Problem-based Learning as a Tool for Innovation

One of the challenges in corporate learning is that activities tend to be distant from the business itself. Furthermore, formal programs tend to be somewhat inflexible, focusing too much on content rather than context. An interesting approach to tackle these problems and a handful of more could be found in problem-based learning. While certainly not applicable to every kind of training topic, problem-based learning can help to enhance collaboration, teamwork and culture. More importantly, the method can also become a method of innovation within the organisation. Here’s the way we see it:

What’s problem-based learning all about?

As the name might give away, problem-based learning is centred around solving problems. The method is increasingly popular in leading universities around the globe. Business school case work can be a good example of the method. The problems are open-ended, meaning there are no predefined right answers or solutions. Furthermore, the subject matter in question only plays a minor part in the learning. The learners will naturally develop their capabilities around different skills like teamwork, collaboration and communication. However, for companies, this provides a tool for learning while solving real business problems.

The method as a tool for corporate innovation

In addition to having people learn to collaborate better, problem-based learning methods could have a significant value-adding offer to corporates. Having people work on real business problems, and organising it in a smart way could help to source ideas, insights, process innovation and solutions from within the organisation. Furthermore, it could help to expose people the different parts of the organisational value chain, and hence have them understand the business in more holistic terms.

How to do it in practice?

Here’s a list of things and processes we would like to install into a corporate problem-based learning program.

  • Form groups of diverse individuals. Mix participant groups from different business units, departments or even locations. To come up with innovative solutions, we must avoid tunnel vision.
  • Introduce the learners to a real business problem. If needed, have a person working on the topic brief the participants. However, remember to keep it a blank slate. Don’t put boundaries in place.
  • Ask people to come with solutions to the problem! However, as business problems are complex, give the participants adequate time to come up with novel solutions. Also, it’s good to have learners present the ideas to the heads of the business.

In general, the more diverse groups you can assemble, the better. If you’re trying to solve an operations problem with people just from operations, don’t expect great results. You may get small improvements, but radical innovation rarely happens that way. On the other hand, it’s easier for people with little prior knowledge to question and re-evaluate the existing practices.

In terms of facilitation, a blended learning approach may work best in problem-based learning. It’s a good idea for the participants to meet in and organise around physical workshops. But digital mediums and social learning tools can be helpful in keeping the collaboration going in between the workshops. For instance, a collaborative platform can enable participants to share ideas, insights and thoughts to the group immediately, and thus “record” them.

Final thoughts

Overall, problem-based learning can provide an effective tool for not only learning, but also to source innovative solutions to everyday business problems. As a learning experience, the method is highly collaborative, and thus touches on the practical aspects of communication, teamwork, leadership, project management etc. However, the best thing about it might just be that it doesn’t really feel like learning. Instead of mindlessly going through courses, your employees can actually contribute to the business whiled developing themselves. Could just be a much more fun way of doing (at least some of the) corporate learning!

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