In corporate learning and development circles, we’ve been talking quite a bit lately about collaborative learning. Fueled by the possibility of supporting collaboration through electronic tools, we get very excited about the synergies and surprises we might uncover by interacting with those we might not see often face-to-face. We’ve always been enamored with collaborative techniques, of course, using project work, group research projects, and book studies to develop insights and promote learning.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve become immersed in “Collaborative Inquiry” – capital “C,” capital “I” – as a specific technique for learning and research, and this technique provides some guidance that I think we would do well to adapt in our corporate learning efforts. A colleague and I decided to assign a collaborative inquiry project to students in a doctoral course on adult learning, so I’ve plunged into the literature on collaborative inquiry as well as other participatory inquiry models. (Who knew there was a whole stream of literature on this?! That’s why I love teaching; I learn so much along the way!)
Several specific ideas seem to me to be important to transfer into the work I do in supporting learning in a corporate environment.
> The primacy of learning from experience. Collaborative Inquiry requires participants to explore and dissect their own experiences related to the topic at hand – to share, discuss, reflect on – past and present personal incidents and the way they’ve made sense of those experiences. Collaborative inquiry invites participants in an inquiry group to experiment with new ways of behaving and acting in their day-to-day lives and to bring those experiences and their consequences and personal interpretations back to the group as new data for discussion and exploration. We all agree that we learn from our own experiences, but we seldom take time to deliberately pick out the lessons our experience has taught us, no less offer those experiences and lessons as fodder for group learning.
So imagine a corporate group research project that asks leaders, for example, to pool their experiences as a legitimate way of crafting a recommended approach to some management task or leadership role. In addition to searching for “best practices” from other organizations and reading books, articles, and research studies on a topic, the group would deliberately pick apart their own successes and failures to develop a deep understanding of the topic and build a rich recommendation for an approach going forward. I know that we often discuss our experiences as part of our work in these kinds of projects, but collaborative inquiry gives those experiences much greater weight and guides us to think more deeply about how to interpret those experiences. Which leads me to a second collaborative inquiry characteristic we should adopt…
> The importance of critical, deep reflection on experience. The notion that we need to make more room for reflection in our lives is sometimes met with a degree of skepticism. Skeptics think that we naturally reflect all t he time, and the idea that it needs to be promoted in some specific way seems overkill. Skeptics are also very wary of the possibility of “paralysis of analysis” or over-complicating or over-thinking ideas when the obvious simple solution is really all that is needed. I understand those cautions. At the same time, the hectic pace of our lives leaves precious little time to think, and the quality of our reflection is heightened when we take the time to reflect with a group of people rather than only reflecting independently.
Imagine having a group of peers ask one another challenging questions about our facts, assumptions, interpretations, and future action steps. We all have our own lenses through which we filter our view of the world, and exposing our experience to other people’s lenses gives us a richer view. Group reflection isn’t about gathering others’ views about our experiences; it’s about allowing others to help us to test our own assumptions and deepen our own thinking about how we interpret those experiences. When we come together and discuss a variety of experiences, we begin to see patterns and issues that aren’t apparent from within our own views. Reflection takes time and practice, but well worth the effort.
> The value of mixing the lessons of experience with theory and research on a topic. Deliberately seeking out theory and research on the topic of a collaborative inquiry isn’t usually called out as a specific step in the process. But my colleague and I have made it a requirement of the course assignment, and it’s a great practice to get into if you aspire to scholarly or SMART practice. Reviewing academic and practice-based literature can help us to build language we can use to discuss our experiences, give us questions to ask as part of our reflection, help us to frame experiments and recommendations, and more.
Imagine expanding our understanding of a topic outside of the limited experiences of the people with whom we are collaborating, bringing in ideas from experts who have explored the topic before, and exploring perspectives that are brand new to us and exciting to consider. That’s what a deliberate outreach to research and theory can do for us, and our internet tools can make it easier to find and access those ideas.
> The power of the group as a learning space. Pulling together a group of people to work together on an important question or practice is a frequently used strategy in business. Collaborative inquiry enriches this strategy by guiding the group to engage in rich dialog, to value each other’s experiences and the perspective each brings. Collaborative inquiry creates an environment in which we can transform our own experiences into useful knowledge before the pace of our lives overwrites the lessons we might have learned.
Imaging having the time to really talk about our experiences, not in a formal “lessons-learned” report-out, but in an open and exploratory dialog. That’s why social gatherings are so important for innovation and engagement; it’s in these opportunities for reflecting together that real insight is gained.
Collaborative Inquiry (capital “C” – capital “I”) is defined as “a process consisting of repeated episodes of reflection and action through which a group of peers strives to answer a question of importance to them.” Doesn’t that sound exciting? Note the characteristics –
> “repeated episodes of reflection and action” – a collaborative inquiry isn’t just about reflection; it’s about action – putting ideas that the group explores into action in an ongoing experimental, experiential process.
> “group of peers” – in collaborative inquiry, everybody counts; every voice needs to be heard.
> “question of importance to them” – in collaborative inquiry, the co-inquirers have a stake in the topic at hand – no one is on the sidelines. They may look at the topic from different angles, and the topic may be important for different reasons, but this isn’t an academic exercise, it’s a personal one.
The purpose of collaborative inquiry is to construct meaningful, practical knowledge. Isn’t that what we all need?
For more information on collaborative inquiry, I recommend Collaborative Inquiry in Practice: Action, Reflection, and Making Meaning by John Bray, Joyce Lee, Linda Smith, and Lyle Yorks. (Sage, 2000)