People are the competitive advantage in any organizational system. Leveraging their knowledge, skills, abilities, and motivation is critical. Creating a learning culture enables learning at any place and all the time. One way to multiply the impact of learning is by providing various opportunities for peers to learn with and from other peers.
Peer learning is not a cut-and-dry concept. Any meaningful collaboration of peers at work can be considered peer learning. In “The Power of Peer Learning Partnerships” Kevin Eikenberry shares, “Peer learning occurs anytime we learn directly through an interaction with a colleague. It can include on-the-job training, shadowing someone, peer coaching and even spontaneous and casual conversation.” A quote from Lew Platt, the former CEO at Hewlett-Packard, succinctly states why learning is important: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”
There are various reasons for using peer-to-peer learning approaches. Nancy Dixon, an expert on the people side of knowledge management, coined the phrase “collective sensemaking” 10 years ago. Besides sensemaking, the benefits of peer-to-peer learning include:
- Creating continuous learning opportunities (for example, learning in the flow of work)
- Promoting inquiry and dialogue
- Encouraging collaboration
- Creating awareness of different perspectives
- Intentionally seeking feedback
- Building trusting relationships
- Helping the organization know what the people in the organization know
There are many ways to learn with and from peers, both internally and externally, formally and informally, and planned and unplanned. Many of these can be adapted for in-person, virtual, and hybrid situations. One of the first steps for successfully implementing peer-to-peer learning is encouraging employees to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues in every meeting. Kevin Eikenberry’s post “Meetings Are a Window to Your Culture” provides ideas for making these work successfully. Managers can lead by example and promote the importance of continuous learning and development publicly by supporting the sessions and participating in them.
The following are a few ways to encourage and promote internal peer-to-peer learning:
- Book clubs. While book clubs are typically considered community gatherings not associated with the office, organizational book clubs can be a positive for learning, especially for current hot trends like AI. As with all meetings, book clubs need norms and directions related to expectations. There are a variety of structures used as John Spencer shares in this blog.
- Lunch & learns or munch & learns. Lunch & learns are generally informal and topical with a special objective, an assigned facilitator to moderate and encourage probing questions, and a manager to schedule and administer the logistics. Variations of the lunch & learn include conference report-outs, leader panels, and project sharing.
- Watercoolers and fireside chats. These are usually informal and targeted more for networking and sharing across organizational boundaries. However, while informal, an administer is critical. An example is a gathering of 15 to 20 employees from various functions and roles with the CEO or senior leader for a chat. Light refreshments can be served. The agenda can be simple introductions but with a twist. The introductions can include employees’ role and function with specifics on how they support a particular strategy, goal, or initiative. Included in the sharing can be personal interests, hobbies, or unique skills unrelated to their work or role. When I’ve been in these sessions, it’s always amazing to discover the talented musicians, artists, athletes, and the many ways employees demonstrate leadership via volunteering and supporting the community.
- Communities of practice (CoP). CoPs are part of the digital space and have been around for years. Typically, they focus on sharing best practices and creating new knowledge in a narrow professional area for practitioners. For example, the community might focus on learning technologies or measuring learning—or even a narrower topic such as virtual reality and return on investment for learning. The members are knowledgeable of the topic and can contribute expertise.
Protocols do matter. If the goal is learning, principles and theoretical constructs of learning science and durable learning must be incorporated. For example, these sessions might incorporate priming questions in the agenda. Questions may include “What will I do with what I learn?”, “What questions do I have before the session starts?”, and “What do I already know about the topic?”
Some formats are more structured than others. Project teams such as cohorts from learning sessions, tiger teams, action learning teams, or other skunk works types of teams have specific tasks and deliverables. They can be formal with a start and finish date and include a report-out to others. Many of the more formal techniques have coaches, project managers, or facilitators assigned to “manage” the task and the learning. Most need an administrator to coordinate all of the logistics.
Additionally, because most of these sessions are meetings, basic tenets of meeting management must be in place, like having a purpose and agenda, ground rules, and starting on time. Having a place to archive documents is also important.
Years ago, a colleague used the metaphor of a watermark for learning. In paper, a watermark is a symbol, or lettering generally so faint it is only visible when held against direct light. Yet the watermark is extremely useful for dating, identifying the maker, embedding trademarks for security, and more. With learning as the watermark for the organization, it is omnipresent as part of the culture. It is something that’s done because it’s important to build individual capability and system-wide sharing. In a peer-to-peer group, everyone is a teacher and learner. Incorporating peer-to-peer learning based on the science of learning principles serves as a force multiplier for the learning culture. Simon Sinek states, “A culture is strong when people work with each other for each other.” If learning is the work of an organization, peer-to-peer learning is one way to accelerate this work in both interesting and various ways.
What can you do today to enhance and expand peer-to-peer learning in your organization?