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Shibuya and the future of collaborative learning


What can the world-reknowned Shibuya University Network – one of the most innovative forms of informal learning teach us and and how can this be applied in the workplace? Francis Marshall reports.
Shibuya, Tokyo’s youthful, bustling district and the backdrop for the acclaimed film 'Lost in Translation' is home to a very different system of learning, the Shibuya University Network. Closely tied to its local environment, it is not a university in the traditional sense but a way of connecting people who live to learn.
Shibuya University was founded in 2006 by Yasuaki Sakyo, a 30-year-old ex-finance professional with a passion for making lifelong learning part of the community. Sakyo believes that we can all learn from each other and that teaching shouldn't be confined to the classroom and unlike traditional universities, there are no entrance examinations or graduation degrees. Classes are led by teachers from all walks of life; cover almost any subject under the sun; and take place in the local community – in shopping complexes, restaurants, record shops, museums and even temples. Indeed, Shibuya University freely uses the whole of Shibuya as one enormous campus. Students are mainly employed and in their 20s and 30s, although Sakyo hopes that the university’s appeal will broaden over time to wider age groups, from children to older people.

The L&D connection

As L&D professionals there are number of things that we can take away from this informal approach to learning and that we can use in the business environment. At Shibuya University, learning is fun and relevant to the individual - people choose what they want to learn. Classes can be about anything people are interested in and range from Scotch whisky tasting and the art of distillation (in a British-style pub, of course) to environmental issues and what you need to know before an election.
In the workplace we are already seeing an increasing trend to this style of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) learning where people are given the opportunity and an increasing array of tools to ‘pick and mix’ their learning experience. This approach not only gives individuals the relevant skills and knowledge they need for the job in hand but helps to stretch people and prepare them for future roles.
Learning at Shibuya University is open to everybody and is firmly rooted in the local community. A parallel we can draw in the corporate environment is how line manager coaching and the use of techniques like elearning, corporate wikis and forums are making learning more accessible across the organisation. Success with these mediums in the workplace relies on empowering people to learn and embedding an enterprise-wide coaching culture.

Knowledge sharing

The whole philosophy of Shibuya University is grounded on the pretext that everybody should have the chance to join in and share knowledge – anybody can be a teacher, anybody can be a student. Teachers range from care takers to musicians and best-selling sports writers. Shibuya clearly demonstrates how creating an informal cooperative learning culture can promote the sharing of expertise for the greatest benefit of the community without a reliance on an academically qualified network of teachers with formal lesson plans.
Likewise in the workplace those with the expertise should be the trainers. For example, senior management may be well placed approaching junior technical staff to gain insight into new and emerging technologies as these individuals typically have the best knowledge of such areas within the organisation. Learning should not be confined to a top-down approach. Everybody with specialist knowledge, regardless of hierarchy, should be encouraged to contribute to knowledge pools for the greater good of the company.
Today’s fast-paced workplace clearly requires more flexible and informal learning that can be tailored to fit alongside day-to-day activities – just in the same way that people don’t sign up to three year courses at Shibuya University. Indeed, 60% of Shibuya students are employees who satisfy and fit their joy for learning around their jobs and home life, and the courses that Shibuya offers are generally short, stand-alone courses much like the recent trend towards bite-size learning in the corporate environment.
Plans are beginning to gain momentum to replicate this exceptionally popular collaborative community-based model of learning across other districts in Japan. And, the model has sparked interest across other major countries including the UK and US. Shibuya’s free-flowing approach to learning is a stark contrast to traditional, formal Japanese teaching methods and is a clear sign of the times of how today’s younger generation want to learn.
While we are probably a long way from creating a model like Shibuya here in the UK, if we take a dose of Shibuya’s spirit and innovation into our L&D strategies we will be better placed to bring people closer together and create a more collaborative and productive learning culture within our organisations.
What do you think? Could Shibuya's model work in your organisation or is this collaborative approach too futuristic for the UK? We welcome your comments.

Read Francis' other features in the series: L&D: The Final Frontier and Informal learning: The implemention challenge.

Francis Marshall is the managing director of Cegos UK part of Europe’s largest learning and development organisation.  Francis is an NLP practitioner and is active as a senior level consultant within the fields of management, leadership and executive coaching.

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