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Using peer to peer learning and development

Georgina Fuller

Peer to peer learning - people standing in a network

Learning from your colleagues can be an incredibly effective method of development. Georgina Fuller talks to businesses making the most of their subject matter experts

Peer to peer learning is becoming an increasingly popular and effective way for organisations to develop and upskill employees, especially in light of ongoing budget cuts and financial constraints. Most organisations are also starting to realise that traditional classroom-based learning isn’t the panacea we once thought and that being coached by your line manager or an experienced colleague can be much more effective. 

In-house development programmes and coaching by line managers were seen to be the most popular and effective training methods in the last CIPD/Cornerstone On Demand Learning and Talent Development Survey 2012, cited by 52% and 46% of learning and development professionals. Just 16% of the survey recipients opted for “formal education courses”, and the same number for “coaching by external practitioners”.

Without a balance of learning options, employees could feel short-changed.

Andrew Jacobs, learning and development (L&D) manager at Lambeth Council, says that an effective peer to peer learning system should be automatically integrated into your organisation’s workflow. “We look to find a peer to peer ‘expert’ and ask why we can’t offer it as a default,” he comments. “As a result, our current design of our learning offer has no classes or courses but more action learning sessions, forums and opportunities for user generated content.”

The council, which recently cut its L&D team from six to just two people, has identified a number of subject matter experts (SMEs) to help lead peer to peer learning and train line managers. “This approach treats people as equals and develops a sense of group ownership, not keeping the issue as a SME concern,” Jacobs explains.

Unofficial experts

So what steps do you need to take if you are looking to implement a peer to peer learning programme in your organisation and what are the main pros and cons of doing so? “The first thing to understand is that your organisation already has a peer to peer learning programme,” says author and L&D consultant Peter Freeth, “So what you're actually aiming to do isn't to introduce it, but to recognise and support it.”

Unlike the more traditional learning routes, such as classroom training and e-learning, formalising peer to peer learning does not necessarily work, according to Freeth.  “The whole point is that it's totally demand driven; people learn when they need to know something, and they seek out the people who can help them,” he notes.

Remember that an expert is someone with knowledge, not necessarily someone who knows how they acquired that knowledge

Identifying the key influencers within your learning network and ensuring you provide them with some training delivery skills is the next stage, says Freeth. “Remember that an expert is someone with knowledge, not necessarily someone who knows how they acquired that knowledge,” he adds. So the learning needs to be facilitated by someone who can bridge the gap between the expert and the learner, rather than becoming a demonstration by the expert.

Jenny Kidby, talent development specialist at consultancy Grant Thornton, says finding the key people in your organisation is critical to the success of any behavioural change programme. 

“We know that people are influenced much more by their peers’ behaviour than how they might be told to behave by those more senior to them or on development workshops,” she notes. The consultancy is currently rolling out a new behavioural change scheme across its 4,500 UK employees and hopes to get at least 10% of employees through the game changer programme by 2015.  “We are hoping to inspire them to be role models for the culture we are moving towards – becoming trusted business advisors who hold insightful conversations with our clients,” Kidby explains. “All our people are ambassadors for our firm and we aspire for our internal and external conversations to have the same tone.  It’s about how we talk about ourselves as a firm, the sort of language we use and what picture that paints in people’s minds.”

Getting the right subject

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that peer to peer learning may not be suitable for all aspects of learning.  Gwyn Rogers, lead director of consulting and development at Penna HR consultancy, explains: “Peer to peer learning is much better suited for behavioural changes but when it comes to something technical, such as managing accounts, it may not always be the best option.”

Rogers says learning is 80% down to the individual and 20% down to the organisation. “The cost of getting it wrong is huge in terms of retention but if you get it right it can be a key factor in leveraging business performance,” he adds.

Peer to peer learning should, ideally, also be used as in conjunction with other learning programmes and methods. Lesley Dunne, L&D manager at Bulgari Hotels and Residences, notes. “Without a balance of learning options, employees could feel ‘short-changed’.  Developmental opportunities that have a tangible meaning (such as a recognised certification), will often have a greater impact on the motivation and commitment levels of an employee.”

So whilst it is, undoubtedly, one of the most effective learning methods available, peer to peer learning is not necessarily the only solution to changing behaviour and influencing employees and, when it comes to technical training, it may not be the best option.

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