The role of collaboration for learning in work-based contexts

Collaborative scenarios such as group-work can be highly beneficial for children’s learning, so long as they are carefully planned (Black & Wiliam, 2001).  Collaboration can help adults learn, too, and this is true of workplace contexts.

In terms of learning, human beings can be thought of as a form of ‘human capital’, and individual knowledge and skills provide an important resource – examples might include plumbers and bakers as well as brain surgeons or University Professors! But the value of this ‘per capita’ capital arguably increases if aggregated into ‘social capital’ (or ‘collaborative capital’): put simply, our knowledge and skills increases when we talk to each other! This is basically social constructivism in action, and its positive impact has been evidenced in several situations, for example teachers in New York (Leana, 2011).  Extending the example of education, a
recent McKinsey and Co. report stated that:

                Collaborative practice is the method by which a school system “hardwires” the values and beliefs implicit in its system into a form manifest in day-to-day teaching practice” (McKinsey & Co., 2010).

This implies that an organisation does not automatically adopt good ideas, beliefs, and practice: they have to be spread by means of colleagues communicating and sharing.
This view of the importance of colleagues working together is shared by Professor Michael Fullan who believes that collaboration is a key higher-order skill for the 21st century (Fullan 2011?).

Many organisations appreciate the value of collaboration for improving learning and overall effectiveness, and encourage peer communications and support (Greer et al, 1998). Some may even encourage ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1999) - groups of people who learn and develop together as an extension of their normal social interactions within or beyond their work. For such communities to be effective, there needs to be a great deal of trust and cooperation between members, and a clear focus of development and growth. Ideally, work-place organisations will share the characteristics and goals of the communities of practice within it, but that is not always the case as indicated in the table below based on West-Burnham, 2014:

Top down power
Shared authority
Low trust/control
High trust/consent
Focus on Career
Focus on personal growth
Enhanced value
Rule bound
Value driven


·        Black & Wiliam (2001) Inside the Black Box. [online] Available at : [Accessed 12.10.14]

·         Brown, JS and Duguid, P (2013) Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organisation Science. 2 (1).

·         Fullan, M. (2011) Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform. Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204. [online] Available at : 

·         Greer, J.E., Mccalla, G., Collins, J.A., Kumar, V.S., and Meagher, P. (1998) Supporting Peer Help and Collaboration in Distributed Workplace Environments. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education. 9, pp.159-177.

·         Leana, C.R. (2011) The missing link in school reform.Stanford Social Innovation Review. [online] Available at:  (accessed 2.11.14)

·         McKinsey and Company (2007). How the world’s best-performing schools come out on top. [online] Available at:

·         Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press

·         West-Burnham (2014) Making collaboration work: from the structural to the relational. [online] Available at : [Accessed: 6.1.15]
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