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The Employee Experience

The Power of Learning From Your Peers

The model of one expert delivering information to many students is outdated in the knowledge economy.

Kelly PalmerSome of the best learning I’ve ever been engaged in involved learning from my peers.

Like many of you, when I was in college most of my classes were one-directional. The professor lectured and sometimes there was a discussion but I was learning from the professor “expert” and not the insights of others.

Later, when I got into the corporate world it was mostly the same. Companies took their cue from higher education and learning was often knowledge transfer from one to many. It is an uninspiring model and research has shown it to be quite ineffective.

In contrast, in graduate school where I was learning about how we learn, the program used a peer-to-peer model. Professors facilitated learning rather than being the expert and much of what I learned was from peers. I was completely and totally engaged.

According to research from the Association for Talent Development, 80 percent of knowledge transfer is forgotten and less than 15 percent of this knowledge is ever applied on the job. Not surprisingly, the model of “one expert to many students” is outdated in the knowledge economy. There is too much knowledge and information available and too many great ways of sharing that knowledge to limit ourselves. So how do we encourage more peer-to-peer learning at work?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Learning Week

A few companies facilitate what they call a “learning week.” The idea is to ask employees to think of a topic and get a group of like-minded employees to attend a peer-to-peer learning session. A learning week is a way to get all employees involved in the learning process and takes advantage of the fact that most people learn best when they can explain what they know or demonstrate a skill to others. Ericsson promoted a learning week to their more than 120,000 global employees with great success. One session I attended at a learning week event at LinkedIn was about how teams can use an agile development process and they shared their own team’s experience as an example. To run these sessions, you can set up both in-person spaces and online video chats which allow you to run them globally as well. The reason to concentrate this over a week is so you can promote the event to get employees excited and involved. For some companies, it can be an ongoing activity and a regular part of the culture.

  1. Cohort-based Learning

There are several ways you can facilitate cohort-based learning, including in-person or virtual. The key is to make sure cohorts have a common goal or a real business problem to solve. For example, when I was at LinkedIn we set up a cohort-based virtual program called Conscious Business. It was a four-week online program with a weekly commitment of three or four hours. Employees were given assignments, asked to practice skills on the job and then shared what they did with their peers and get feedback. It was one of the most successful learning programs we ran and most of it was because people were learning from each other and committed to the program. If you want to create your own cohort-based online learning programs, companies like Intrepid Learning have technology to help.

  1. Tech Talks

Tech talks are quite common among tech companies like Facebook, Yahoo! and Google because engineers love to share what they know with their peers. Because technology changes so quickly, this is a good way for engineers to stay current on the latest use cases in their field. These talks are voluntary and are often scheduled during the lunch hour. The key to making these peer-to-peer sessions effective is to make sure they are not just PowerPoint lectures and instead more of a discussion where peers share ideas and ask questions.

  1. Leaders Teaching Leaders

You can get leaders into the mix of peer-to-peer learning as well. Many well-known companies have adopted a model where leaders take time to teach peers or potential leaders about topics they are passionate about and that are critical to the business. This can be an effective model since people are learning directly from those who lead and get access to executives they may not have otherwise interacted with. It can also help with creating a learning culture at your company. Seeing that leaders care about development and value learning is critical.

Technology is helping to drive peer-to-peer learning as well. Learning platforms that help employees share, recommend and curate content are powerful. It can be motivating to get a book recommendation from a co-worker, a video or article link from someone who knows you are interested in that topic or a curated list of content from one of the most respected developers at your company. More and more people are participating in peer-to-peer learning and finding it to be valuable for helping keep up with the ever-changing landscape of knowledge and skills. Do you have ways that you’ve encouraged peer-to-peer learning at your company? Share your stories in the comments below.

Kelly Palmer is chief learning and talent officer at Degreed. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.