January 24, 2018

by Erin Hachtel

While working on a software implementation project, two teams took two different approaches to learning the new system.

Team A took an individual learning approach:  each member took a class based on her own schedule, and then was responsible for remembering the information to use the new software correctly. When a member of Team A needed help figuring out how to enter data or perform a task, she called the Tech Support Line and waited for someone on the other line to walk her through the technique.  When someone on Team A learned a shortcut, she didn’t share it right away because none of her colleagues were accessible. Team A struggled to adopt the software.

Team B took a team learning approach.  Each team member enrolled in training, choosing the same class date whenever possible. After everyone had completed training, the team leader held a regular meeting when all team members attended with their laptops so that they could practice while the leader used her laptop and a projector to demonstrate different tasks.  During these meetings, Team B members showed each other shortcuts they had learned as they practiced.  When a member of Team B needed help, she asked one of her colleagues for the answer.  Team B quickly adopted the new software.

What is team learning?

Team learning is the basic process of sharing, storing, and retrieving information and knowledge (Argote, McEvily, & Reagans, 2003.) When a person learns things, he or she usually relies on external tools or supports to help recall what was learned in order to use it effectively.  In team learning, members connect and collaborate to recall information and apply individual skills and talents in using that information.  Teams who develop this kind of learning practice will have members who still tend to specialize in one type of knowledge, and their peers will count on them for that.  By collectively remembering and applying what they’ve learned, they allow the entire team to know more than if each person was relying solely on her own learning (Thompson, 2014.)  The whole becomes greater than its individual parts.

[box style=”1″]Research shows that teams who work and train together perform better than do teams whose members are equally skilled but do not train together (Hollingshead, 1998; Littlepage, Robsion, & Reddington, 1997.)[/box]

How can you move from individual to team learning?

Here are some ideas to increase your effectiveness as a learning organization by adopting team learning practices:

  • Schedule learning time during regular meetings. Micro-learning opportunities are an excellent approach to developing action-oriented knowledge, skills, and abilities in your team. Watch a 5-minute video during your meeting, and then invite participants to work in pairs or trios to share how they each understand and could apply the concepts.   A large-group debrief for 5 minutes can then capture each small group’s ideas and insights.
  • Diversify your team. Since each member of the team brings her or his special set of knowledge and skills, it’s important to include people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences in your team.  Working from different perspectives can bring new ideas and insights and can help teams avoid getting stuck in “groupthink;” homogeneity diminishes the effectiveness of the team because entrenched members either intentionally avoid or are never exposed to unfamiliar ideas.
  • Implement innovative learning techniques with the team.  If your brainstorming sessions typically stall out after three ideas emerge, it may be time to try some creative methods to get your team to collaborate.  Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method is a way to visualize different perspectives and invite the team to try on new ways of thinking about challenges you’re trying to overcome or new ways to achieve your goals.

Investing time in learning together will pay off in working together more effectively.  Want to bring in some training at your next coalition meeting? Contact us!


Argote, L., McEvily, B., & Reagans, R. (2003). Managing knowledge in organization: An integrative framework and review of emerging themes. Management Science, 49(4). 571-582.

Hollingshead, A.B. (1998.) Group and individual training, Small Group Research, 29(2), 254-280; Littlepage, G., Robsion, W., & Reddington, K. (1997). Effects of task experience and group experience on group performance, member ability, and recognition of expertise. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 69(2), 133-147.

Thompson, L.L. (2014). Making the team: a guide for managers, 5th Edition. 152-160. New Jersey: Pearson.