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Together has always been a powerful and very human way to learn.
It is exciting to see that corporate learning is increasingly adopting and promoting collaborative learning as a complementary approach for skill building.

A prevalent and rewarding way to learn

"Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life." – Amy Poehler

When I think of the best and most effective learning experiences in my life, my study circle in college comes to mind and I remember:

  • The relief to have a safe space where I could ask questions and where I got answers and explanations in a way that I understood

  • The nudges and the peer pressure that forced me to keep going, even when things got difficult

  • The happiness of having realized and understood something with the help of my friends and the fun we had

Today, as a learning professional in a corporate environment, I better understand the underlying mechanisms and the power of collaborative learning.

A shift towards collaborative learning

"Collaboration operates through a process in which the successful intellectual achievements of one person arouse the intellectual passions and enthusiasms of others." - Alexander von Humboldt

Collaborative learning manifests aspects of constructivism and connectivism. People engaged in collaborative learning capitalize on one another's resources and skills. They ask each other for information, evaluate ideas, monitor one another's work, gain and create new knowledge, and grow individually as well as a group.

Learning circles are a proven approach to collaborative learning, where small groups of people learn from and with each other, often for a limited time. Honoring the principles of equal participation, reciprocity, and diversity, a psychologically safe space is established where people feel they can speak openly and honestly.

There have been several attempts over time to formalize this learning circle approach (from mastermind groups, to lean-in circles, to Working Out Loud and lernOS  circles), but corporate learning for a long time has not adopted it at scale.

Forward-thinking companies have started implementing learning circle approaches into employee training programs, thus fostering a culture of continuous learning and knowledge sharing, nurturing self-organization, and building communities of engaged and motivated learners.

A case study of using learning circles at SAP CSS Learning

At SAP Cloud Success Services (CSS) Learning, the SAP-internal Learning & Development team for services and customer success, we have piloted three different learning circle approaches:

  • A 12-week learning campaign for SAP employees, customers, and partners, based on standard lernOS guides with a high level of self-organization.

  • A formal learning program for building enterprise architecture knowledge and skills. The program provides structured content and offers flexibility regarding cadence and duration of learning circles.

  • A formal, six week learning program for building technical knowledge about the SAP Business Technology Platform. The program allowed for individual goals and flexible learning paths and had a formalized cadence for the learning circles.

All programs are cohort-based and use a flipped classroom approach: each learner consumes the learning content and completes the homework individually. Once a week, they join their peers in a one-hour virtual meeting to discuss questions and share insights. The moderation of the circle meeting rotates between the circle members.

Amazing results

Through participant feedback, surveys, and a thorough impact analysis, we gained exciting insights from these pilots:

  • Learners love the format: 94% of learners want to continue with Learning Circles as a method to progress in their career.

  • With an average effort of 2-3 hours per week, the program fits nicely into the busy schedules of our learners so they can practice deep learning in the flow of work.

  • Without the need for trainers and fixed schedules, the programs scale easily. One of the programs reached almost 600 learners in just seven months and has 1,400 more colleagues in the cue.

  • Programs that provide a higher level of guidance increase the confidence of learners to transfer their insights to daily business and take the next step in their professional career.

  • A virtual setup supports the diverse composition of learning circles across teams and regions, which helps overcome silos.

  • A final task or presentation reviewed by topic experts provides appreciation and motivation for learners and supports a formal confirmation of successful completion of the learning circle program.


Learner quotes, qualitative feedback through survey and interview, 2022

7 tips how to set up a learning circle program

Learning circle programs can be set up in many ways. If you want to set up your own program in your organization, here are 7 tips to consider:

  • 🧭 Don’t overwhelm learners. If your audience is not used to working in a self-organized way, build more guidance into your learning circle program.

  • Be honest and realistic. Clearly communicate what effort and time invest is expected from learners.

  • 🔄 Expect churn and no-shows. Ideally create circles with a minimum of 6 participants to make sure that the circles can work effectively even when participants drop.

  • ⁉ Organize joint sessions. Invite all circle members of a cohort to a kick-off session to explain the approach, clarify questions, and build rapport. If suitable, organize pitstop or ask-me-anything sessions, or a closing event.

  • 💫 Build diverse circles. Random matching (e.g. via random assignment to breakout rooms in Zoom or MS Teams) is a good way to ensure diversity.

  • 🛠 Support the learning journey. Provide a canvas or learning journal that learners can use to reflect on their individual goals, to document their insights and questions, and to track their learning progress.

  • 🤝 Create networking opportunities. Create an engaging atmosphere for learners to have fun while learning and exchanging. Use storytelling and think about including gamification elements.

What are your experiences with learning circles? Have you tried collaborative learning yourself? What works for you and what doesn’t? Share your feedback and insights in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!