Ninety-nine percent of corporate learning efforts are aimed at the individual worker. We enroll an individual in a class, online course or development track. The LMS tracks the activity and progress of that individual. And the assessment tools we use target one worker at a time. Yet, we know that organizational performance is critically located at the team level. What if we switched the focus of our learning activities from the individual to the team?
This concept of team learning isn’t new. Organizations have a long history of sending a complete team to a training event or requiring every member of a team to take the same e-learning course. But I am talking about redesigning the learning experience to take full advantage of the team and tribal/social dynamics.
Imagine that a new team is being formed in the business. Let’s say that team will be opening up a new retail store, rolling out a product or working on an evolving business process. In a team learning model, here are a few things that we might do dramatically differently:
• Team vs. individual skill assessment: Start by assessing the skills that exist at the team level. There may be individuals who gained relevant experience while working for a former employer. If two people have project management experience, is it really necessary for us to teach everyone on the team that skill? Perhaps we only need to require a mini-module on a relevant concept and then we can rely on a key team member to be the mentor/coach for that competency.
• Visualizing team skills: Can we “map” the existing skill sets within the team so that both management and team members visualize and locate the right person with the right skill?
• Jigsaw the content: This is a process used in many K-12 schools deploying “cooperative learning,” which is advocated by Dr. Roger and David Johnson from the University of Minnesota. Take a complex topic, such as an ERP system, and assign one-eighth of that system to each team member. After a short overview of the entire system, each member learns one module in-depth. Next, gather the team together (face-to-face or online) and have it share individual learnings with each other. Since the team is going to work together on this job, members should be less inclined to go into extreme depth. The process of teaching what was just learned also adds to confidence, a form of “cognitive rehearsal.”
• Team testing: Rather than test each individual for competency, focus on testing the team for its readiness to do the task. Give the team a project assignment to test its mastery of planning tasks. Or as a group, have members demonstrate their skills using a new system.
• Peer coaching: Hold everyone on the team responsible for the competency of each member. I used this model on a safety training program a few years ago, in which the score of the lowest-scoring team member became the recorded score of the entire team. You should have seen the intensity of their internal coaching.
Why team learning? In a nutshell, the on-the-ground reality is that team members will compensate for each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Why not recognize the power of social learning and leverage the team as a unit of knowledge? With a team learning model in mind, organizations might become more adept at effectively assigning members to groups based on how they will contribute to the knowledge base.
With an increasingly rapid flow of employees in and out of our organizations, team learning is more important than ever. If we remember Peter Senge’s learning organization theories and apply them to our teams, organizations can accelerate workers’ time to competency and lower the cost of training per employee.
Our workers do not perform in a vacuum; they perform interdependently with each other. So let’s provide learning experiences and resources for the team, work with them as a team, track their learning as a team and harness the “wisdom of a small crowd.”
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