Empowering the Future

Teaching collaboration skills in higher ed is needed now more than ever. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Brock Nelson


As a student, I was taught to be a high-performing problem solver, but as a recent college graduate living in a world full of rapid innovation and complex problems, I find myself wondering: what kind of problems can I actually solve on my own?

The world I see moves so fast and so slow, all at the same time. Companies mushroom from an idea to a unicorn in a few years, but my grandma had to wait a month before medicare would respond with assistance for her cancer treatment. And to become a part of it—to hop in and make a difference—so much seems to be expected.

‘I want to join a cause I can believe in and be in a workplace where I am respected. But I feel so unprepared to fulfill my end of the bargain…’

From the way I speak, to the skills I am expected to have, and the knowledge I am supposed to remember, I often find myself lost in a sea of information, of smarter, more accomplished people. Sometimes I get trapped inside myself, lost in ideas and limiting thought patterns. I want to join a cause I can believe in and be in a workplace where I am respected. But I feel so unprepared to fulfill my end of the bargain – where would I fit into this dream team, and how will I know I will be the teammate I am asking for. That is the Golden Rule, after all. I can’t help but think that myself and other college graduates feel our expensive degrees should have helped us more.

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get here? If you think about the workforce of 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago, it was comprised of smart, talented individuals who could plug into an organization and perform a job well. That just doesn’t cut it anymore. America has been transitioning from a hierarchical model of work to a collaborative service-based model for decades, and organizations need to recognize they are more than the sum of their parts.

And so it just makes sense: to solve today’s biggest problems, we need great teams—not great individuals. In fact, according to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends, 92% of hiring professionals believe that soft skills, the type needed for effective collaboration and teamwork, are just as important, if not more so, than the hard skills needed to design technical solutions and implement work. 

This Begs the Question

So this begs the question: Where are these skills being taught, how are these skills being measured, and are they getting measured equitably for all people? 

College, right? Sure, students have numerous opportunities in group projects to learn how to work well with others and accomplish shared goals. However, more often than not, they feel like they get stuck working with free-loaders, and they need to chase down contributions from others or stay up late doing all the work themselves just so they can meet the deadline. Almost every student has had at least one experience like this, which does not teach the lessons they need to learn to be successful in today’s workforce—a workforce 51% of Gen Z feels not prepared to enter, according to a recent Gartner study.

What The Problem is Not

The problem is not a lack of technical skill, but rather poor team processes. To bridge the gap between workforce expectations and recent graduates’ qualifications, educators need new tools and resources. They need to inspire and educate the next generation to become leaders with emotional intelligence, who can provide direct and honest feedback, give and receive advice, address discrimination and microaggressions, and turn differences into strengths.

The science is available. Great leaders and researchers like Ruth Wageman, Brené Brown, Richard Hackman, Amy Edmondson, and Steven Covey have given us effective frameworks for teaching teamwork. Now it’s time to put that research into action and give the next generation the skills they need to collaborate and solve the greatest challenges of our time.

For the Common Good 

Higher education, as an institution for the common good, I implore you to invest in teaching the next generation how to Collaborate. Teach students how to set individual and team goals and expectations, provide frameworks for exchanging candid advice, restructure grading systems to reward progress and growth over performance, and give students 24/7 anonymous reporting for discrimination and microaggressions. Professors aren’t given the time or resources to teach teaming, but tools exist to give educators and students an equitable, safe, and motivating team-based learning environment where students can learn the skills they need to thrive after graduation.

Brock Nelson is CEO and co-founder of CoStudy, peer evaluation software that provides customizable, research-based insights for professors in higher education. He can be reached at brock@costudy.co 


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