How important do you think collaborative learning is in the workplace? If you’re anything like the 137 learning design professionals who responded to a recent Eduflow survey, you’re over 80% likely to say it’s important or essential. But here’s the twist—only 20% of practitioners are actually leveraging collaborative learning with any frequency.
That paradox—we know learners respond best to social interaction, and yet we aren’t designing workplace learning around collaborative learning—is the lead finding of our 2022 data report on collaborative learning in the workplace. The finding tracks with Donald Taylor’s popular global sentiment survey, which ranked social/collaborative learning as the second-most popular topic in L&D for 2022, boosted by the post-pandemic shift to remote and hybrid work.
So if we’re all talking about collaborative learning, why aren’t we doing it? And why do we know so little about how it actually happens, particularly in the remote work context?
Our data report attempts to shed light on some of the biggest questions learning professionals have about collaborative learning, which have until now remained largely unanswered:
- How often do organizations encourage formal structured collaborative learning opportunities?
- How easy is it for spontaneous collaborative learning to happen remotely?
- How can organizations encourage collaborative learning?
- What are the major barriers to the adoption of collaborative learning?
- Why do some decision-makers resist the adoption of collaborative learning strategies?
Using the original data from our survey respondents and our own experience as learning professionals, we’ve gathered trends and recommendations that will help you stop talking about collaborative learning, and start making it happen.
We knew it was going to be important to define collaborative learning right from the start of the survey. The term has suffered from ‘definition creep,’ so here’s our understanding of collaborative learning:
By our definition, collaborative learning often happens informally. Think about when employees work together to troubleshoot and solve a problem. But this kind of learning can also be facilitated formally during structured group interactions, such as training sessions or team events.
We excluded mentorship and coaching from this study. Although mentorship and coaching are collaborative to some extent, there is a significant focus on the coachee or mentee’s development. Instead, we were interested in events where peers stand to benefit equally from the learning experience.
We asked participants to provide basic information about themselves and their organizations, followed by approximately 8 questions exploring two major themes:
- Sentiment & Application: Questions about how important participants believe collaborative learning is, and how often collaborative learning happens at their organizations. These questions also touched on the effect of the pandemic and remote work on collaborative learning.
- Adoption of collaborative learning in organizations: Questions focused on the organizational barriers that prevent the adoption of collaborative learning, and the contexts in which participants believe collaborative learning is appropriate.
Our survey tool allowed us to ask additional questions based on responses. If, for example, someone indicated that they struggled to get buy-in from decision-makers, we gave them the option to elaborate with common reasons why decision-makers resist. This adds richness to the data that allows us to make better recommendations for overcoming challenges around collaborative learning.
We collected responses via Eduflow’s social media accounts, mailing lists, and invite-only Circle community.
In total, we analyzed 137 survey responses. Most, but not all, were from the United States:
We cleaned the data up by dividing respondents into two buckets: those working in organizations with fewer than 250 employees, and those working in organizations of 250 or more.
We uncovered a fascinating story when we started analyzing the survey results, and it goes like this:
- Over 80% of L&D practitioners believe that collaborative learning is essential or important to an organization’s effectiveness. As Donald Taylor suggests, it’s an ideal state for most learning professionals.
- But only 20% of L&D practitioners use collaborative learning as an instructional strategy with any frequency. There’s the paradox we mentioned earlier.
- Barriers to the adoption of collaborative learning strategies are creating this paradox, and there’s little information out there to help L&D professionals surmount these barriers.
- Happily, there are people out there who leverage collaborative learning regularly in the workplace. Our report wraps up with real-world examples and recommendations.
We’ve broken the report into four parts, each diving deeper into the points above. We slice the data to give you a better picture of where your organization stands in the collaborative learning landscape, and how you can level up your L&D strategy going forward.
First, we wanted to validate whether people agree that collaborative learning is important, so we asked participants to select which statement they agreed with the most. The four options were:
- Collaborative learning is essential. Organizations who leverage it can become significantly more effective than those who don't.
- I think collaborative learning is important. Generally it is a mistake to ignore it and organizations who do it well perform better.
- I think collaborative learning is effective. Organizations that use collaborative learning have a benefit over those that don't.
- I think collaborative learning has some benefits. But most organizations can probably do fine without it.
Nearly 60% of the respondents agreed with the most extreme option that collaborative learning is essential, while fewer than 1% suggested that organizations would be fine without it.
In short, almost everyone thinks that their organization would become more effective if collaborative learning were part of the strategy and culture.
Belief in Collaborative Learning Varies By Years of Experience
We found an interesting correlation between years of experience and belief in collaborative learning. Practitioners with longer experience in L&D are more likely to think that collaborative learning is essential:
As is apparent in the graphic, fewer than 50% of L&D practitioners with < 2 years of experience think CL is essential. That percentage rises incrementally until, by 8 > years of experience, over 70% of people think it’s essential to an efficient organization.
