Peer learning and how to facilitate it.

Do you know where your team goes when they want to learn some new information or a new skill? A study carried out by Harvard Business Review found that 55% of employees ask their co-workers, this is second only to going straight to their boss. Peer to Peer learning can be an exceptionally powerful tool for development.

In spite of this, many organisations still do not have a formal structure for this type of learning. In a survey carried out by McKinsey, L&D officers state that although classroom learning and on the job application of skills are now being used on a regular basis as learning mechanisms, less than 50% of organisations have implemented formal peer to peer learning. 33% of those surveyed stated that their organisations have absolutely no systems in place which allows for employees to share learning.

Whilst researching for their book The Expertise Economy, Palmer and Blake found that quite a lot of the time, managers can be hesitant to establish formal peer to peer learning because the feel as though experts outside the company are more valuable as teachers, as well as because these programs are spread out over a number of sessions. Consequently, employers feel as though sending their employees to a one-day intense training course delivered by an outside expert is more effective.

This however is not the case, firstly this type of learning uses the expertise within your organisation. There are incredibly intelligent people in every organisation, a lot could be gained if peers shared their skills and expertise as everyone involved will learn new skills.

The best way for anybody to learn a new skill is by being in situations where all four stages of the ‘Learning Loop’ are present. The learning loop includes gaining knowledge, apply the knowledge, get feedback and reflect on the learning. Peer to peer learning is such a great way to learn as it includes each of these areas. Another benefit is that the format of peer to peer learning helps those involved to develop both leadership and management skills. By taking part in group reflection conversations, employees can develop skills such as both giving and accepting constructive feedback. It also gives employees experience in taking different points of view into account and developing skills like empathy.

How to set up a Peer Learning Program

When it comes to setting up a peer to peer learning program, there are a number of different forms it could take. The program could be held in person or now with the advancements in technology, online. The program could include weekly meetings where employees can share the new skills/knowledge they have learned with their co-workers. Alternatively the program could pair up employees for one on one sessions, or they could assist with current projects over a number of months.

Palmer and Blake suggest a number of best practices to follow in order to make your peer to peer learning program successful.

  1. Select a facilitator – Even though the structure of peer learning is not hierarchical but rather horizontal, it is still important to make sure there is a neutral party to facilitate the program and make sure it does not get off track, this should be someone outside of the team’s manager. This facilitator should organise any sessions, make sure the conversation stays on topic and make sure to keep a positive atmosphere where employees can learn and ask questions.
  2. Create a safe environment – This type of program will only be successful if those involved feel comfortable enough to share their opinions, questions and experiences. They also need to be open enough to accept constructive criticism. Similarly, they need to have the courage to give back honest and constructive feedback as opposed to telling co-workers what they want to hear. In order to create such an environment, it will be important to set out some rules at the start. For example, if something is confidential then this must be kept confidential, or peers must try to be empathic and think about if they were in someone else’s position.
  3. Try to concentrate on real situations – The sessions conducted should try to focus on actual problems which need to be addressed. Employees are also more likely to learn and remember new skills if they are developed whilst solving a real-life problem.
  4. Promote networking – It can be very helpful to set up online social networks around learning or organising networking events. In some organisations, company wide campaigns are created to try and get everyone to participate.

These peer to peer learning programs can be hugely beneficial to your employees and ultimately your organisation. These programs compliment the traditional learning programs and as a result your team can build relationship and skills that will allow them to improve on their performance.

Palmer, K. Blake, D. 2018 How to Help Your Employees Learn from Each Other [Online] https://hbr.org/2018/11/how-to-help-your-employees-learn-from-each-other

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