Internal learning sessions: what works well
Jen Durrant, City Bridge Trust’s Impact and Learning Officer, explains the importance of internal learning for an organisation’s team members
As City Bridge Trust’s Impact and Learning Officer, part of my role is to develop our approach to internal learning so that all members of the team can fully participate in and benefit from it. This blog gives an outline of what that means in practice, and some tips for making learning as effective and engaging as possible.
What does internal learning mean in practice?
At City Bridge Trust, internal learning is about facilitating opportunities for colleagues across all levels of the organisation to share skills, knowledge and expertise with each other, in ways that support our mission and values.
While this sharing of learning can take many forms – from detailed reports to informal chats and from email updates to development tasks – one of the most engaging ways to share learning is to put on a dedicated session for colleagues to learn together. If done well, this can enable people to better connect with the material and help foster a supportive and solutions-focused team culture.
Our experience at City Bridge Trust has shown that although these sessions require time and resources, the benefits to team engagement make them very worthwhile. And, as we’ve discovered, once people see the value of the sessions they start to not only make time for them but to request more of them – to the point where learning sessions have now become an integral part of our organisational culture.
What makes a good learning session?
At City Bridge Trust we use a set of guiding principles and aims to ensure our learning sessions meet our strategic needs, and each organisation will want to develop their own set of these. There are however some key elements that can make all learning sessions more effective, in any context, and allow the ‘RIVER’ of learning to flow. We’ve learned that every session needs to be:
Relevant / Interactive / Varied / Empowering / Reviewed
Given limited time and resources, we’ve found it’s important to ask if a potential topic is relevant both to our organisation’s work and to colleagues’ day-to-day roles. Encouraging staff to suggest topics they want to learn about can help with this.
During the internal learning sessions, we’ve found it’s good to focus on what the information means for us as an organisation, and how staff can apply what they learn to their work. It’s also been useful to identify three key messages or insights we want colleagues to take away from the session and highlight these.
Learning is an active process, and for us it’s vital to give people an opportunity to engage with the material and think about what it means for them. If they’re only asked to passively listen to a speaker or watch a presentation, there’s a limit to how much they’ll take in – and this is especially the case with digital sessions.
Instead, we aim to make it interactive by asking people questions, whether verbally, written or with an interactive quiz; getting them to discuss the topic (preferably in small groups) and giving them short tasks related to the material.
Sending out reading in advance can be helpful too, especially for those who like time to reflect before answering. Some people prefer to participate by speaking while others prefer to write, so we try to make sure both are an option.
Varying the format and style of the session has been key for making it more engaging, and more effective at catering to different learning preferences. In each of our sessions we aim to include at least two of the following activities: presentations, small group discussions, pair work, written tasks, quizzes, whole group discussions, problem-solving tasks and personal reflection.
Breaks are also an essential part of any session, to allow people to process the information and let their brains refresh; we’ve found people need to take a break for five or 10 minutes at least every hour, and ideally more often.
At City Bridge Trust we believe learning is everyone’s business, and we want our colleagues to feel empowered as active experts with valuable insights to share. So our learning sessions need to provide space for everyone to share their expertise – and a supportive environment for them to ask questions. They’ve also become a valuable opportunity for staff to develop their presentation and facilitation skills, by leading a session themselves.
We’ve found that working with individual colleagues to help them identify the key messages they want to put across and how to plan and deliver a session can help their confidence grow. At the Trust it has also led to more colleagues volunteering to lead a session themselves, as they realise it’s an opportunity for them too.
In our experience every session is a chance to improve, and we feel it’s important to ask staff for feedback so future sessions can be as effective as possible. We ask colleagues to complete a brief anonymised survey at the end of each one to help us understand how relevant, interactive, useful and enjoyable they found it, and how we could improve them in future – and we use this feedback in the planning of all following sessions.
No session is perfect, but when we continually review them and apply what we have learned they become an ever more effective and valuable part of our learning ethos.
All of this is improving our internal learning and, in turn, helping us live our values and become the kind of flexible and responsive funder we want to be.
Learn more about our Impact and Learning Team, including the support and guidance we can offer to funded organisations: www.citybridgetrust.org.uk/impact-learning