Think back to your favorite lesson at school. Did it involve a teacher standing at the front telling you what to learn? Or was it more collaborative, with group work and questions being asked of the class as a whole? We humans learn in many different ways, and lecture-type training has its place in the learning process. But so too does peer learning, especially as more corporate learning opportunities move online.
Professor Alex 'Sandy' Pentland, professor at MIT, once said, “It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people.” Therein lies the power of peer learning.
In an academic setting when peer learning opportunities are offered to students, research has shown that they gain greater insights, inspiration, and feel encouraged to improve their ideas.
In a peer learning set-up, you tap into a wealth of different experiences and perspectives. Knowledge sharing and cross-skilling are enhanced, as are collaboration and team work. Your employees are one of the best resources that you have to establish learning in your organization. Peer learning is also preferred by the majority of employees.
Making learning stick
It’s a tale as old as L&D itself. Everything we learn will quickly be forgotten if we don't apply it. Peer learning gives a way to make learning stick by encouraging people to discuss ideas, explain themselves, actively listen to others, and refine their thinking.
Practicing power skills
Power skills are tricky to build in a classroom. When I was the chief learning officer at LinkedIn, my team created a learning program called Conscious Business that focused on building power skills. Recognizing that participants often had time constraints, we designed a four-week, cohort-based, mostly asynchronous, peer-to-peer online learning program that required only a one-hour live session per week.
Each week, the learning cohort started with a video overview of that week’s topic followed by a discussion question. Then participants were given an assignment to practice the skill with one person in their peer group, followed by practicing the skill in a real-world situation. At the end of the week, the group joined a live one-hour video session, and a facilitator led the group in a discussion. The brilliant thing about this session style is that it’s perfectly suited to both in-person and remote environments.
Diversity of thought
By experimenting with online, cohort-based learning programs, we learned that peer learning is one of the most effective ways to broaden horizons. People can share real-world challenges or questions that arise during the work week and get a range of advice and tactics from their peers.
In one of the learning program’s sessions on having difficult conversations, one participant, John, brought an example of a difficult conversation he had with one of his teammates, Mark, who had missed some deadlines. During the conversation, Mark became defensive and John left it feeling awkward and with little progress made. Through sharing this with his peer learning group, he realized that many of them had experienced similar situations. The group reflected on John’s experience, with everyone learning techniques on how to better handle difficult conversations.
Making connections in remote and hybrid workplaces
In workplaces where people primarily collaborate online, it can be challenging to meet others in the organization. Peer learning programs have an added benefit of creating, and deepening, connections between colleagues across the organization—both online and offline.
Having online options as part of your learning offerings makes peer collaboration more accessible. People can engage with learning content and collaborate with peers at a time and place that suits them. Learning also continues beyond the weekly meeting, as participants can continue discussing and practicing their skills online with each other.
Moreover, you can expand your peer learning program to include those in your extended enterprise, including contractors and partners. This can be an effective way to upskill them to a certain standard and introduce them to your company culture simultaneously.
Implementing online peer learning
Clearly there are a host of benefits provided by peer learning, which raises the question: Why aren’t more learning teams implementing it?
Most organizations don’t have effective processes for promoting and encouraging peer learning. Some don’t provide enough time or resources for people to learn from their peers. There may also be some discomfort in loosening the reins of your corporate learning. These obstacles can be easily overcome with the right plan.
When implementing an online or hybrid peer learning program it’s vital to remember the following five steps:
- Organize your group: When selecting people to take part in a peer learning program, ensure everyone is of similar seniority levels (remember it’s peer-to-peer learning). When I implemented programs at LinkedIn, we experimented with including people from different parts of the company, as well as people working on the same project. Both approaches proved effective. Once you have your group established, you need to consider how they are going to connect. In a fully remote environment, this might be via weekly video meetings, or everyone following the same learning pathway and discussing this online. In a hybrid workplace, you could augment this with in-person sessions at key points in the program.
- Designate a facilitator: Your facilitator plays a critical role in guiding discussions, synthesizing information, and keeping conversations on track. Ideally, facilitators should be external and impartial.
- Establish psychological safety: A major part of your facilitator’s responsibilities will be establishing trust and encouraging open, honest communication. When psychological safety is established, peers feel that they can share their real-world experiences and thinking with transparency, with no fear or repercussions outside of the group. Likewise, in online peer learning, you should consider the physical environment of learners. This plays a big role in how people feel when sharing their insights. Your facilitator should ask everyone to be in a comfortable, distraction-free space before the session begins, and, ideally, the learner environment should be private so conversations aren’t overheard.
- Share real-world scenarios: True-to-life issues and experiences elicit a stronger emotional connection and more engagement from learners. Examples from day-to-day work can be used to improve everyone’s skills, not just the person who experienced them. Typically, the best way to start learning sessions is by sharing an article, video, case study, book extract, or podcast. The learning content sets the stage for follow-on discussions and then encourages learners to organically share experiences. This is something we’re currently undertaking at Degreed, with peers reading the same book on their own time and then joining virtual meetings to discuss concepts from it and its real-world applications.
- Offer networking and collaboration opportunities: To deepen the connection between peers and encourage learning, there has to be regular meetings between everyone involved in the program. In an online setting, set up regular video calls between peers, or plan a session where one person talks about their latest work and gets feedback on it. You can even hold a ‘learning week’ where employees teach and learn from each other.
In addition, pairing people with peers who share similar career interests and skill aspirations can help them find common ground early on in discussions—particularly in online programs where people may not discover colleagues as easily as in an office.
Peer learning isn’t built in a day
Like any worthwhile endeavor, a peer learning program isn’t created overnight and cannot be run in one day. Peer learning works best when it's carried out over weeks or months, with an emphasis on reflection and feedback between live sessions. That makes it perfectly suited for online learning, as people have the freedom in-between sessions to think deeply about what they’re learning from their peers.