Collaborative Learning: The New Face of Event Networking


The modern networking session is evolving. The days of awkward cocktail hours and mid-session mixers are quickly becoming obsolescent.

This isn’t a sudden shift. Event planners have been attempting to improve networking for years. Technological advancements have certainly help. Artificial intelligence can suggest networking possibilities that increase the rate of successful connections, while gamification elements have made networking fun.

There is now an emerging trend that suggests doing away with traditional networking assemblies altogether and replacing them with a series of collaborative learning sessions.

Traditional Networking


A 2007 study by management professors at Columbia University reviewed attendee behavior at networking sessions. For their study, the professors organized a networking event between approximately 100 executives, entrepreneurs, and consultants. The attendees were given a pre-event survey asking them about their goals for the event. They were also asked to list their friends and colleagues who were also attending. Most knew about a third of the other attendees, and 95 percent stated that their main object was to meet “as many different people as possible” and “expand their social network.”

“Overwhelmingly, people come to these types of events with an important purpose in mind,” Paul Ingram, Management Professor at Columbia University and co-author of the study, said in a Columbia Business School article. “And that is to make new connections that may help with their careers.”

Every attendee wore a nametag equipped with an RFID tracker that monitored their actions as they mingled over hors d’oeuvres and drinks. After the event, the attendees’ interactions were evaluated. Each person had an average of 14 contacts throughout the evening, and about half of those were with people they knew.

“It’s challenging to make new connections. If you stay with your friends, there’s no risk they won’t get your jokes or that they won’t accept you. And comfort is not to be derided — these are social events, after all,” Michael Morris, Management Professor at Columbia University and co-author of the study, said in the Columbia Business School article.

Morris does point out that there is a benefit to this pattern. “Relationships have to be maintained. We can turn acquaintances into true friends by having more personal conversations than we’ve had before. Mixers turn out to be very good for that.”

However, if the goal is to truly forge new beneficial relationships and expand a network, it does not do much good to spend half the night with people you know. Instead of struggling to make casual connections at a traditional networking session, the solution may be to engage in activities that encourage connections with others to create an expansive network.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is an approach to education where a group of people work together and apply their specific knowledge to solve a problem or complete a task. This isn’t simply a group learning session. With collaborative learning, every participant is encouraged – and expected – to participate, regardless of skill level or expertise, because they are a valuable part of achieving the goal.

It is possible to convert traditional networking sessions into a more cooperative educational opportunity. Live events are the ideal setting for collaborative learning sessions. Events are filled with people ready to absorb education and engage in learning. The audience already shares a common interest in the subject matter of the event. Plus, their time is already set aside for event-related activities; they aren’t being asked to go beyond their time parameters.

A unique element of collaborative learning sessions is that an organizer has an opportunity to learn just like the rest of the attendees. The group engagement creates an environment where it is possible for the teacher to also be a student.

One reason this is effective as a networking tool is that participants gain a real understanding of one another’s skill sets. The people met through a collaborative learning setting are proven commodities as opposed to names on a business card. This is how authentic connections are created through these sessions by seeing someone in action and gaining an understanding of their abilities in an energetic and engaging setting. 

Creating Collaborative Learning Sessions

Photo Credit: PCMA

Photo Credit: PCMA

Start by finding a series of topics that will interest your attendees. The issues could be presented as problems to be solved or subjects to be discussed. Then you will need to coordinate groups to participate, likely through social media or your event’s app.

Collaborative learning works best in small groups because it gives everyone a chance to participate. So, it is recommended to put a limit on the number of people who can attend each session. Plus, large groups can be intimidating to some people. Keeping the group small removes that barrier to success.

Diversity is encouraged for collaborative learning sessions. Not only does this force people out of their traditional networking comfort zones, but it also creates educational opportunities.  People with disparate backgrounds frequently approach similar problems from different angles. These differing solutions (or attempts) can spur discussion and help the group conceive of new ideas.

There are tools that can help collaborative learning sessions come together. One option is a social media platform that is designed to facilitate the creation of collaborative learning sessions known as “Braindate.” In the app, there is a “Topic Market” where attendees can post a topic that they either want to learn about or wish to discuss. Other attendees browse these topics and pick where they want to participate. When two or more people agree to meet, the Braindate is booked.

“A platform like Braindate fulfills a real need: At most conferences, participants are left to their own devices, trying to hunt down the people they’d like to meet, with only a glass of wine for a compass. Maybe magic strikes, but maybe not. The odds are stacked against it. We realized that Braindate could help events empower their participants to be intentional about what they will learn and from whom,” Christine Renaud, the founder of Braindate, said in a post on PCMA.

Another benefit of using a platform like Braindate is that it’s the attendees who create the potential topic of discussion. This both saves time for event planners and guarantees that the subjects are of interest to attendees.

If you are concerned that your attendees are not getting the full benefit from your networking sessions, consider switching to a collaborative learning approach. The added engagement and interaction could be the boost your guests are missing.