Facilitating virtual collaboration and social learning
With more virtual classes, remote teams and continued emphasis on social collaboration, coupled with the launch of Microsoft Teams, I’m seeing a renewed interest in exploring virtual peer collaboration. In my interviews from coast to coast and in Canada and the US, I’ve seen some successful programs and some that remained in the social learning graveyard. A key ingredient for success was having an individual facilitate and shepherd social collaboration… a true facilitator in support of participants learning from each other.
Most learning programs in organizations are usually structured and well-defined to achieve set learning targets. These programs characteristically have a formal setting and are delivered in classroom type, student-teacher format.
Social learning comes in as an informal/semi-formal supplement to formal training where learning is created by the learners themselves but within set guidelines by the organization. These guidelines and structure itself are communicated and upheld in the group by the facilitator. The facilitator could be someone who possesses a little more advanced knowledge of the learning group’s subject matters but isn’t there to ‘teach.’ The facilitator’s roles are rather to structure, steer and encourage the conversation.
An overview of the facilitator’s role
How the social learning facilitator approaches their duty can be primarily grouped into two categories; ‘hands-on’ and ‘hands-off’.
Hands on – At the start of a social learning program, participants are most likely uncertain about how to go about it and need proper guidance. The facilitator’s job is to communicate a clear agenda for the program, outline and modify the learning process to fit the group and specify their roles and interactions for constructive discussions. The facilitator may need to reach out to and follow-up with individuals to ensure each participant is “on board” with the program.
The facilitators are charged with outlining exactly what tasks were required, by who and when. They are also required to regularly update senior management with completion and participation rates.
Hands off – While moderator guidance is a much-needed part of the social learning process, the most successful social learning programs thrive best without the moderator/facilitator as a constant hovering presence. Members of the group do not need to be hand-held through the entire process. Instead, participants should be allowed to freely interact with each other, learn from their peers and share their own knowledge.
The facilitator or moderator acts a behind–to–scenes man, establishing expected behaviours and encouraging participation by leveraging resources, activities and follow-up questions that spur on conversation. Participants should be allowed to choose their own topic of discussion from time to time and could freely choose (or not choose) to contribute to the discussion.
Tips for Balancing Informal with Structure
Peer-to-peer interactions can be beneficial but only if there is a system in place that keeps learning activities scalable and in check. Here’s how social learning facilitators can bring structure to their groups, encourage social collaboration and ensure optimal learning outcomes:
- Outline goals and objectives: Social learning should be inspired by the facilitators, enabled by employees and relative to actual on-the-job experiences. For learning by social collaboration to work, participants need proper guidance which the facilitators provide. Social learning facilitators need to set the agenda and goals for the program and lay down some rules.
- Keep communication clear and concise: Participants should not only feel connected to their peers but should also connect with their facilitators on some level and ensure that they build trust with the group to make it easier to overcome challenges that may arise. Like in instructional design, communication should be in concise words and every task should be described adequately.
- Make yourself accessible: Even though social learning facilitators are advised to have a ‘light touch’ in the learning process, one of the most critical components of their work is to keep the program alive. In order to do all of it, the facilitators have to make themselves readily available to the members of the social group whether physically or online. They need to be able to provide administrative support and be present for insights, feedback, requests for help, moderation and encouragement.
Tips for Helping Learners Socially Collaborate
Even if facilitators are subject matter experts in their individual learning groups, leading the group towards effective collaboration can be quite a daunting task. These best practices equip social learning facilitators for successful collaboration within their team.
- Help participants form connections and develop moderately strong ties that transcend geographies, time zones and cultures.
- Focusing on relationship-building between the group members first is pertinent, however, it shouldn’t take a lot of time before moving on to tasks at hand.
- Demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment to seeing to it that your team grows.
- Find out what you can do to help team members meet their personal learning goals – you can also learn from them.
- Set and communicate clear behavioural expectations in terms of moral support, transparency, openness, confidentiality, accountability, and shared ownership of results.
- Identify and bring attention to potential small wins to keep the learning group engaged.
- Also, include a system of rewards and recognitions distributed deservingly amongst the team.
- Encourage learners to make spontaneous choices and not just following routines rigidly.
- Strive to build a sense of purpose and direction within the learning group.
- Communicate in clear, concise words, the overall vision, purpose, goals, and priorities of the learning group.
- Act as a communication link between upper management and your learning group to communicate each group’s wants and needs.
- Keep details of the whole project open to team members, try not to restrict them to just their individual tasks.
- Work out team strategy, goals, objectives, priorities, key tasks and performance indicators and design a virtual team charter for this information.
- Take note of surface agreements between team members that could mask differences.
- Put out regular reminders to keep team members up to speed on a regular on new activities, purpose, strategy, and priorities.
- Be alert to and plan around other workplace priorities that could take the team members off course.
- Develop rich information accessibility and processes for organizing workflows
- Identify what tasks can be done independently, and what requires team effort.
- Identify and bridge important differences in current technologies and tools (e.g. calendars, project management tools).
- Identify specific roles/responsibilities, both shared and individual, and the decision rights on the team.
- Have an organized contact list, role locator and interface map for all team members: who/what/ interdependencies.
- Break down the group into smaller, temporary task teams with their own goals, objectives and timings while keeping them interconnected.
- Developing the conditions in which everyone can and will contribute fully to team performance
- Create opportunities in sessions for members to learn from one another.
- Take account of each individual member’s developmental goals and make a plan to help work towards it.
- Ensure everyone on the team is able to participate in each session fully regardless of location.
- Encourage and empower individuals to pick up extra tasks when they can, e.g., lead virtual meetings.
- Monitor individual and team performance and provide regular feedback whether positive ones or criticisms.
- Provide virtual or in-person coaching to individuals, as needed.
- Have periodic check-ins for the team to get together and analyze its capabilities and recommend performance improvement strategies.
- Look to the successes of other learning groups’ social collaboration for examples of best practices your group can apply.
The future of learning is progressive, collaborative, empowering and ongoing. Social learning provides an avenue for peers in the workplace to collaborate and exchange insight and experiences. Facilitators provide structured platforms for these peer-to-peer connections to form and act as catalysts, advocates and supporters towards social collaboration and amplified learning and discovery.