The Peer-to-Peer Learning Mechanism

Some of the most productive learning opportunities in the workplace takes place at the watercooler aka “watercooler talk”.  Unfortunately, when some of the best employees in an organization leave, their insight, wisdom, and skills leave with them.  People & Culture leaders understand that a proactive approach to managing change involves harnessing the best your company has to offer with respect to talent and skills, and peer learning programs are designed around that principle.  Mentorly allows program managers to locate and connect the right people, facilitate the right programs, and track what matters in outcomes.  

Peer-to-Peer Learning in Companies

According to Training Magazine’s 2019 industry report, spending on outside products and services was in excess of $7.5 billion, while other training expenditures (i.e., travel, facilities, equipment) range in around the $29 billion mark.  Training payroll increased 10% to $51.7 billion.  However, when your team wants to learn a new skill, where do they turn first? Google? YouTube? Their corporate training programs? No. According to a study conducted by Degreed, more workers first turn to their peers (55%) — second only to asking their bosses. Peer-to-peer learning, having been a common method of learning since the dawn of humanity, is a powerful development tool that breaks through common barriers to skill-building.

Yet, many organizations have yet to create a formal structure for peer-to-peer learning. In a McKinsey survey, Learning & Development officers report that while classroom training, experiential learning, and on-the-job application of skills are now in regular use as learning mechanisms, less than half of organizations have instituted any kind of formal peer-to-peer learning. One in three respondents said their organizations don’t even have any systems in place to share learning among employees.

In The Expertise Economy, we found that managers are often reluctant to establish formal peer-to-peer learning primarily because of a perception that experts outside the company are more valuable as teachers than those inside it, and because peer-to-peer programs are spaced out over numerous sessions. In this context, sending employees to a single day of intense training from an outside expert is assumed to be more fruitful.

In reality, the opposite is true. First, peer-to-peer learning taps into the expertise that already exists in your organization. Think of all the smart people that you hire and surround yourself with every day, and how much could be gained if peers shared their expertise with each other to learn and build new skills.

The Natural Approach to Learning

Peer-to-peer learning is also uniquely well suited to the way we learn. People gain new skills that include all four stages of what we call the “Learning Loop”: gain knowledge; practice by applying that knowledge; receive feedback; and reflect on what has been learned. Peer-to-peer learning encompasses all of these.

For example, when Kelly was in charge of learning at LinkedIn, her team created a peer-to-peer learning program designed around the company’s key corporate values. One section of the program focused on difficult conversations; each participant was asked to identify a real-life difficult conversation they needed to have at work (especially one they might be avoiding). They were first taught about difficult conversations (stage 1); next they practiced with each other before holding the conversations in real life (stage 2). One of the participants, John, confronted his employee Mark about his missed deadlines, a pattern which had been negatively affecting the team. The conversation did not go well — John felt awkward, and Mark got defensive. When John shared this experience with his peers in the learning group, they openly shared their views and ideas, and their own experiences of similar situations (stage 3). As everyone in the group — not just John — reflected on what they had learned, they concluded that they had all become more confident and armed with ideas about how to better handle a similar situation in the future (stage 4). Later group members indicated that their real-world difficult conversations indeed had become more productive.

Group reflection conversations help employees master the difficult skills of giving and accepting honest, constructive feedback. Because feedback flows in both directions, participants in peer-to-peer learning tend to put more time and energy into making sure the feedback they provide is meaningful.

A secondary benefit of peer-to-peer learning is that the format itself helps employees develop management and leadership skills. Group reflection conversations help employees master the difficult skills of giving and accepting honest, constructive feedback. Because feedback flows in both directions, participants in peer-to-peer learning tend to put more time and energy into making sure the feedback they provide is meaningful. They think from the perspective of their peer, consider where each is coming from, and try to get specific about what will be most helpful and constructive. This doesn’t happen as often when a boss delivers one-way feedback to employees.

Similarly, peer learning gives employees experience in leadership, handling different points of view, and developing skills such as empathy. A learner’s development is dependent on a willingness to make mistakes, challenge ideas, and speak up about concerns — as John and his colleagues did in their group. Unlike some learning methods — like tests or exams, or high-pressure demonstrations of skills — peer-to-peer learning creates a space where the learner can feel safe taking these risks without a sense that their boss is evaluating their performance while they are learning. You’re more likely to have candid conversations about areas you need to develop with a peer than with someone who has power over your career and income. In peer-to-peer learning, the dynamics of hierarchy disappear. And unlike other methods — like classroom lectures or online compliance training — peer-to-peer learning provides a structured opportunity to have these discussions to begin with.

The Mentorly Impact

Mentorly was developed precisely to help organizations “future-proof” their people strategies.  Executing the above vision for large distributed teams is not easy – there are a lot of moving parts.  Mentorly helps organizations make sense of it and manage the process easily.

Connecting the Dots to Leverage Expertise and Re-Skill

Developing organizational peer learning networks can be a massive challenge for large companies with multiple locations as employee groups are situated in geographical silos.  In some cases, the right mentor for Dave in Texas might be Deborah in Toronto.  It can sometimes be impossible to locate the right mentor/mentee pairings as well as connect them. Mentorly enables HR teams to develop a company-wide system of employee profiles, and intelligently match them with other employees in any location with intelligent matching algorithms. There are a variety of ways to set the criteria, and establishing the appropriate peer learning ecosystems for every employee is no longer like attempting to find a needle in a haystack.  Teach, guide, and re-skill as needed!  Future-proof your organization through smart employee ecosystems with Mentorly.

Facilitating Engagement

Once those connections are made, and each employee has an ecosystem of internal resources who can assist with their development, the next step is to provide them with a means of interacting in a structured, safe environment. 

For distributed teams with personnel in different cities, and for those working from home as a result of Covid19, Mentorly enables meetings to be scheduled and facilitated online with video chat.  This involves more than simply using Zoom or Google meet.  Whether it be a 1:1 meeting or a group call, notes can be stored, meetings recorded, and program managers can have certainty that the meeting actually took place, with the ability to track outcomes on an intuitive dashboard that can be used for internal reporting.  There’s even an option to flag noteworthy instances within meetings.  Everything is visible and accessible in one place.

To learn more about our insights on peer-to-peer learning, and what a Mentorly deployment can do for your organization, get in touch!