The Smaller the Organization, The Bigger the Belief in Collaborative Learning
Individuals who worked for smaller organizations (fewer than 250 employees) seemed more likely to agree with the extreme opinion that collaborative learning is essential. 66% of respondents in smaller organizations agreed that collaborative learning is essential, while only 51% of those who were in bigger organizations said that collaborative learning is essential.
Our hypothesis is that the smaller the organization, the smaller the L&D team. And that means that learning practitioners in these situations have to rely on peer and social learning to fill the gap that other, better-resourced organizations fill with training. If that hypothesis is right, it could mean that the resource constraints we experience when working in smaller organizations actually work in favor of impactful L&D strategies.
If you’re in charge of L&D in a small, resource-constrained organization, our course on ‘Surviving as an L&D Micro-Team’ is for you.
Is Collaborative Learning Appropriate for Everything?
We also asked participants to share what type of training they think is appropriate for collaborative learning. Here, they could choose multiple categories instead of just one.
The most popular contexts were professional development and DE&I, while cybersecurity and compliance training were the least popular options.
The majority of learning practitioners think that collaborative learning is important, if not essential, for a well-functioning organization. That belief increases the longer the practitioner has been in L&D, and shows an inverse correlation to the size of the organization they work in.
Even though there is an overwhelming sentiment of support for collaborative learning, we found that organized collaborative learning doesn’t actually happen very often in the workplace. Only 20% of the respondents said that their organizations facilitated collaborative events more than once a month, and another 20% percent said that they never facilitate collaborative learning events.
The frequency of collaborative learning events correlates with organization size. 32% of the respondents in organizations with fewer than 250 employees said that they organized collaborative learning events more than once a month; for companies of more than 250 employees, that frequency dropped to once every 6 months:
Perhaps predictably, whether the company was remote, hybrid or in-person also influenced the frequency of collaborative learning events. 25% of respondents from organizations working mostly from the office hold collaborative events more than once a month. Only 17% of remote organizations have achieved the same cadence:
Almost 50% of Respondents Said Covid Impacted Their Collaborative Learning
We asked our respondents about how the pandemic affected their ability to facilitate collaborative learning events. They could choose from the following options:
- We didn't organize collaborative learning events before the pandemic
- Due to the pandemic, we had to stop collaborative learning events
- We had to make many changes
- We had to make a few small changes
- The pandemic did not have an impact
Around 10% reported that they stopped conducting collaborative learning events altogether, and nearly 37% said that they had to make many changes.
Organizations that were completely remote were more likely to indicate that the pandemic had no impact, while those who worked in the office were more likely to have made many changes.
Our guess about this finding is that the organizations that were already remote before the pandemic were more likely to initiate proactive L&D initiatives than organizations that had to react to the challenges of the pandemic.
Thus far, our results suggest that people overwhelmingly agree that collaborative learning is important, but that despite this, collaborative learning isn’t practiced often.
We were curious to uncover why organizations aren’t implementing collaborative learning in their L&D strategies. When we set up the survey, we made a few assumptions about what the barriers might be, so we offered a few options to respondents:
- Getting appropriate resources
- Getting buy-in from decision-makers
- Not having the right technology
- Not knowing how to do it well
What we discovered was surprising. Although we assumed that access to technology would be one of the most frequent barriers, we actually found it to be the least frequent. In fact, only 10% of the responses indicated that technology is a major barrier. Instead, our results suggest that the most frequent barrier is a skills gap: nearly a third of the selections indicated “not knowing how to do it well” as the most significant barrier.
The second and third most popular barriers can fall under the theme of organizational support. “Getting buy-in from decision-makers” (26%) was the second-most frequent barrier, and “Getting appropriate resources” (17%) was the third. Both these answers indicate that learning practitioners face push-back and lack of support when trying to implement a collaborative learning strategy.
Why do decision-makers resist collaborative learning in the workplace? We’re not the first to ask this question. In 2014, researchers Lee and Bonk looked into the practicality of collaborative learning in the workplace.
In their study, they found that managers’ sentiments about collaborative learning play an important role in the success of the initiative. A key ingredient is whether managers buy into collaborative learning initiatives because they influence awareness, implementation, and the attitudes that employees have toward it.
Many respondents in our survey shared that decision-makers were concerned about breaking away from the status quo. They don’t want to deviate from the way things have been done for years, demonstrating ‘rigid thinking’ about learning and development.
“Collaborative learning often revolves around opportunities that need to be in person from the culture of education and decision-makers who have always "done it this way." In-person learning requires commute [sic], lunch costs, and for everyone to carve out their whole time to attend.”
Lee and Bonk (2014) also expressed that a source of concern is whether the collaborative learning initiative will reduce the productivity and efficiency of employees. This seemed to be the biggest theme among our written responses.
