Connecting: The New (Old) Way to Learn

November 13th, 2019

As the year comes to a close, we’ve taken a bit of reflection time to think about some of the trends we’ve seen this year. While there's been a lot of hype about some of the big ones (AI anyone?), we think some of the most impactful ones are simple realizations or subtle shifts in mindsets that people leaders make.

One that has particularly caught our eye – the importance of connecting for learning.

The Importance of Connecting

Connecting has a prominent place in our Learning Model (see Figure 1). It's well-understood that all learning doesn’t happen in the classroom and people learn from one another1. What types of opportunities we give our employees to do this type of connecting can have a significant impact on how successful they are.


Figure 1: Learning Model | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Through our discussions with both leaders and solution providers this year, we’ve identified 3 things that lead us to believe that Connecting is gaining prominence.

Thing 1: Enabling performance, not just managing it

In the fall of this year, we wrapped an extensive study on performance management (PM). The goal of this study was to understand which of the “new” practices were having an impact on business outcomes. Not surprisingly, one of the more noticeable group of practices all had to do with people development or learning. Two practices particularly caught our eye.

First, organizations are encouraging much more frequent development conversations between managers and employees. Whereas performance discussions used to happen once per year, most of the organizations we spoke with encouraged monthly or quarterly check-ins that didn’t just discuss performance, but also career aspirations and potential development experiences.

These conversations are the epitome of connecting – allowing managers to share expertise, employees to ask questions, and them both to talk about development and course correction where necessary. As performance discussions are well-established in most organizations, increasing the cadence and changing up the expected agenda has been minimally invasive and, according to the leaders we spoke with, pretty impactful.

Secondly more organizations are enabling peer-to-peer feedback and recognition. Peers are often less intimidating and often have a better idea of what is going on in the team, which means their feedback can often be more timely, more focused, and more engaging than manager feedback.

Thing 2: The rise of coaching & mentoring

One of the most exciting trends we’ve seen this year for developing people is the rise of coaching and mentoring. In the past, coaching and mentoring has been focused mainly on leaders – senior leaders really – and has been used to correct troubling behaviors or prepare promising leaders for the next step in their careers.

That seems to be changing. Organizations are understanding the value of a coaching or mentoring relationship and are implementing programs at much broader scales. For example, organizations are:

  • Including coaching and mentoring activities in larger development initiatives, including new-hire training, leadership development, and level-up programs
  • Leveraging technologies to be able to scale coaching and mentoring to make it more accessible to more employees – these technologies range from simple matching software to full-on use of AI and automation, and everything in between
  • Offering external mentoring as a benefit – we've seen this work particularly well for younger employees trying to navigate early career moves

We’re thrilled that coaching and mentoring are gaining traction; organizations are beginning to realize the importance of one-to-one connections for employee development and the value of leveraging internal expertise.

Thing 3: Structured collaborative learning

Yep, we said it. In a world that is touting the necessity, efficiency, and beauty of micro and self-directed learning, we’ve seen an ever so slight resurgence of more structured, collaborative types of programs. We’re not saying that the majority of training is going to (or should) return to the classroom. Rather, we recognize that organizations may have gone too far, and that we’re starting to see them self-correct a little bit to ensure that opportunities for Connecting exist.

Organizations are remembering that there's value in struggling through a learning experience together. And that some insights only come from listening to those with experience and expertise. And that when people connect, storytelling can motivate and inspire. And that there are some things that are just better taught through discussion, brainstorming, and collaboration.

Interestingly, while technology has largely been associated with the self-directed and micro types of learning until now, we’re seeing it being used more broadly in helping with the structured, collaborative learning as well. We finally seem to be figuring out how to replicate or improve upon the best parts of in-person collaboration and learning.

So, while these may seem like small things – more conversations with managers, more mentoring and coaching, and a realization that there's value in structured collaborative learning – we think they constitute a trend: one that will make our workplaces more human-focused, and frankly, probably more pleasant. Thoughts?

Heather Gilmartin Adams


  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.