Peer Learning Groups versus Communities of Practice

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Peer learning groups are often confused with communities of practice. This is understandable, since both involve peer groups. An easy way to tell them apart is that peer learning groups, as organized by The Peer Learning Institute, involve managers from different professional areas. On the other hand, communities of practice involve managers and employees in the same professional area.

Peer learning groups are limited in size to 5-6 managers, focus on both sharing knowledge and learning new skills from provided materials, and must put into immediate practice what has been learned.

Communities of practice have no size limitation, focus on sharing knowledge, and have no obligation to put new knowledge into practice.

Peer learning groups are organized around one specific management topic at a time. Communities of practice discuss issues as they arise.

Similar Benefits

It is true that both peer learning groups and communities of practice offer similar benefits:

·      They increase information flow across boundaries
·      They prevent “reinventing the wheel”
·      They fill in the gap between formal training, policies and procedures, and how the work really gets done
·      They provide a competitive advantage through the ability to distribute knowledge throughout the organization
·      They share tacit knowledge and know-how
·      They build the intellectual capacity of the organization
·      They help retain the knowledge in the organization when employees leave, thus lessening “brain drain”
·      They foster a continuous learning culture that, in turn, fosters creativity and innovation
·      They increase creativity through collaboration and innovation
·      They help recruit and retain knowledgeable employees
·      They increase flexibility because these “informal” networks can get things done faster than “formal” networks

Significant Differences

However, there are significant differences, as the following illustrates:

Peer Learning Groups Communities of Practice
·      Managers at similar levels of authority learn (from each other and from provided materials) how to do their jobs better ·      People with similar jobs learn (from each other) how to do their jobs better
·      Use a structured process that scaffolds learning ·      Use an unstructured process
·      Accept that the knowledge (and additional learning materials) are in the room ·      Accept that the knowledge is in the room
·      Follow a U theory learning process ·      Have an informal learning process
·      Involve all six managers all the time ·      Involve different people at different times
·      The explore-practice-reflect cycle can be repeated ·      Provide ongoing discussion
·      Require a commitment to change behavior ·      Do not require changed behavior
·      Focus on managers ·      Focus on employees and managers
·      Focus on changing behavior ·      Focus on communicating knowledge
·      Prioritize what will be discussed ·      Have open discussion as needed
·      Require practice ·      Do not require practice

There is room for both peer learning groups and communities of practice in organizations, because of the shared and different benefits they each provide. They should not, however, be confused with one another.

Deborah Laurel

Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

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