We can learn from the sample of respondents who report that their organizations do, in fact, practice collaborative learning frequently. We asked them to share examples of collaborative learning in their organizations, and have drawn out best practices from those examples.
1: Challenge Decision-Makers to Change Their Paradigm
A common argument against collaborative learning from decision-makers is that it takes a lot of time to organize and execute. This belief is likely rooted in a very specific interpretation of collaborative learning as a live event requiring careful facilitation and planning. When you say “collaborative learning,” they might immediately think about a facilitated jigsaw exercise or think-pair-share activity.
We think it’s time to challenge this assumption. Collaborative learning can happen asynchronously, and it's possible to introduce the strategy without risking your organization’s capacity. You don’t need to close the entire department for everyone to attend the same event!
Building self-directed courses around peer feedback (we have a template for that!) is one way to introduce social learning into asynchronous L&D, as are async group projects with collaborative reflection built in.
Collaboration can be bite-sized as well. One of the most popular collaborative learning tools is wikis, which are built and maintained collaboratively.
Just-in-time resources like wikis make it possible to integrate collaborative learning with the everyday workflow of your employees - without needing to schedule and organize an entire event. An added bonus of this strategy is that the learning material is generated by employees, which saves your L&D department time and money.
The potential of providing a layer of social interaction or collaboration over a standard learning experience is undeniable. The 2021 Workplace Learning Report by LinkedIn revealed that learners who use social features (like Q&As) “watch 30x more hours of learning content than learners who don’t.”
2: Make Collaborative Learning Part of Your Organization’s Processes
Our data shows that the organizations that do collaborative learning well tend to bake it into the organizational ‘rhythm’ of a team. That could happen by adding a collaborative learning element to an established, high priority meeting, such as a scrum meeting:
“1. Once a month, all of the designers on the team--PMs are also invited--get together for an hour to talk about the work we do. We get help with challenges, we share discoveries, sometimes the leader (a different designer leads each month) will share information from their area of expertise.
2. We also have a weekly meeting for the entire team. As part of those meetings, we either have a book club, where we discuss an industry-related book we're all reading--or we have a video club, where we discuss a video someone found about an industry-related topic that we all watched.”
Book clubs or showcases were often mentioned as a way to integrate learning with the ‘normal’ activities of a team.
3: Get Buy-In for Problem Solving, Not Just ‘Learning’
Learning at work can feel like a luxury, especially in situations when margins are tight, and people are under pressure to deliver results.
Problem-solving, on the other hand, sounds like a must-have. What business wouldn’t see the value in employees sitting down to solve problems together?
The irony is that problem-solving is learning, and vice-versa. The former just sounds more practical and is more likely to get executive and learner buy-in.
One of our survey respondents recommended building group problem-solving activities into training:
“Having to solve problems as a team is really effective. It allows [learners] to absorb the contents of the course and to reuse it later on in the workplace. Each person has a different understanding of the subject and a different background, so it's really interesting to see what comes out when they work together.”
Design group problem-solving exercises around real business challenges and you’ll be more likely to get buy-in from bosses and learners.
4: Avoid Learner Frustration Through Tight Focus On Learner Objectives
It’s probably fair to guess that many people have a bad impression of group learning because they were stuck with that one person who didn’t do any work but swooped in to claim undeserved credit.
Collaborative learning events are vulnerable to many pitfalls that can turn a potentially rich learning experience into a frustrating waste of time. When this happens, support for social learning can quickly fade.
We recommend turning to resources that describe tried and tested collaborative learning exercises.
To avoid this frustrating group work experience, for example, learning practitioners must make sure their collaborative learning activities stay tightly focused on learning objectives. Invest time in outlining expectations and roles for participants in each activity, and creating protocols around interactions and accountability. Let participants know beforehand how they’ll be expected to contribute. And as follow-up, make sure to explicitly share session take-aways or next steps.
This collaborative learning benchmark report comes at a time when learning practitioners are starting to reflect on the changes of the last two years. Learning and development has been at the vanguard of changes in our workplaces and, as our data shows, collaborative learning has suffered in the scramble to go remote, then hybrid, then back to the office.
Despite the challenges, learning practitioners continue to advocate for collaborative learning. Our survey revealed imaginative ways to integrate collaboration into remote and in-person environments, and new ways to frame the benefits of collaborative learning for leadership. While there’s still some way to go to convince decision-makers of the value of collaborative learning, L&D professionals are clear that the future of learning is social.
If you’re one of the 35% of respondents who know collaborative learning is important but don’t know how to leverage it well, sign up for our free cohort-based course on collaborative learning. And thanks for reading our data report!
David Kofoed Wind (Ph.D) | CEO of Eduflow
Cassandra Naji | EdTech Marketer & Director of L&D
William Cronje | Instructional Designer & Program Manager at Eduflow Academy