and we do come to decisions, we do share information, but we do it through a process of sharing that is often not seen in meetings,” she says.

“I would suggest that in organizations that have evolved, group learning is, in effect, what their meetings become.”

Unlike a meeting, however, group members are carefully selected to ensure they have different levels of knowledge and they have a need to be there.

Brooks says the facilitator is critical because this person is charged with establishing a “thinking strategy” for a group. A thinking strategy is a tool within the learning process, which enables members of a group to hear what each person is saying. The strategy may differ for each issue.

“You are building cohesive thinking,” she says.

In informal learning, a trainer makes use of the knowledge of the group, to a much greater extent than does a classroom instructor.

Informal learning can take place in different venues, such as an Internet chat room, a satellite meeting or ideally in a room in a workplace.

The pace of business is so fast that it demands firms move immediately from learning to application, and this is what informal learning offers, says Brooks.

But Natalie Allen, a University of Western Ontario professor of industrial-organization psychology in London, Ont., says group learning may help employees become better team players because they are spending more time together, but research suggests it does not help them perform better.

According to academic literature, group learning is similar to brainstorming, and Allen says research shows that people produce more and better ideas if they brainstorm alone and then come together to explain the results of their thinking than if the same number of people brainstorm together in a room to produce ideas.

“Group-based learning has some benefits. I don’t think there is as much reason to believe the benefits are all on the performance end.”

Allen says the real value of group learning is that it can build rapport and consensus between participants, which can help people work together better in teams on the job. Plus, she says, people enjoy working in groups.

“There’s great enthusiasm for group-centred activities in our society. It’s attractive. There’s something socially desirable about the idea that we can do wonders in a group. We feel smarter when we work in groups,” she says.

“There’s a romantic idea that, in a group, one plus one equals three. There’s very little evidence to suggest that’s the case, performance wise. The group thing, per se, does not solve all the problems.”

Allen says it is important not to underestimate the value of working alone and it is essential to remember that not all classroom training is simply an instructor presenting material to students.

Many classroom situations include interaction and different forms of instruction, from the university setting to the college classroom to the lunch seminar at the workplace, and have different goals.

“I don’t know if the proper comparison is the classroom. Really, does the classroom ever even address a given problem? It’s really a little bit of an apples and oranges comparison to me. Traditional classroom-based training I don’t think is a dirty word,” she says.

“A better comparison might be when you bring in an expert or a consultant who is going to address a certain problem because he or she has encountered it before and that person is going to talk to the team.”

A lecture focuses attention on a broad base of information, whereas informal learning puts a spotlight on the problem at hand and she says this is where it is probably most useful.

Allen says she suspects the team learning approach probably works best for administrative, managerial, and white-collar work. “It doesn’t sound like this is training for all kinds of tasks.” She says if an employee has no skills in a given area, it makes sense to learn from an expert as opposed to a group.

VanderKaay says people in some occupations are slower to use this approach than others, but she believes it has the potential to improve skills in every field.

She says traditional training is good at providing employees with about 20 per cent of the knowledge and skills they need. This percentage is what she calls explicit knowledge, the straight facts that do not lose any meaning when a teacher transfers the information to a student.

The other 80 per cent is what she calls tacit knowledge, which requires judgement, interpretation and understanding situations. VanderKaay says this kind of knowledge is best transferred in group learning.

Muriel Draaisma is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.

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