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Five years ago, when a training exercise asked the executive team at
Powder River Energy Corp. (PRECorp) to examine the effect of a significant downturn in northeastern Wyoming’s coal mining industry, they found the impact would be catastrophic, with a loss of load and revenue that could threaten the survival of the co-op.
Now, as that very situation is unfolding in the region, PRECorp is managing the changes well.
PRECorp leaders credit the co-op’s adoption of “collaborative learning” practices—which leverage the combined experience and creative thinking of groups—for not only identifying the issue early but for mapping out contingencies and deploying a response that has worked.
It started when CEO Mike Easley decided to create a leadership assessment and development program with a focus on strategic succession planning. The consultant they’d hired for the project—Denver-based organizational psychologist Justin Schulz—was an advocate of team-based learning.
“When we did this, we didn’t expect what would happen,” Easley says. “It was a conceptual project based on some of the trends at the time in oil and coal industry. We wanted to use it as a way to identify and develop high-potential employees. When the bottom did drop out, we were ready with the work that had been done.”
At its most basic, collaborative learning as an instructional method relies on groups working together to solve specific problems, complete tasks, or create new products or processes. The approach gets a lot of attention in K-12 instruction, but it’s been shown to be highly effective with adult learners who have career experience and life skills to share, says Tracey Steiner, NRECA’s senior vice president for
education and training.
“Collaborative learning can be an effective tool in almost any workplace setting, but it’s particularly useful when tackling complex and novel challenges that require creativity and knowledge that spans different organizational functions,” she says. “With all the changes that co-ops are dealing with now, the benefits of adopting collaborative learning cannot be overstated.”
Robert I. Kabat Management Internship Program (MIP), which turns 50 this year, has relied on immersive, team-based learning since its inception, says Gary Pfann, NRECA’s director of executive and staff education.
Based at the Fluno Center for Executive Education at the University of Wisconsin Madison, MIP takes attendees through an intensive six-week curriculum that concentrates on small-team approaches to solving specific co-op management issues.
“MIP has always been an immersion program,” says Pfann, who has headed the program for 22 years. “Co-ops are collaborative by nature and by our history. It’s a natural fit.”
He says teams are deliberately structured to include people with diverse career skills to increase the potential for creativity in problem solving.
More than 3,000 students have graduated since the program began in 1970, with 1,450 graduates still in the network. About 33 percent of current co-op CEOs have been through MIP.
“It’s such a powerful advantage to have so many people working in leadership at electric cooperatives who have studied and learned under a collaborative curriculum,” Pfann says. “The benefits over the years are immeasurable.”
‘When the magic happens’
Molly McPherson says when it’s done well, collaborative learning fundamentally changes the instructor/learner relationship.
“The true learning is the engagement,” says McPherson, an independent instructor who presents frequently on crisis communications, social media, and governance topics for NRECA and other electric cooperatives. “My approach to classroom instruction is to integrate collaboration where I can, as soon as I can, whether the learners recognize it or not.”
She starts by asking participants to introduce themselves and describe their backgrounds. As students become familiar with one another, she has them describe an issue, challenge, or problem at their cooperative that relates to the course material in their workbooks.
“When they are helping each other, sharing solutions, that is the point where they teach each other,” she says. “That is the point when the magic happens.”
Steiner says this “magic” comes naturally in electric cooperative workplaces. The key is to harness it.
“Learning is not usually a formal event,” she notes. “There is a lot of learning that takes place every single day at a co-op. It may be in the form of a conversation at the coffee machine, watching how another co-worker performs a task, or reading an article. The goal is to recognize this informal learning is taking place and approach it with more intentionality.”
A more sophisticated workforce
At PRECorp, Easley says the co-op’s incorporation of collaborative learning has paid off repeatedly, even helping smooth the transition to work-from-home status when the coronavirus pandemic hit Wyoming.
During an exercise in 2016, employees were tasked with finding ways to cut the co-op’s budget by $3 million. This was happening when the oil and gas markets were in turmoil and the co-op had already imposed 20% rate increases.
Several of the group’s recommendations were implemented, including curbing staff travel to offices throughout PRECorp’s far-flung territory and replacing it with equipment and training for online video meetings.
The moved saved the co-op more than $200,000 and made the recent transition to remote meetings much easier.
Easley says collaborative learning has broken down silos and helped create a more sophisticated workforce in the co-op.
“It’s really all about empowerment,” he says. “We hire smart people. We give them responsibilities and have high expectations. Our role is removing their barriers and becoming their cheerleader.”
Visit cooperative.com this month for
a Tracey’s Takeaways column on this topic.