Learning in organizations should be organic, natural and sustainable. Organizations are living organisms that need to constantly renew and reinvent themselves to be able to survive and grow. They do this by learning new things and acquiring new capabilities. But learning does not have to come from outside trainers, crammed in stuffy training rooms or online parlors. In fact, research shows that most learning happens in the workplace by doing and learning from others. Learning is a social and interactive process. Organizations that cannot grow their own knowledge in a natural, organic and sustainable way may lose their competitive edge.
Peer learning is a special type of social learning that involves peers – managers, leaders, supervisors – in collaborative learning that elicits their experiences and tacit knowledge, and creates conditions for sharing them across the company. Peer learning groups are essential for this to occur: it is not enough to list information on the website or on a knowledge sharing platform. People need to talk, debate, discuss and reflect to bring learning alive and relevant to the organizational culture.
Peer learning is organic. It derives from the needs of the managers and employees, and uses the wisdom of the crowd to review, analyze and create knowledge for the benefit of the organization. It does not use ‘fertilizers’ like external trainers, consultants and coaches to tell the managers what they should learn and what to do. Knowledge is grown organically using the resources available to the managers from within, and to the extent that is needed, from the outside world. They pull the wisdom of others in when they need it. Managers working in peer learning groups are free to test, experiment and make mistakes.
Peer learning groups are natural. People are social animals and they learn socially. They also seek personal contact. People who feel more connected to others have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. As a result, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being. Person-to-person peer learning brings people together and allows deeper social connections to take root. No matter how advanced technology becomes, and how omnipresent virtual connectivity may be, face-to-face discussions have continuing value for collaboration, motivation and performance.
Peer learning groups are sustainable. They are easy to organize, require very little effort and resources, and can be organized at any time and any place. Once formed, peer learning groups can and may perpetuate themselves. As new people enter the organization, new groups can be created and new ideas generated.
It is time to recognize that knowledge is a renewable resource that needs to be shared and internalized by the whole organization. Continuous reinvention through new capabilities and knowledge is necessary for organizations to adapt effectively. Peer learning groups can make it happen in an organic, natural and sustainable way.
Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer
The Peer Learning Institute