As a learning and development professional you are probably always on the lookout for ways to create more value – particularly for any ideas that don't take a lifetime to develop and cost the Earth! But not all learning solutions of value need come at a great investment.

The most powerful – and least leveraged – learning solution is peer-to-peer learning. Workers learn more from mentors, coaches, peers, and members of their professional networks than from any other source. Recent advancements in social media make it possible for you to take peer-to-peer learning to a new level with a surprisingly low commitment in terms of time and money.

Is it safe to use social media for learning?

Is peer-to-peer learning safe? A major concern or fear expressed by business leaders is that widespread and facilitated peer-to-peer learning will create an unusable mess of low-quality and inaccurate exchanges and content. Business leaders typically demand that all training content must be reviewed, approved, or tested before it is published and delivered. No wonder employees often receive too little training, too late.

Are learning professionals suffering from a “one size fits all” content quality policy? What sort of training situations must have high quality content in the first instance? The answer is any situation where there is no room for error. We expect and need our surgeons, nuclear power engineers, and police officers to go through high quality learning programs. Otherwise we might see a rise in wrongful death or injury, legal battles, and other severe consequences. The point is that only some training situations require high quality content in the first instance.

Is the concern about content quality in a peer-to-peer learning system legitimate? What are the chances that some employees will pick up and follow an incorrect approach suggested by another employee, and that this would result in a wrongful death or injury, or a legal battle?

Guess what? This already happens today when employees provide inferior advice and suggest inaccurate methods of working, through e-mail correspondence, phone calls, and face-to-face discussions. There are no controls in place to ensure that employees share only high quality, approved, and relevant content in an e-mail, phone call, or face-to-face discussion. The good news is that social media will bring many discussions and content exchanges, good and bad, to the surface where the information in those exchanges can be seen and appropriately addressed. Good social media policies will help contain corporate risk and liabilities. And an appropriate mix of content quality control points will help identify and remove low quality content. Tools and methods are available to help create safer peer-to-peer learning solutions.

Control points are the key to content quality

What are the inherent functions and features of social media that create safer peer-to-peer learning experiences and drive the exchange of high quality and relevant content? What support or guidance will help “content creators and contributors” of a peer-to-peer learning system to produce high quality and relevant content? The answers to these two questions lie in Figure 1.

Figure 1 is illustrative, rather than an exact representation of how content flows through a peer-to-peer learning system. Content does not have to flow through each control point in order to become high quality. Suppose a well-respected and known expert publishes some content this morning. You discover it before anyone else has had a chance to rate it, add comments, or officially endorse it. Would you characterize the content as high quality and relevant? Perhaps you would. The content author’s background and reputation might be all you need to know in order to decide whether to use the content. You might not put much faith into the rating and comment system. One basic premise of a peer-to-peer learning system is that the “learner” controls his or her learning and development. The “learner” is the judge of whether to use or reject content. The corporation or “host” of the system is obligated to provide control points to help the learner quickly find high quality and relevant content.


matrix of content versus quality factorsFigure 1: Content Quality Control Points


Control points explained

Here are the control points, and some examples of each.

  1. Templates, guidelines, standards, and support: Imagine a peer-to-peer learning service that helps employees who want to develop and deliver learning content to other employees. Such a service could include instructional design consultation, provision of content authoring tools, deliverable samples and templates, tested standards, proven practices, and feedback reports from “learners.” This type of control point will help content creators or authors to produce high quality content in the first instance. Some organizations, such as Google and Microsoft, have established such a service for employees. Employees go to a portal for tools, templates, techniques, and sample training materials. Upon request, the employees receive coaching and consultation from an experienced instructional designer. The employees are the content experts. They have a desire to produce and deliver the training. The service team members are the providers of tools, techniques, and advice. They have a desire to help the employee to produce high quality training courses. The employees own and direct their training development projects and do all of the heavy lifting.

  2. Ratings, comments, and views: Over time, users of a peer-to-peer learning system will view, rate, and comment on content. The social media platform will use this data to display content in different ways and to bring attention to content that is popular and well liked. Default search results can be displayed by showing the most popular or most highly rated content first. The home page can feature content that had the most views during the past day, week, or month. Comments will often direct people to other content that is related and good. This control point is helpful for busy people who do not have much time to perform an exhaustive hunt for content and who are less interested in finding and using content that has not yet been viewed and rated by many other employees. This sort of control point is common on sites such as Amazon, YouTube, and the iPhone application store, because these sites have a large amount of content and content grows at exponential rates. The users of these sites need help with quickly finding relevant and high quality items.

  3. Red flag alerts: There will be times when employees knowingly or unknowingly share content that is inappropriate, in violation of company policy, or inaccurate. A useful and common social media feature is a red flag alert. This feature allows any user of the peer-to-peer learning system to alert the authorities whenever they see content that they think needs the review and approval of an expert, compliance officer, health and safety officer, or policy manager. Sophisticated peer-to-peer learning platforms will route the alerts to the appropriate people, and keep a complete record of the alert notification and actions taken in response. British Telecom has incorporated this feature into its peer-to-peer learning system (called Dare2Share) and has evidence to demonstrate how it has prevented the widespread and rapid adoption of undesirable working practices.

  4. Author reputation, background, and skills: Peer-to-peer learning systems, like common social networking systems such as Facebook, require all users to create and maintain a profile. The profile could contain information about the user’s background, work history, qualifications, job title, and recommendations from other employees. The user’s blog and chat activity could also be captured in the profile. In addition, the learning system could display a report showing all of the content developed by the user, the content-specific and overall ratings, and the number of views or hits each contribution has received. This control point helps employees understand the person or people behind the content, and to decide how much to trust the content. Users of the Connexions peer-to-peer learning system look at author-profile pages before deciding whether to use the content in their classrooms. The Connexions users are very interested in knowing about the reputation, views, and credentials of the content authors.

