Strength in numbers

In his new column, Korn Ferry's Jeff Orwin explains why L&D leaders shouldn't overlook the benefits of cohort-based learning.

Thanks to emerging new technologies, learning and development (L&D) functions have shifted away in recent years from providing structured, one-size-fits-all programs toward offering highly customized, informal learning paths. But as the needs of today’s workforce evolve, the pendulum of learning has started to swing somewhere toward the middle. L&D professionals are being challenged to find the right mix of approaches that build the skills and capabilities employees need to succeed now and in the future.

Given the demands of today's disruptive business climate, L&D leaders cannot afford to overlook the value of providing cohort-based programming. After all, research shows that cohort learning helps engage workers, foster networking opportunities, and nurture a community of agile professionals. And as more and more colleagues become separated by thousands of miles, the shared experiences, connections, and insights gained from a collective learning pathway can deliver significantly more value to an organization than offering the content alone.

The benefits of cohort-based learning

Of course, learning in a cohort is nothing new. From the earliest days of primary school, people have become accustomed to learning in real-time with a group of peers, led by a teacher. But with new collaborative tools and virtual learning options, today's cohorts can include students from around the world, and various walks of life, further enriching the experience.

As L&D functions consider different development strategies, here are four benefits of cohort learning for leaders to consider:

  1. Produces higher completion rates.  Research also shows that students learning as a cohort may feel accountable to their peers and are more likely to complete program tasks when they feel they are part of a group progressing together—as high as 90% according to some studies, compared to as low as 3% for self-paced courses. In addition to higher completion rates, research shows students are more likely to actively engage and participate in discussions and group activities when they feel that they are part of a community of learners.
  2. Fosters social learning and camaraderie.  Cohort-based learning is social in nature. It creates opportunities for learners to build relationships with their peers, especially in the modern world of highly dispersed virtual teams. The organization and selection of cohort members can bring together people with varying levels of experience, areas of focus, skill sets, and viewpoints. What's more, cohorts can be designed with specific compositions to help achieve specific organizational goals, bridge gaps between organizational teams, strengthen teams, or promote cross-functional collaboration. Most importantly, the long-term connections and networking opportunities that stem from working together on a shared pathway often generate ongoing collaboration across organizations. 
  3. Advances diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts.  Cohort learning brings together learners from diverse backgrounds, broadening everyone’s perspectives and enriching the learning experience. Diversity of background, thought, and experience adds significantly to the learning environment of cohort members. What’s more, Korn Ferry research shows that when it comes to decision-making, inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time. Lifelong connections can be made by providing networking opportunities beneficial for personal and professional growth, creating real benefits outside of the learning program. The sense of camaraderie and support from peers helps to keep participants motivated during the program as well as after its completion.  
  4. Business impact.  The true value of learning is in transforming people. Cohort-based learning is the perfect opportunity to put learning into practice to further cement the content in the minds of the learners. It also serves as a great opportunity to tackle difficult business problems. Assigning a cohort of learners to work together to solve a specific problem or set of problems helps to develop meaningful experiences that reinforce the community and strengthen budding relationships. Focused efforts of engaged learners bring new resources together to achieve a common goal. This kind of learning gives employees an opportunity to observe and learn from others, which Korn Ferry research shows is important to unlock innovative thinking, leading to new ideas and creative problem solving. The opportunity to work together, share ideas, and develop and present solutions adds to the experience and has the additional benefit of solving real-world problems.

How to make cohort-learning work for everyone

For the full benefits of cohort learning to be realized, it’s important to understand that learning styles are different for everyone. And it’s critical that leaders seek to understand the ways in which their colleagues learn to put everyone in the best position possible to succeed.

While cohort learning may prove beneficial for many, some may feel increased stress within a group setting. It’s important that the learning groups have a foundation of open communication and psychological safety, a characteristic Korn Ferry has deemed key in enhanced teams. This means fostering a learning environment where participants feel they are in a safe physical and mental space to learn, where they feel included, confident to contribute, secure to challenge the status quo, and free to ask questions. Creating a safe space for teams to learn is crucial, but at the end of the day, some people simply don’t learn best in groups.


In today’s fast-paced business world, L&D professionals are seeking the right learning paths to keep up with the new sets of skills and knowledge that will be required of the future workforce. The world is changing quickly, leaving L&D in high demand. Coming out of a time of isolation and virtual learning, many professionals may opt for cohort-based learning opportunities, and the benefits that come with those experiences continue to prove worthwhile.

For more information, learn more about Korn Ferry’s Leadership & Professional Development capabilities.