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By Clive Shepherd

Humans are naturally social animals. We co-operate to achieve things we couldn’t possibly accomplish as individuals. Sometimes this is just a simple matter of combining forces – hunting in packs. We also co-operate through the division of labour – we build specialist skills that we can offer as services to each other. Thirdly, we share information, to alert one another to opportunities and threats and to pass on good ideas.

Of course, we don’t do this all the time, because we are also in competition for resources – territory, food, mates, jobs and attention.

We need to know more about how to encourage collaboration, because it is clear we have a lot to gain.” Clive Shepherd

So what makes collaboration win out over competition? Well, first we need a common cause, a goal that will benefit us all, or an enemy we must combine to overcome. Then there should also be something in it for the collaborators themselves – a return on their investment if you like. This may be purely intrinsic, a sense of satisfaction, of doing the right thing, but ideally collaboration will also pay off in terms of recognition from your peers, a word of thanks, a sense of belonging.

Those working in eLearning are often relatively isolated, working alone or in small teams. They have common problems to overcome:

  • ‘Selling’ eLearning to their colleagues, managers and learners.
  • Choosing tools and suppliers.
  • Finding or creating content that really delivers.
  • Making sense of all the new stuff – mobile, social, gamification.

And they stand a better chance of overcoming these problems by sharing best practice with each other.

There is a selfish interest too, perhaps. Many eLearning specialists will find little scope for career advancement within their own organisations and will want to build a network which will help to alert them to new opportunities.

But collaboration doesn’t just happen. According to an article in the Psychology Wiki: While collaboration is natural in some societies, and is generally natural in pre-existing teams, collaboration is unnatural in new groups and western society. The article goes on to list some of the more common barriers:

  • Stranger danger – a reluctance to share with people you don’t know.
  • Hoarding – keeping hold of knowledge as a source of power.
  • Not invented here – nothing anyone else has done can work in our organisation.

Psychology Today has a similarly bleak viewpoint: “The cultural context in which we all operate is not set up for collaboration, leaving us without models to emulate. Most of us grew up in an environment of enforcement and authority, and have likely internalized an either/or perspective that makes it challenging to engage collaboratively when there are differences in perspective or wishes, especially when those are compounded by power relations.”

   Four tips for upping your collaboration quotient:

  1. In your contacts with colleagues, be prepared to share the difficulties you have experienced as well as your successes.
  2. Make use of forums, blogs and other social networking tools to get answers to your questions and help out others.
  3. Consider forming a consortium with some of your colleagues to get a job done that’s too big for you alone. Perhaps developing a curriculum or some new content; perhaps to draw up guidelines or processes.
  4. Make use of collaborative group activities in your blends. Remember that learning can be more powerful when it’s shared.

We need to know more about how to encourage collaboration, because it is clear we have a lot to gain. Does social media have a role in all this? Well, our experience with social networks has encouraged us to be more open than we might otherwise have been. And, of course, the Internet makes it so much easier to network with peers and find useful information. But I can’t help but think that it’s basically down to good old-fashioned human nature. What worked fifty thousand year ago, works as well today.

Clive Shepherd is widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s foremost experts in workplace learning and development, with hundreds of published articles to his name. He is the author of many publications, including The Blended Learning Cookbook, The New Learning Architect and Digital Learning Content: A Designer’s Guide. He speaks regularly at major international conferences and contributes regularly to his blog, Clive on Learning. Clive is the Director of Onlignment Ltd, which provides expertise in all aspects of online communication.