Collaboration in Higher Education Increases Success in the Workplace

CEO Corner
By Adrienne Way

Students that learn collaboration in higher education are apt to find success in the workplace. The skills workers need today are multi-layered. Workers need the hard skills and knowledge to complete a task. They also need the soft skills to collaborate and communicate with team members to problem solve. For many employers finding employees who can collaborate with coworkers to solve problems is harder than finding employees with the right hard skills.

Collaboration is a complex soft skill that involves listening, critical thinking and communication. It is an important process in the business world. It leads to innovation and creative thinking because it involves considering multiple diverse point of view. People who collaborate bring different experiences and knowledge to their common task.

Students who are taught collaboration and have collaborative higher education experiences will realize great value from their education experiences. Collaborative learning promotes deep learning, says the American Society of Cell Biology in a paper about the results of collaboration. Students learn by questioning and explaining concepts to each other. As they develop connections between knowledge they have and new information they develop a deeper understanding. Collaboration builds “shared ownership with students.” Research has “demonstrated the positive relationship between collaborative learning and student achievement, effort, persistence, and motivation.”

The same relationship between collaboration and achievement can apply to business. Collaboration is necessary because tasks are so complex today and many people have very specialized knowledge, says Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at Northwestern University. Each person’s specialized knowledge is important to the whole process and the individual pieces of knowledge are interdependent on each other. Throughout history people have collaborated and shared their knowledge to achieve major breakthroughs. For example, from early attempts at flight to moon landings, people have shared knowledge, linked it to someone else’s knowledge and experience, and reached conclusions through collaboration.

Soft skills such as collaboration are emphasized in the workplace today says learning design professional Vinukonda Parthasarathy. “Work has become quite complex and team-based. In today’s world, the structure, content, and process of work have changed. Organizations are trying to create conditions in which employees learn through relationships with coworkers. Through the learning relationships, employees solve problems together, share insights, and learn from mistakes.”

Nontraditional students who receive training in soft skills have an advantage in both work and education settings when it comes to collaboration. As employees they must communicate with coworkers. They have the opportunity to bring new knowledge to their work, along with the insight that comes from working with their fellow students. They can apply what they are learning each day in their higher education courses. As students they have the advantage of bringing prior work knowledge to their collaborative coursework. They have insight that is gained with years of work experience.

Offering tuition assistance to employees is a best-practice that will give employers a solid return on their investment. Return on tuition investment comes when employers support their employee students, allow cohorts to work together and encourage the application of ideas from higher education to the workplace. Employees will not only learn in their role as students, they will reinforce their coursework, and learn from their co-workers. “When working together and given equal opportunity to share, employees can learn from each other as they pool talents and strengths, thus expanding their skill sets and allowing self-analysis of their own knowledge. And since collaboration often requires input from various teams, you also bolster cross-departmental relationships.

A report from Boston College, Harvard and the University of Michigan shows that training employees in soft skills has an added advantage for employers. In addition to employees who are adept at collaboration, soft skills training can lead to an increase in overall productivity and retention. Workers trained in soft skills were 12 percent more productive than those who didn’t, receive the training. Nine months after the soft skill training ended productivity still was high and there was increased retention,
netting a 256 percent return on investment.