"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

The circumstances that cooperatives face today are complex with no existing playbook. We will likely need to rely on teams to find creative solutions because there is no "lone genius" with all the answers we seek. When groups come together to tackle a problem or create something new, research shows that innovation and decision-making improve. Today's challenges beg for innovation, and they are also well suited for collaborative learning.

Within my own team here at NRECA, COVID-19 has caused the cancellation of many in-person events and nearly 100 on-site training programs at co-ops and statewides. NRECA has long dabbled in online learning, but the pandemic forced us to make a big pivot quickly. We couldn't have made this shift without a number of working groups each tackling a piece of the puzzle together.

As used in this article, the term "collaborative learning" means simply learning that occurs through the sharing of information and coordination of effort among the members of a group or team. It's a common instructional method in educational settings, but it can also be a powerful tool in the workplace.

Benefits of collaborative learning include:

  • Shared knowledge across the team (what educators call "distributed cognition").

  • Greater engagement and accountability because process, not just the work, matters.

  • Better communication and improved relationships among team members.

  • If action-oriented, learning by doing has lasting impact ("situated cognition").

Tips for Introducing More Collaborative Learning at Your Co-op

  • Start relatively small. This applies both in terms of the size of the team and the complexity of the task or challenge. Consider adopting Amazon.com's "two-pizza team" rule. That is, the team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas. Pick a task or challenge that requires different viewpoints and perspectives but is not so complicated that the team won't be able to arrive at a solution. A good example may be redesigning a workflow or member transaction in an online environment.

  • Be clear that collaborative learning is part of the goal. Right from the beginning, instill a sense of accountability to the group as well as to the outcome. You want your team to feel that both their personal contribution as well as the group's success are important. Minimize a "divide and conquer" mindset by setting the expectation for working as a team. You may even want to consider an individual and group assessment at the conclusion of the work to help drive this dual accountability.

  • Establish ground rules. Explain why each member of the team was chosen (i.e., particular knowledge or skill, past experience, access to certain information, etc.) and be clear that you expect active involvement by each individual. Other rules of engagement might include:

    • In every discussion, everybody gets a chance to speak and everybody agrees to actively listen to what others have to say.

    • No question is a dumb question.

    • We will utilize "Yes, and" thinking. (This brainstorming method borrows from a rule of improvisational comedy that a team member should accept what another has stated ("yes") and then expand on his or her line of thinking ("and").)

    • Any team member can ask for help from any other team member.

  • Provide the tools. Think about how the work of the team will get done. If some or all of your team is working remotely now, it's important to consider what technology and tools may be needed to connect them. A tool educators use is a time/place matrix:

    • Same time/same place: Meeting space for face-to-face interactions, shared worktables or whiteboards, etc.

    • Same time/different place: Instant messaging and online chat rooms, audio or video conferencing, shared software and screen sharing capability.

    • Different time/same place: Team room, whiteboards, wall displays, shared physical files.

    • Different time/different place: Email, group calendars, software that provides version control, workflow diagrams.

  • Celebrate and reflect. When the task has been completed or the challenge resolved, it's important to celebrate that accomplishment along with the learning that took place. Ask the team to reflect on how they arrived at the result, how they feel about their contributions and what learning took place that they can carry forward.

Within my own team, we are learning by doing, sharing what worked as well as lessons learned while groups document new processes and create tools to guide our work. We are also taking this opportunity to bring people together in teams that may not have worked together closely before.

Dr. Keith Sawyer asserts in his book, Group Genius, that creativity is always collaborative. When learning with and from others, we become exposed to novel ideas and perspectives. We can draw connections between disparate things. Each participant can build on the ideas from others in the group to arrive at improved or even more novel solutions. Couldn't we all use more group genius right now?

Want to Learn More? Here Are a Few Resources

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 27-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions, then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.