When it comes to your career, you probably think you can get ahead if you impress your boss and do good work. That equation involves two people—you and your manager. But you may be overlooking one set of key players who can help you succeed:
Instead of simply looking at them as coworkers or, worse yet, competition for promotions, utilize their wisdom and grow your skill set.
“People love to learn from other people, yet we don’t always focus on how we can learn from our peers,” says Kelly Palmer, coauthor of The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete and Succeed, chief learning officer (CLO) at Degreed and former CLO of LinkedIn.
It’s time to think differently by tapping into the knowledge and experience of those around us.
Redefine Corporate Training
93% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers, according to research from LinkedIn. But how?
The traditional model of corporate learning programs is a one-size-fits-all method similar to learning in school. However, no one is in the same starting place.
“The default model is ‘Let’s send everybody through training regardless of where they are in their career journey,’” says Palmer. “One size fits all is the easiest to do, but we need to do better.”
Generic training programs can help employees gain knowledge, at best. But what about actual skills that can be applied in real life? That’s where peer-to-peer learning proves much more powerful. The method, studied in an educational environment, has been shown to improve student learning and engagement, according to research from the University of Sydney.
Palmer experienced its power firsthand while working full-time at Sun Microsystems as the senior director of learning products, at the same time getting her master’s degree in learning and education technology. The university had changed from lecture-style classrooms to virtual classes equipped with online collaborative learning tools. The new environment created a safe space for peers to share information, viewpoints, and experience.
Palmer engaged with her peers, learning from their ideas and opinions. As the program went on, she says she realized that she was learning as much (if not more!) from her peers than she had learned from professors in a more traditional environment. After that experience, she thought about how impactful learning from peers could be in corporate learning.
When Palmer went to Yahoo!, she discovered that peer-to-peer learning had already started in a grassroots way when engineers decided to hold tech talks, sharing what they were learning with each other (companies like Google and Facebook also hold tech talks).
It was a good start but not enough, says Palmer.
Then start the loop again.
In a study of the work habits of 5,000 employees and managers, University of California, Berkley management professor Morten Hansen found that people who adopted the learning loop performed much better than those who didn’t.
“Effective learners were likely to place 15 points higher in our performance ranking than the lesser ones,” he writes in his book Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More. “Say, a salesperson is currently performing in the top 20 percent among all the salespeople in her company. By mastering the learning loop, she would climb to the top 5 percent, emerging as an outstanding sales rep.”
So, how do you begin?
Learning from your peers can be done in a variety of ways, and companies can use a combination of any or all of them.
Every company has lots of subject matter experts (SME), and companies can and should draw on their expertise and encourage these experts to share their knowledge with coworkers.
One way to do that is with curated content.
MasterCard has been using the power of curated content for a few years now. The company held a contest challenging employees to identify a topic they were passionate about and create their own pathway of curated content to teach their coworkers. The top three pathways were chosen, and the curators were awarded prizes for their efforts.
“It was fun and competitive, but most importantly, it got everyone engaged in the learning process and created exceptional resources for the benefit of all of their employees,” says Palmer. “When you get recommendations from your peers, you’re more likely to find it as a trusted source that you want to look at.”
The second way to learn from your peers is through a more formal program. When Palmer was at LinkedIn, her team designed a social, collaborative, peer-to-peer learning program called “Conscious Business,” to help employees understand how to apply the company’s culture and values in a practical way on the job.
“This was tough learning to impart, given that company values tend to be somewhat nebulous and therefore difficult to put into practice,” she says.
Realistically, how could employees practice and demonstrate company values such as "integrity" during their day-to-day working lives?
The four-week cohort-based program used the learning loop to explore and internalize LinkedIn’s values.
One value, for example, was to be open, honest and constructive in communication. Participants were confronted with real-world situations during a variety of practice sessions. Using the learning loop, they learned how to have difficult conversations. Then they practiced the skills in the workplace. They shared the results with their peers and got feedback. Then they reflected on what they learned and how they could do it better.
“One advantage of peer-to-peer learning is that you feel less intimidated when admitting there’s something you don’t know,” says Palmer. “Also, when practicing with peers you don’t feel the fear of being judged.”
The Conscious Business program was one of the highest-rated learning programs at LinkedIn and went on to win learning awards. “Participants found it valuable working with peers and solving real business problems,” says Palmer. “They weren’t taken out of the job and lectured; they were learning value on the job in the flow of work.”
A third way to learn from your peers is by offering informal, employee-led classes. The telecommunications company Ericsson holds a “Learning Week,” during which employees can teach what they know and learn from others. These sessions are held in person or online with time for practice, feedback, and reflection. Coworkers can sign up for sessions they find interesting.
Learning Week has become a wildly successful strategy to encourage peer-to-peer learning, says Palmer.
“People sharing their expertise gain as much as the peers who participate,” she says. “The strategy for peer-to-peer learning isn’t to lecture, but to set up the learning so that there is an opportunity to have meaningful conversations, to listen to different points of view, to get feedback, and to reflect.”
Putting It into Action
Whether you choose curated content, a formal program or a learning week, putting someone in charge of your peer-to-peer learning program helps a lot. People who have typically been instructors in instructor-led training programs are often great facilitators for peer-to-peer learning, says Palmer.
Focus on real-world situations and skills.
“The key to a successful peer-to-peer learning program is to ensure everyone taking part is engaged in something authentic to resolve,” says Palmer. “You’ll also need to build a safe peer-to-peer learning environment where participants feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts openly with their peers.”
Promote peer-to-peer learning by holding inclusive events and conferences in person or online. Encourage peer-to-peer networking by organizing networking events, setting up online social networks, or informal learning groups that meet regularly and exchange ideas, suggests Palmer.
“Learning while solving real work problems isn’t typically tracked as learning per se,” she says. “But, if we broaden the definition of learning and explore different ways of helping others learn, we can take advantage of our peers to grow our skill set and solve real work problems.”
So what do you think?
Have you learned a skill from your coworkers? What could you teach your peers? How can you implement this technique in your workplace? Teach us something by sharing your comments!