Our survey of learning and development decision makers at the beginning of 2015 found that over half of them expected their L&D budgets to stay the same this year, and a quarter predicted a decrease. These are obviously worrying numbers, particularly when there is increasing evidence to suggest that workplace learning has a significant impact on the bottom line. But for businesses looking to save on budget while still promoting strong people development, there are some relatively low-cost options beyond simply paying to send staff on learning programmes.

One way to achieve a more ‘organic’ sense of learning within your organisation is to create a culture of collaborative learning. The idea behind this is to encourage people to share skills, knowledge and best practice with each other in their everyday working lives. This not only helps people learn more, but also helps promote new ideas and stronger relationships.

In fact, recent research by Washington University in St. Louis found that students actually learn more if they know they’ll need to teach others. This research suggests that, in an environment where people are constantly and proactively learning from each other, people will retain and recall what they’ve learnt more effectively.

It is not just academic institutions who see the value in a collaborative culture, either. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously sent a memo out to all her staff calling an end to remote working, with the justification that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Whether you agree with Mayer’s decision or not, her sentiment rings true. If people are encouraged to interact and communicate with each other, not just at their desks but across the organisation, the increase in learning opportunities will be huge.

Facilitating cross-team communication 

One of the best ways to encourage employees to learn from one another is to facilitate communication between different departments and teams. There is a tendency, particularly in larger organisations, for people to become ‘blinkered’ – focussed only on the role that is in front of them, and their own targets and responsibilities. In the high-pressure environment many of us work in, this is a fairly natural way to behave. But employees risk missing out on new ideas, knowledge, or ways of doing things that could really benefit them and improve the way they work.

Facilitating cross-team communication could be as simple as organising presentations between different departments, where they formally share what they’ve been doing. Job shadowing, if feasible, is another effective way to get people from different sides of the business talking and learning from one another. But even something as simple as the layout of the office can have a profound impact on people’s ability to collaborate and share. Ultimately you want to make it as easy as possible for people to communicate across different areas of the organisation and remove any potential blockers.

Using technology 

Collaborative learning is certainly not a new concept in itself, but today’s technology makes it easier than ever to learn as a group. The difference is that those groups no longer need to be physical, and people do not have to be in the same continent, let alone the same room, in order to learn together effectively.

At school level, for example, platforms like Google Classroom and Moodle are increasingly being used to enable pupils to work on the same documents, collaborating, sharing feedback and discussing their work as a group, and the same principles and similar tools can be applied to adult learning. The Tin Can API, for example, is a community-led e-learning platform through which people can share experiences and interact with each other. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are also becoming a huge part of the learning world, and these allow for people to not only consume a huge breadth of learning content, but also comment and collaborate with people from all over the world.

All of this technology is completely changing the way people learn, and exponentially increasing people’s options for learning in terms of accessibility and availability. It is up to businesses to jump on the opportunity to harness that technology and use it to help their people learn better, and providing a collaborative learning environment is one of the most effective ways to do that.

Social media

While MOOCs are a great way for multiple people to collaborate and learn together, and the ability for people to collaborate with those inside and outside the company can be extremely powerful, you might want something a bit more local and low-key if you are looking to achieve focussed collaboration confined within your business.

One way to achieve this is through the use of social media. LinkedIn can be a really effective platform for creating targeted learning groups. Groups can be created around specific topics, then members can post content and ask (or answer) questions. You can make the groups private and invite-only so that only those within your business can access them. The same can be achieved with Facebook, of course, but given that not all employers are comfortable with people using Facebook on company time, LinkedIn, culturally, might be better suited to the task. Or perhaps you could create something bespoke on the company intranet, for example, although this would obviously require a greater investment of time and money.

Whatever platform you decide upon, the key to making social media work is in making sure it is properly managed. It is sadly not a case of ‘build it and they will come’ – somebody needs to be dedicated to promoting its existence, educating people on how to use it, ensuring regular content is being posted, and moderating quality and engagement levels. Only then will the organisation actually benefit from it. The aim, in the long run, should be to develop a ‘self-regulating’ community, whereby users generate the content themselves without too much prompting. Then it is a simple case of moderating the content.

Harnessing talent

To think of learning only in terms of what happens in the classroom risks missing out on the huge number of learning opportunities outside of that environment. Learning happens everywhere. As an organisation with a breadth of skills and knowledge across your staff, encouraging a collaborative learning culture means you harness all of that valuable stuff.

Then there is the financial benefit. With L&D budgets remaining fairly stagnant in many cases, encouraging people to demonstrate best practice and share skills, knowledge and ideas with their colleagues can help ensure your employees are still being developed effectively without huge financial investment.

If you want to create a more aligned workforce and get the most out of your people, try taking the steps above and get them talking to each other. You may be pleasantly surprised by how powerful the outcome can be.