Learning has been advocated by leaders across businesses as a way to thrive, survive and sail through the current economic climate. One of the best ways to drive learning and growth forward, is to tap into the dormant potential of employees and bring it out through community learning.
In 1998, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) began a multi-country project called the Community Learning Centre (CLC) project. By 2003, there were 21 countries participating in the initiative. A community learning centre, as the name suggests, is a place where the local community members gather to exchange information and engage in learning activities. Resource persons from various fields, such as dance, medicine, academia, athletics, and the arts among others, come together and lead learning programmes for the community.
“As a concept, community learning may be abstract, but the results are quite tangible in terms of impact.”
In the corporate world, the concept is quite similar, and rather simple too.
Here, the community consists of the workers within the organisation, starting from the C-suite to the new recruits. Community learning can take place when every individual takes time out to share their experiences and past knowledge with their peers.
In every organisation, there is a vast reserve of untapped resources. Every employee brings with him or her, different skills and varied knowledge from myriad areas of life. These can be functional, life skills, social skills and soft skills among others. Businesses have the opportunity to enable their people to share this information with their colleagues who may benefit from it.
“While as a concept it may be abstract, the results are quite tangible in terms of impact,” says Karan Sandhu, HR learning specialist.
Community learning for remote work
In many ways, community learning, as a process, has always existed in organisations. Ravi Mishra, SVP-HR, Aditya Birla Chemicals, Epoxy Businesses, recounts a routine followed by many within the Company before lockdown was initiated. Every day, around 3 o’clock, employees across levels, including the CEO and other business heads, would gather at a common area for an afternoon tea. During the discussions people would inevitably end up sharing certain experiences or information— ranging from the right route to avoid traffic on the way back to a new practice at another company— which would be beneficial for others.
“Community learning is a cheap and effective way of learning for anybody who is interested,” adds Mishra.
Even during the work-from-home mode, community learning can still be encouraged within the organisation.
1. Encourage employees to take a class
If an employee has a particular skill, expertise, or past professional experience, which may be useful to colleagues, managers can encourage them to take a class and share that information with everyone. For instance, if an employee in HR has a past experience in sales, he or she can lead a session sharing insights and experiential learning from being in that job.
If this is encouraged, multiple benefits can come out of it. For the employees themselves, taking a class can position them as subject-matter experts while building their credibility at the same time. In addition, colleagues can have the opportunity to receive cross-functional knowledge from their peers.
“Community learning is a cheap and effective way of learning for anybody who is interested.”
2. Create cross-functional teams
Organisations and functional heads can enable their employees to participate in assignments, which require them to work as a cross-functional team. Individuals can be put in projects, which are outside their core competencies to encourage them to try something new, and if possible, learn from it.
This ensures communication between individuals, which is the crucial thread for community learning to take place. Many organisations have successfully experimented with such teams in the past, and having done that, promoted a culture of learning from one another.
To successfully enable such a move, it is essential for the leader to have a high degree of tolerance and understanding for failure. In the absence of this, workers will tend to tire out easily and lose the interest to try their hand at new areas.
3. Build avenues for discussion and talks
Another way to encourage community learning is to come up with new ways of getting people to talk about themselves. For instance, once a week, employees can talk for 15 minutes on a topic they are passionate about in life and how they are living it or fulfilling it.
In doing so, employees develop public-speaking skills as even on a virtual platform, it takes a level of preparedness and courage to speak in front of an audience. Secondly, those who are listening in may find it interesting and get inspired.
This is merely an example. There are other possible ways of bringing employees together for informal discussions. Companies can enable employees to take advantage of social media groups, such as on WhatsApp, to share relevant information among themselves.
Why does community learning work?
First, it is a more economical way of ensuring that the employees learn. For this to work, organisations need to encourage their people to discuss and learn from each other.
“Working from home, people now have the time to connect with each other more than before,” points out Mishra.
Second, it is a way to learn which requires less effort in return for a much larger gain. The veritable reserve of knowledge and experience that organisations have in their employees, is a treasure trove of information.
Third, technology has made it much easier now. Earlier, people had to come together physically to learn. When the pandemic hit and we had to move indoors, business quickly adapted to using collaborative tools to a level that we are all familiar with now.
“Community learning is an evolved and nuanced way of how the dormant knowledge in an organisation can be transferred and absorbed,” says Sandhu.
In today’s market, learning is no longer an option but almost a hygiene factor. To survive and move forward professionally, while growing at a personal level, individuals need to ensure that they learn. Businesses also take it upon themselves to enable their employees to learn and absorb knowledge and skills as much as possible. What better way to encourage this than through an economical, effective and readily available source of information.