Collaborative Learning in Customer Advisory Boards

When we think about customer advisory boards, we often think of an in person consultancy meeting taking place at a fancy hotel with an agenda full of didactic presentations. Often the conversations are one way, where the speaker is sharing their knowledge with the other advisors. There are sometimes periods where questions are asked, but these are often only communicated by the very verbose in the group. The more reflective advisors are often just there just to nod their heads in agreement.


We do hope, however, that our advisors at these meetings are “learning” something. But, as we can all attest to from our days at school, learning comes in a variety of forms and is different for everyone. Some people are auditory learners, some kinesthetic and others learn through observation.


In today’s environment of rapid change and innovation, any single individual or organization is not going to “know it all“. Gone are the days of single channel delivery of new information where the “students” are there to absorb the “how-tos” in rote tasks. We are living in a time of mental “mash-ups” and random collisions of ideas where brand new concepts evolve from shared insights and team collaboration.

Customer advisory boards have evolved from stagnant information sharing to “collaborative learning” environments. And this, most importantly, means the sponsoring company is learning something that they didn’t know before coming into the meeting. By being open to possibilities, sponsoring companies can come out of these customer advisory boards with some very different ideas. This takes guts and a level of openness that often clashes with the status quo expectations of senior leadership who often expect a panel of experts to “confirm” their beliefs instead of refuting them.


The recent interest in online discussion forums and other virtual activities where customer advisors can interact with each other and the sponsoring company in a more consistent and dynamic way has greatly increased the opportunity for collaborative learning. Advisors can share their views on issues and data asynchronously which makes engagement incredibly convenient. It also gives advisors an opportunity to review their colleague’s comments and ruminate on the data and information so they can reach their own conclusions and share their point of view in a very thoughtful way.

Collaborative learning is rooted in Lev Vygotsky’s concept of learning call “zone of proximal development”. Generally, there are tasks that learners can accomplish and others that they cannot. It is the place between these two extremes that we call the “zone of proximal development” and it is here where we determine what skills a learner is in the process of developing and where communication and interaction with others can greatly accelerate this maturation process. In 1995, A.A. Gokhale also showed that individuals achieve higher levels of learning and retain more information when they work in groups rather than individually. This applies to both sponsoring companies as well as their advisors.

Customer advisory boards, done in person or virtually through carefully managed and moderated discussion forums and annotation exercises, can become a collaborative learning haven and an excellent opportunity for peer influence and sharing.