Ron, the senior vice president of sales, has just called to give you a heads up – the CEO is about to announce there has been a merger and the company’s product line will be expanded. All existing sales teams will be reconfigured, and team members will need training on the new product lines. The learning and development (L&D) team is responsible for training the sales staff and facilitating their transition into new, globally dispersed teams. You have two weeks to formulate a plan to train 1,200 individuals across five different time zones. Many of these individuals have never met face to face and will be working virtually most of the time. Sound familiar?

Whether your company is large or small, geographically dispersed teams are becoming more common, requiring L&D departments to develop effective training on content while facilitating virtual team building at the same time. While there are many techniques to address these two items separately, social learning provides a highly flexible, low-cost way to tackle learning and team building together. In fact, teams may already be incorporating social learning techniques into their daily routine! This article will explore strategies you can use to promote engagement within virtual teams by integrating social learning experiences into traditional learning programs.

The challenges within virtual teams are well-known. Communication, or lack thereof, is a primary pain point. Research on methods of communication has long promoted the importance of visual cues, such as body language, to truly understand what is being said. Most virtual teams communicate via email or phone and are not able to pick up on these important visual cues. Virtual teams also suffer from a lack of shared experience. A funny moment in the break room, a favorite restaurant or a local cause to rally around all create shared experiences that build emotional connections within a team. Teams with limited face-to-face time have a greater degree of social distance, meaning they have trouble establishing an emotional connection with one another, which limits their ability to trust each other. These inherent challenges must be overcome to ensure a successful and effective learning experience.

Integrating Social Learning Activities within Traditional E-Learning

Social learning typically refers to individuals learning from each other as they share an experience. It can occur online or in person and the most effective programs tend to incorporate a mix of the two environments. On a recent project, I designed a series of social learning components to augment a traditional e-learning course. The client was looking for a way to bring a geographically dispersed team together, strengthen their relationships and create a more engaging learning experience. Building on the traditional online discussion forum, we developed creative ways for the team to connect with one another. For example, during a lesson on active listening we asked the learners to post a fun image and caption it with one of the benefits of listening actively. Extra points were awarded for creativity in image selection. Not only did this get the learners to think about the content in a new way, it allowed them to develop an appreciation of one another’s sense of humor as they reacted to each other’s posts.

Integrating social learning activities into traditional e-learning has many benefits and can be a great way to develop relationships. Although mentoring often comes to mind, social learning activities also develop relationships between peers and even among business units. For example, an internal sabbatical program that allows individuals to be “loaned out” to a team in a different business unit can establish connections among teams that normally don’t interface with each other. The individual being “loaned out” engages with the new team in their daily work while providing a fresh perspective based on his experience in a different part of the company. This activity may require more face-to-face time than others, but if done well, it can lay the foundation for lasting partnerships that provide benefits long after the sabbatical has ended.

The Influence of Culture within Social Learning

When working with global teams, it is essential to understand how culture affects the social learning experience. “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer is an excellent resource to better understand how communication norms and business practices differ across the globe. Culture affects how we manage conflict, how we perceive other’s actions and words and how we participate in shared learning experiences. For example, in group discussions, individuals from hierarchical cultures may be less inclined to speak up, especially if there are higher ranking members among the group. Identify potential cultural barriers as you design the experience and create a plan for all learners to feel safe when participating.

Cultural differences can lead to conflict. Although difficult to manage, a conflict-based exercise can be a fun catalyst for learning. When used effectively, conflict allows learners to challenge their existing views, increase their cultural awareness and assess their initial understanding of the content. It is important to prepare for a conflict-based activity by building a strong foundation of trust so that learners feel comfortable in expressing their opinions. Using a conflict activity in a discussion board format can be troublesome, as a learner with an outside view may feel ostracized from the group. It is better to establish a team-based social learning activity that builds comradery while challenging common assumptions.

Overcoming Challenges When Working with Global Virtual Teams

As you design social learning activities, there are a few concerns to keep in mind. Although English is the predominant language used within the business environment, it is important to recognize that it is a secondary language for many, which can impede participation in certain activities. Consider how you can accommodate those who may struggle with a rapid pace of communication. Design activities that dial down the dominance of native speakers and dial up the engagement of those who are less fluent. Encourage participants to refrain from using euphemisms that may be hard to understand or even offensive to a culturally diverse population.

Although global teams benefit from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, it is important that they are also able to rally around a unifying factor. Consider adding a fun activity at the start of the course to help teams develop their emotional connection with each other. One idea is to have the team come up with a mascot or team motto. After the training is complete, this can serve as a reminder of what was learned or a commitment to performance. With each team training activity, you are adding to the team’s shared experience, helping them to create their own unique team culture.

Social learning serves as a bridge between formal learning and learning on the job. Individuals and teams should be encouraged to seek out social learning opportunities on their own, in addition to formal learning programs. In my organization, our instructional design team gets together once a month on Skype to share insights from articles, conferences and webinars. These meetings ensure that we regularly take time to seek out new knowledge and hone our skills.

I’ve been part of a virtual team for eight years and have enjoyed participating in social learning activities that make me feel as if my colleagues were down the hall instead of half a world away. So, the next time you are faced with the dilemma of how to get a geographically dispersed team trained and communicating effectively, consider how social learning may play a role. The tools are easy to use, the design possibilities are endless, and the benefits are lifelong.