Reviving a community of learning

The way humans learn has changed very little over the past 5,000 years. We still process information through stories and examples and learn best through a continuum of relatable experiences. What has dramatically changed, however, is our ability to understand various learning techniques and to implement them in meaningful ways.

One of the most powerful learning levers we can activate is a sense of community. When people are in a similar life situation and facing similar challenges, the environment is ripe for peer-to-peer education.

I’m smiling as I recall a neighbor’s very stubborn seven-year old son half-heartedly attempt to ride his bike without training wheels. At the time, he was getting nowhere fast. But when my six-year-old daughter rode her bike in front of him, he was quickly inspired to accomplish the task at hand!

We learn better and faster in groups.

UL, as a global organization, understands the power of community learning and has made it a major theme for their Global Leadership Program (GLP). In fact, my favorite part of working for this organization since 2011 has been this program. UL carefully curated the GLP to be a true learning journey continuum, spanning multiple years and across the globe.

The real magic of the GLP, however, is that about 80% of the learning experience is dependent on your peers. Employee training facilitators simulate realistic and challenging learning experiences, requiring participants to learn from one another to succeed. It is impossible to overstate the intrinsic value of surveying an array of perspectives as the group of learners struggle to achieve a common objective.

As workplace educators, we can harness the accountability and enthusiasm that supports these efforts and excel beyond compliance training.

It is very likely that measuring your training outcomes will increase the ROI of your professional development program.

Community learning should not be applied for every corporate learning course, but it can be a great fit for
onboarding and professional development topics.

Five steps to building a community of learning
1. Organize employees into shared “learning paths”

Establishing small groups and unifying them under a common learning objective results in a unique and powerful training experience. Bring people together who share a common objective – but not simple commonalities as people who perform the same job function. In the case of UL, the GLP program was designed to bring extraordinary people together who could rally one another and change the culture of the organization.

As an example, consider bringing together employees who are looking to acquire similar skills in order to advance their career. Once the group is established, consider the following:

•What knowledge is needed for the training path? Build a relevant curriculum that will incorporate a variety of resources and learning styles. Begin with “self-study” materials, but quickly incorporate group projects, hands-on practice, trainee-led modules, and more to cover the range of topics.

•What is the most effective delivery method? In this case, the “how” is even more important than the “what.” The method by which the information is delivered will make or break the training experience. With community learning, one of the primary objectives is to create a robust dialogue. Ensure the training delivery mechanism has the flexibility to allow for this outcome.

•Who can best enhance your learning community? Community learning is as much about relationships as it is about information. As you build your curriculum, consider the actual people you can bring into the experience as both a resource and an inspirational figure for your group.

In many cases, the “top analyst” on a topic may not be the best fit. You are looking for the type of person who is friendly and available—as well as knowledgeable—who will enhance your community dynamic.

2. Provide structural guide rails for participants

Your primary role as the facilitator of a community learning experience is to provide the resources required, establish the basic flow, and set expectations forthe group. Beyond that, we must allow a degree of chaos to enter in and generate “organic collisions of insight.”

Our UL facilitators were remarkable in this regard. They provided just enough structure to guide the experience, but deftly drew wisdom out from every training participant like water from a well.

Due to its unpredictable nature, community learning might feel “too dangerous.” I will not lie and say there is not an element of risk. Every group is unique; we cannot control all variables with this type of format.

Even so, the reward of this model far outweighs the bad. Your participants will greatly appreciate having the opportunity to contribute to their own learning experience, as well as that of their peers.

The best learning communities are those in which the trainees are edifying and inspiring one another. Embed this type of culture into your group from the very beginning and share that message to your employees and new employees as part of their onboarding programs.

3. Maintain relationship focus

In a community learning model, the relationships forged will likely be the most valuable outcome.

Community learning allows participants to continue to share learning and leverage these new relationships as resources that extend beyond formal training dates. As such, the design of your program should reflect this community learning model. There are three principles to accelerate lasting connections:

• What knowledge is needed for the training path? Build a relevant curriculum that will incorporate a variety of resources and learning styles. Begin with “self-study” materials, but quickly incorporate group projects, hands-on practice, trainee-led modules, and more to cover the range of topics.

• Avoid minute micromanagement: Our natural tendency (and often even our education as trainers) prompts us to maximize every minute by packing in as much as possible. This will not work with a community approach.

People need time to think and digest material together. Conversations that happen around breaks and activities are essential. Create an agenda that allows, and even encourages, breathing room.

• Collaborative versus competitive: One very common classroom motivator is to foster competition. This could include participants competing for points, prizes,monetary gain, or some form of exposure. While this can be effective in some cases, consider the power of bringing people together with a common objective.

Competition can motivate in the short-term, but will often create impediments to healthy relationships and knowledge silos. Find ways to band the group together and forge a passionate and supportive tribe.

• Be intentional about group assignments: As trainers, we can be quite “willy-nilly” when creating partnerships and groups. In the classroom, I’ve been guilty of having participants line up by shoe size and giving out random numbers. Seeing how critical this part of the training experience is, I now take a more intentional
approach. Bring people together who work in different functions or geographic regions and have unique perspectives.

Humans are generally drawn toward people who act and think just like them. A strong community will transcend these natural cliques and find valuable friendships in unexpected places. When we take a human-centered approach to training design, the result is a more significant and meaningful training impact.

4. Incorporate common themes

One of the primary ways we can enhance the effectiveness of our training programs is to align our objectives to major organizational themes. Doing this helps to “make it real” and harmonizes the training experience to our actual day-to-day work experience. As you build out your learning paths, three unifying themes should play a role in any training program:

• Customer-centered: We all strive to serve our customers better. We want to know more about who they are and the role we each play in their journey to success. This shared desire is extremely powerful and acts as a common thread across every function of an organization.

In the GLP experience, UL ensures the customer is a primary consideration. The facilitators leverage real-life customer testimonials to generate a sense of urgency for participants. The learning community is then equipped with the tools, knowledge, and relationships needed to improve the lives of our customers.

• Your company goals: There is something that makes your organization unique—something you do better than anyone else in the world. Remind employees often that this knowledge will help them better serve your company’s mission. Have clear and pertinent tie-ins to demonstrate this reality. When we fail to make the mission relevant to the content we’re teaching, we run the risk of marginalizing both the training and the mission itself. Design learning programs to embed that mission into the hearts and minds of employees in practical and meaningful ways.

5. Eliminate the “finish line” mentality

Employees strive to continually grow and develop as part of their professional experience. Therefore, project the assurance that their professional development will never end. Learning programs should merely evolve and take new forms to keep it fresh, relevant, and exciting. Be sure to celebrate milestones along the way, but also design the learning journey to be an ongoing cycle, just like a community!

Using learning management system tools to track and manage your team’s staff development program helps to organize training based on job role, department, and company community.

Enterprise LMS (ELMS) platforms help organizations build virtual communities, even if employees are remote workers or scattered around the globe. These systems help learning and development managers to deliver relevant training to their employees and identify trends to satisfy their community learning goals.

Certainly, there is an argument for training methodologies learners can address independently from the comfort of their own devices, but there are many benefits to learning in a community. When we learn in a community, we amplify and solidify both learning and learning retention.

As our culture becomes increasingly segmented and isolated by technology, we have to consciously come back together again to share experiences, insights, and opinions. This is an essential part of successful learning at any age, in any job role.

To learn more, contact one of our Learning experts at ULehss@UL.com.