Why cohort-based learning now?

Dec 08, 2021 by Why cohort-based learning now?

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Today, work happens in teams. Brian Uzzi, a Northwestern University management professor, sums it up this way: the era of the star individual has ended. From the individual contributor level through the highest ranks of management, work is now deeply collaborative. And no one can go it alone.

The “secret sauce” of effective teams

Now, Uzzi explains, understanding the “secret sauce” of high-functioning teams is essential for leaders looking to foster performance, get the most out of their people, and bolster their company’s competitive edge. Yet when it comes to helping employees develop these essential team-based skills, most digital training hasn’t kept up. Training continues to be highly individual, with courses that present concepts and scenarios, but leave the difficult task of making these lessons relevant to today’s social working environment up to the learner.

Fortunately, change is coming. Over the last year or so, there’s been an explosion of interest in cohort-based learning from organizations, individuals, and other learning companies, like Maven, Section4, and On Deck. At Nomadic, we see this as a major step in the right direction, representing a collective recognition that legacy learning modes have proven ineffective for topics within management, leadership, and other highly social skills fundamental to the way we work now.

Cohort-based learning: a definition

So what is cohort-based learning? And why is it getting so much buzz?

Cohort-based learning happens when a set group of learners moves through a sequence of interactive content together, discussing their ideas and sharing knowledge along the way.

Cohorts are an immensely effective learning tool, especially in hard-to-teach domains like leadership and creativity, which is why it’s getting so much attention now. A scalable, cohort-based experience can have real learning impact at your organization.

And unlike in-person leadership offsites, the impact of these experiences can extend well beyond leadership’s highest echelons.

Why cohort-based learning addresses L&D needs today

Why is it so important that learning scales well beyond senior leadership? Because the oft-maligned “middle management” layer of your organization is the key to your business’s success today.

The term “middle management” means something very different than it once did. Our (perhaps less-than-positive) vision of the stereotypical middle manager comes from an outdated concept of a paper pusher in a manufacturing-based economy.

If that stereotype was ever accurate, it certainly doesn’t hold today.

In today’s team-centric, fast-paced, and highly uncertain work environments, managers are no longer supervising rote tasks or ensuring production volume. Now, our economy competes on innovation, knowledge, and problem-solving, and managers are at the center of all of this. Work happens in teams because there’s no other way to carry out these deeply collaborative tasks. And the people at the helm of these teams have become strategic leaders in their companies, with a nuanced and complex role that accounts for a full 22% of revenue––a greater share than senior leadership, marketing, strategy, or any other part of the business.

There is a huge need for learning that meets these new needs. Any solution that’s going to address them must:

Digital cohort-based learning is getting so much buzz today because it’s the only available solution that has the potential to do all three. In-person leadership offsites and more traditional online education both have their benefits, and they’re great solutions for some learning needs. But for organizations looking to help their managers gain difficult-to-teach mindset skills, keep these employees engaged in their learning, and scale this premium leadership development across globally distributed teams, there’s a reason––as Wes Kao of Maven proclaimed––“cohorts are king.”

At Nomadic, we’ve seen firsthand the impact this learning can have. Completion rates soar when learners are enrolled in cohort-based programs. Managers collaborate to apply new concepts to their everyday problems as they learn in the flow of their work. And the academy itself becomes what one executive called an “insights machine,” generating a mass of quantitative and qualitative data that leaders can use to drive real business transformation.


For more takeaways on cohort design, read our report, Cohort-Based Learning at Scale: Eight Principles for Success. We discuss why cohort-based learning is gaining so much popularity, how to ensure cohort-based learning design is effective, and the research behind it all.

Interested to discover more about Nomadic’s cohort-based academies? Learn about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.

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