  5. Endorsements and recommendations: Endorsements and recommendations from employees are helpful. Sometimes it is more helpful to know that the content has also been endorsed and recommended in an official way. For example, a technician might want to see all of the content that has been endorsed by the health and safety officer when looking for content about installing a piece of equipment. This feature allows the enterprise to place an official stamp of approval on any content in the peer-to-peer learning system. Such approval can come in advance of content publishing but this should not be a requirement. Some authors might proactively contact the people responsible for endorsements and ask for a stamp of approval in order to facilitate a more rapid uptake of the content. This control point helps users to organize and quickly find content in areas where high quality is critical. Connexions uses a feature called “lenses” that allows users of the peer-to-peer learning system to search and view content that has been endorsed by various academic institutions, professional communities, and well-respected educators.

Developing a safe peer-to-peer learning system is important and beneficial as long as it is also creating value. What sort of targets and measures should you establish for your peer-to-peer learning system in order to create and demonstrate value? A common practice is to use activity targets as contingent motivators (i.e., if you do this, you will get that). For example, one such practice is rewarding and recognizing employees who receive high ratings and a high number of views. An obsession with activity targets usually leads to increased costs and reduced creativity and innovation. Too many activity targets will shift the focus from the higher purpose of your peer-to-peer learning system (i.e., how do I do learn more and perform better and help others to learn more and perform better?) to surpassing previously achieved activity metrics (i.e., how do I survive in a peer-to-peer learning system?). A balanced approach to measurement will more effectively motivate employees to create and share content, as well as to collaborate and learn from each other. Put some of the targets in the hands of the people managing and participating in the peer-to-peer learning system. Doing so will increase content creativity and innovation, and help to create a true learning organization.

How do you evaluate peer-to-peer learning systems?

There are a number of metric categories that are often used to assess and evaluate peer-to-peer learning systems. These metric categories are not listed in any particular order of importance or priority.

  • Networking patterns: Is information flowing efficiently and effectively? Look at the relationship between people and content categories, the network makeup or profile (business unit, job, level, etc.), key brokers and influencers by content category, and the degree of networking across silos. This sort of information will help you to identify communication and decision-making bottlenecks, and groups of individuals that are failing to appropriately collaborate and exchange content.

  • Learning efficiency: How much time are people spending looking for people and information? Look at the time lag between posting content and when content is viewed, the amount of redundant or significantly overlapping content, and the degree to which “informal” content is reused in “formal” content (and perhaps reducing formal content development costs and effort). Information such as this will help you to identify ways to compress learning time, accelerate the uptake of relevant and high quality content, and increase participation in the peer-to-peer learning system.

  • Learning needs: When is the peer-to-peer learning system creating and destroying value? Look at the differences between the learning needs or demand for “formal” and “peer-to-peer” learning (i.e., are some skills best learnt formally?). Slice and dice the findings to better understand the most popular learning needs by job, level, business unit, etc. This information will help learning professionals find ways to save time and money because it will help them to more easily and quickly identify learning needs that require a formal learning solution.

  • Contribution patterns: Are the “right” people contributing at the expected levels, at the “right” times, and using the most appropriate methods? Look at the most active contributors and methods of contribution, busiest days and times for contributing, and the frequency and amount of contributions made by job, level, business unit, etc. Knowing this type of information will help learning professionals target their learning support services and incentive programs. In the end, a peer-to-peer learning system will be better when the “smartest” and “most experienced” people contribute more than anyone else.

  • Content usage patterns: Is the use of learning methods, media, and subject areas at expected levels? Look at the preferred ways to consume various content topics, busiest days and times for viewing content, amount of time spent viewing content and participating in discussion threads and blogs, and preferred way to “find” content. From such information, learning professionals will be able to provide guidance to authors and facilitate the development of more effective learning experiences. Authors will respond more appropriately to employees’ learning styles and preferences, and employees will view and promote more of the learning content.

  • Content quality: Is the “learning community” doing a good job of managing content quality, is there enough “good” content, are there too many unmet learning needs? Look at employee ratings by content category, contributor, and medium, the amount of “inappropriate” or “wrong” content reported by employees, and the amount and type of content with very few hits or views and with a lot of hits or views. By reading this article you hopefully understand how to facilitate the flow of high quality content in the peer-to-peer learning system.

  • Return: Are the benefits of peer-to-peer learning at the expected levels? Look at outcomes such as increased productivity, improved customer service, compressed time to competence, higher reuse of shared information, improved employee engagement, and increased collaboration across silos. British Telecom is realizing $12,000,000 of benefits per annum from its peer-to-peer learning system in terms of cost savings and performance improvements. The return on investment is extremely high because British Telecom used an open source solution that leveraged some existing technologies and software licenses.

  • Opportunity cost: Are we able to do more with less? What costs would we pass up by using peer-to-peer learning instead of formal learning? Look at cost avoidance, travel expenses, reliance on classrooms and trainers, training development budgets, and training course or content maintenance cost. Finding information such as this will help strengthen the case for moving some formal training scope to a peer-to-peer learning system. This sort of action will help reduce the formal training budgets or provide an opportunity to address some of the previously unmet formal learning needs.

Peer-to-peer learning systems are creating more powerful and enduring learning experiences, helping employees establish and leverage social connections to accelerate the distribution and sharing of experiences, content, and guidance, and allowing employees to be more productive, learn faster, and work smarter. Using an appropriate mix of content quality control points will help you to organize and facilitate the uptake of high quality and relevant content. Taking a balanced approach to measurement will appropriately motivate employees to engage in peer-to-peer learning, and produce the data necessary to demonstrate the benefits and continuously improve. What are you waiting for?