Three ways to design a cohort learning experience that will transform the way your managers lead

Modern work is all about teams. Whether virtual, in-person or some combination, businesses today demand the carrying out of tasks that are deeply collaborative, frequently cross-functional and more often than not, span time zones, hemispheres and organizational levels.

This type of complex, team-centric work asks a lot of managers. But it’s worth investing in making sure they’re up to the task: Research shows the quality and performance of the so-called “middle manager” contributes to 22 percent of a company’s overall revenue. That’s a greater share than senior leadership, marketing, strategy, process or any other single part of business (when controlling for other factors).

Learning and development plays a central role in equipping managers with the skills they need to lead effective teams. However, the available learning solutions haven’t entirely kept up. Compliance-oriented LMS platforms, though great for some types of learning, aren’t ideal for developing the more nuanced capabilities managers need now. And in-person leadership offsites, or even virtual live training, can’t scale across globally distributed organizations.

Fortunately, cohort-based learning has introduced an effective alternative – and businesses are already starting to see the results.

Cohort-based learning: What’s all the buzz?

Forbes has claimed cohort-based learning is “transforming online education. ” TechCrunch has reported how cohort-based learning has helped fuel the recent boom in edtech investmentwith just one example being investment firm a16z leading the series A round for cohort-based course provider Maven. A16z further made the case for cohort-based learning as the future of digital learning with founder Wes Kao’s article proclaiming “Cohorts are king.”

All this buzz makes sense! Cohort-based learning is full of exciting implications for how we teach, learn and transform our organizations. The cohort experience is effective for domains that are typically harder to teach online, like creativity, problem-solving and leadership. And instruction in this model tends to be particularly impactful, as individual learners are much more likely to retain information they learned in groups.

To reap the full benefits of this model, there are three elements of learning design to keep in mind, picked up during our nearly ten years of creating cohort-based experiences.

Skip the instructors for distributed teams

One key learning design consideration is the issue of who, or what will present the content.

We’ve seen an impulse for digital learning to replicate traditional classroom-based instruction – simply transferred online. This means an emphasis on fully live classes and an instructor or facilitator at the learning experience’s core. But this misses a greater opportunity: Cohort-based learning doesn’t have to be a facsimile of classroom education. Instead, it can be a complete reimagining of the learning experience. Including forgoing the instructor altogether.

While instructor-led programs certainly have their place – particularly for small-group learning – a reliance on instructors limits a solution’s ability to scale across thousands (or even tens of thousands) of learners. In instructorless models, learners in different time zones don’t need to wait for an instructor to log in, and companies don’t need to wait for additional facilitators to be trained to implement the solution for new teams.

But what about quality?

TO 2019 study shows that peer interactions are actually more important than instructor skill when it comes to real learning impact. And a content-driven model moves these learner interactions to center stage. Spurred on by videos, stories and case studies that feature a wide range of expert and practitioner voices, cohort members come together to discuss how these perspectives might apply to their own work. This means that rather than diluting the experience, the size of the virtual academy actually enhances it: The presence of more learners leads to more engagement, more diverse viewpoints and more innovation.

Leave time for individual reflection, too

Another important factor of cohort-based design is striking a balance between social engagement and introspective moments within the learning experience. While peer interactions form the foundation of any cohort-based learning, solutions can’t focus solely on the social aspects of the learner experience. Time for individual reflection is also key.

Research demonstrates that we almost always learn most effectively through organized consideration of our own experiences. In one study of training for customer service representatives at IT firm Wipro, a group of learners who were prompted to reflect on their individual learning experiences earned a 23.2 percent higher score on exams and showed better performance over their first three months of employment when compared with their colleagues.

The bottom line: While the social aspects of cohort-based experiences are important, so too are elements that encourage the individual reflection that will help learners absorb new concepts and begin applying them to their work.

Craft cohorts to support psychological safety

Humans are highly social creatures, and studies show that social context makes us learn and act on new information in different ways. But these effects are all dependent on our sense of belonging and psychological safety.

Consider that, in just one example, management research has shown that teams of business school students who regularly share meals generate higher profits in simulated negotiations. With this in mind, cohort design should include rituals that bring this same feeling of camaraderie to the digital world. These can be as straightforward as allowing cohorts to choose creative names, encouraging learners to fill out profiles and upload photos and providing completion certificates learners can share on their social media profiles.

Though seemingly small, features like these help to demonstrate the cohort is a safe space for sharing experiences and exploring new ideas.

Put L&D at the strategic center

Change is already here. The line between management and leadership is blurrier than ever. Our economy competes on innovation, knowledge and problem-solving, with managers at the center of it all. For organizations to keep up, L&D needs to be at the center of business strategy, too, giving these managers the skills they need to meet these demands and, ultimately, thrive.

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