Teams and learning together, part one

Team building is much more than just adding an icebreaker at the beginning of a long meeting. Leaders invest in team activities which develop openness, trust, and emotional connectedness; those factors create the opportunity for innovation and high performance.

A crucial element of team-building is structured learning together as a team. Many teams overlook the benefits of this powerful experience. They are stuck focusing primarily on individual goals and individual achievements, and miss the advantages of thinking, talking, and learning collectively.

Three major categories of learning approaches are available to leaders. One – compliance-based learning – is probably painfully familiar. Another, self-paced learning, has grown in popularity, ubiquity, and effectiveness. The third, team-based learning, is great but often not well understood; consequently, team-building opportunity is lost.  

As a leader, it is your decision how and when to use these three approaches to learning. In this post I'll consider compliance-based learning and self-paced learning, and on Thursday I'll discuss how a team-based approach improves on both of these.

Compliance-based learning

Your organization almost certainly has a set of mandatory training modules that every employee completes when they are hired, and repeats on an annual basis. You've likely hired an outside firm to create learning modules using videos, situational questions, and frequent testing. Your team is tracked and rated weekly on their progress: everyone on your team is expected to pass at 80% or more correct.

To manage this learning, you have a dashboard to monitor completion status. You are expected to "have a discussion" with the people on your team who are not yet compliant. Once everyone passes, your team is rated green. Until that point, your own manager also has a regular "discussion" about your progress (or lack thereof).

No doubt this method is familiar to many people. Frequent topics include IT security, benefits, HIPAA, sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, data and document retention, and legal updates.

Such training is of course necessary. Employees should know about rules and regulations. IT security is a difficult problem that needs everyone's vigilance. Legal and compliance issues are real. Corporate litigation often revolves around claims of "I didn't know that. . ." and so organizations need to protect themselves from lawsuits. The learning methods used are efficient for handling compliance, regulatory, and security issues.

I will, however, assert that these types of learning activities have no value for team building. They are a model of efficient, command-and-control management. These tools do not turn you into a "learning organization." They fall short of engaging people for several reasons:

  • Manager discussions are coercive, not coaching.
  • There is no engagement in the issues involved. All the content objectives are factual, rules-based and compliance-oriented.
  • All answers are predetermined, usually by HR, IT, or legal.
  • There is no team activity, discussion, or involvement in the learning process. Without any discussion to engage long-term memory, the "learning" is just long enough to pass the test.
  • Behavioral change is a minor outcome at best, mostly in the "don't do this" domain.

In order for team building to occur, something different has to happen.

Self-paced learning

Self-paced online learning has grown exponentially in the past two decades. Good to excellent quality content is widely available on e-learning platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, Pluralsight, Udemy, and many others. College-level courses and materials are available on Coursera, EdX, and the Great Courses programs. Deep technical training and skills are developed on Udacity,, Skillshare, and again, many others. Your organization can create and curate its own materials on EdCast, Saba, and other LMSs (Learning Management Systems). Even celebrity classes are available on Masterclass. This list is far from exhaustive; there is no lack of online learning available for interested learners.

Does this learning work? It does – and in many cases it is superior to the traditional classroom environment. Don't compare it to the best courses you remember from college or high school; remember instead that large lecture hall where 300 students played on their smartphones (if they even bothered to attend at all) while a learned professor showed Powerpoints and lectured on Pavlovian classical conditioning or how to calculate a vector.

I'll bet at least half of your education was spent listening to lecturers and reading textbooks.  That's not a horrible thing, but how much learning takes place? Is this a good return on the money being spent? Many online lecturers are the best in their field, and the use of simulations, practice exercises, and spaced repetition is ideal for long-term learning.

I have taken online courses from some of the best teachers out there, and learned a great deal. I've studied art at the California Institute of the Arts, listened to Robert Greenberg on the history of opera and 20th Century classical music, learned how to program in Python, and learned how to paint a front door. I have learned more foreign language and Adobe skills from apps and YouTube than I ever would have without a private tutor living in my basement.

These courses have big advantages over the traditional classroom: they are inexpensive, or even free; they can be self-paced so that they fit in my personal and family schedule; and they require no travel. I couldn't have taken classes from Cal Arts in the old model, but now I can, easily and remotely.

Self-learning also still includes that old favorite, the book. Books come in more forms now: printed books, electronic e-books, and audio books. Individuals may prefer one format over the other, primarily based on the topic, and when and where they do their reading. (Audio books are the only choice while driving, for example, but audio books are terrible for learning how to write code.)  

Books are good learning tools because they formally organize a collection of knowledge about a topic. Learning is hard work. It is extraordinarily helpful to have an experienced person organize chunks of knowledge into a logical learning sequence and package it into a single volume.

So what is the role of a leader in self-paced learning? As a leader, you can offer the following support:

  • Provide resources for learning through funding and allocation of time for the learning.
  • Encourage each team member through positive dialogue and enthusiastic support of learning during career planning discussions.
  • Engage learners in coaching, and ask good questions to help them apply learning to the work at hand.

In my next post, I will take a closer look at the important power of team learning. I look forward to seeing you then!

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA