The Power of Peers: How Learning and Thinking Together Change the Workplace

(Last Updated On: January 2, 2020)

Great Expectations

Suzy Aldaine is a brilliant aspiring manager and well-respected information technology engineer who is taking on increasing responsibility for complex projects and multiple teams. Because of her new responsibility, Suzy was elated when she was sent to the prestigious senior management training at the leading business school. For a week, she immersed herself in the newest methods of managing in the tech industry. She returned proud and propped up with new confidence. But her confidence soon dissipated. While her enthusiasm was not shared if not shunned by others, the brutal awakening blow came from one of her colleagues. “You are telling us what we already know and use in my section,” she said. “You could have just asked us.”

But Could She Have?

The company, a mid-sized organization with great ambitions and growing market potential, is full of young competitive professionals trying to leap forward ahead of everyone else. The older managers and professionals also feel the pressure. Both the younger and the older employees are doing their best to survive amidst the ever-growing responsibilities, longer work hours and stress that penetrates deeply without a pause. “We lead. Because we learn!” says a nicely designed slogan that hangs almost everywhere in the company. But it is just that: a slogan. Suzy does not feel that she is in a learning spot. True, there are lots of smart people here, and they make the organization smart. But the company makes little effort to make their employees smarter. “You are on your own here,” she was warned when she started three years ago. “So, keep it to yourself and do the best you can.”

Competition and Rivalry

Like many companies, Suzy’s organization believes in developing technical competence and organizes people in various teams and projects. While these efforts lead to often above average results, there is something missing. Competition and rivalry dominates. Not that competition is bad in its own right, but it puts people into separate compartments, and everybody seems to be preoccupied with their own. They may collaborate,  but in a very limited way: just to get things done. People are guarded. They keep what they know to themselves. “My loss is your gain” is the rule.

The Tip of the Iceberg

The fact is that the most valuable skills, knowledge and experience reside in the organization’s employees in the form of tacit knowledge: their skills, ideas and experiences. These invaluable resources are often ignored. When employees declare that they do not have the skills or expertise they need, they are typically sent off to learn from outsiders. This is often unnecessary and unfortunate because solutions are likely to be found close to home: with other employees. Peer learning and sharing could turn the employees’ dormant skills into knowledge assets that would increase the organization’s internal efficiency. This would also build competitive advantage more effectively than the external consultants and training program can do.

From Deficit to Asset-Based Professional Development

The current approaches to skills training and professional development continue to be based on the deficit model: people lack skills and therefore must go somewhere to fill in the gap (or an expert from an outside must come and train them). In contrast, the forward-looking methods of skills development use an asset-based approach by recognizing that each employee individually and all employees collectively already have useful and applicable skills. When shared and internalized by others, it is possible to increase the knowledge base manifold without resorting to outside experts and consultants. It is true that there is a need for new knowledge and novel ideas from the outside, and this is should be welcomed. But it needs to be acknowledged that most learning and new insights happen in the workplace through interactions with peers.

Learning from Inside-Out

Acquiring knowledge and skills, although recognized as the driving force behind competitive advantage in the information age, proves to be difficult. Old methods, such as sending employees to the off-site generic training programs that Suzy experienced, no longer offer solutions for the dramatically changing and diverse workplace.  Organizations must embrace the notion of learning as the key method of gaining competence for their workforce and become a cradle of learning and thinking. Organizations need to re-engineer learning from the ‘inside-out’ with the main driver being the knowledge of the current employees. The ‘outside-in’ approach should be reserved for special cases to gain new ideas and processes. This calls for a new paradigm in organizational learning.

A New Workplace Learning Paradigm

The new ‘inside-out’ paradigm rests on three strategies that organizations must employ to be successful and competitive in the knowledge era:

  1. Help your employees learn how to learn (meta-learning)

Even though your employees may have been to college does not mean that they know how to learn. Most of us really never were taught evidence-based learning techniques. If we were taught learning techniques, what we were taught probably wasn’t backed by any research evidence. Learning to learn is not just a catch phrase! Learning is a broad term that goes far beyond memorizing and storing information. Any kind of learning involves a change in neural structure or function. These changes occur in stages, according to Dr. Rick Hanson, the author of Resilience. Learning requires experience, but experience is not enough. It must be consolidated in long-term storage in the brain to transform passing states into lasting traits. Brain-based learning will help people turn their experiences into lasting knowledge and behaviors.

  1. Create a learning and thinking environment in your organization where people are free to think independently and learn from each other

Knowing how to learn effectively for lasting change will do little if your organization is not geared towards learning in a genuine way. Take down the slogans of learning organizations and create conditions wherein people enjoy psychological safety (Edmondson, Teaming) and are free to think independently for themselves. As Nancy Kline shows (More Time to Think), independent thinking is an exception and a luxury in most organizations. Her 10-point Thinking Environment principles could serve as a blueprint for setting up conditions where individuals and teams can speak and hear each other as equal thinkers and learners.  This would liberate them and the organization from the limiting beliefs imposed on people which end up curtailing their creative capabilities and innovation.

  1. Leverage the existing body of knowledge and experience through a structured peer learning process to capture implicit knowledge and transform it into a lasting asset for all.

An open learning environment provides numerous opportunities for professional development and personal growth through lateral learning and sharing of knowledge. Peers are frequently the best trainers and often the most knowledgeable because they know how things work in the context and culture of your organization. They share the reality of what is and what can be, if they can express themselves freely without fear of being harassed or ignored. This lateral peer learning can take many forms: from peer lunches, to peer learning groups, to exchange visits and peer solving sessions, to name just a few. The important thing is that peer learning needs to be structured and organized to give your employees a solid base and a framework for learning. You need to provide the scaffolding so they can build an edifice of knowledge.

Cultivate a Learning Culture

While each of these strategies are necessary, individually they are insufficient to create an ‘inside-out’ learning culture that will explore the depth and breadth of the knowledge of your employees and managers. The power of peers will emerge when all of these strategies – meta-learning, a thinking environment and structured lateral learning – are working and reinforcing each other. Giving the employees tools for learning but not encouraging learning would be counter-productive. Conversely, promoting a thinking and learning environment is a great idea, but if your employees do not know how to learn effectively, they will not be able to take advantage of this freedom to learn. And finally, you will not harvest the knowledge of your employees and turn it into a valued asset if the learning culture is not embraced and people are not allowed to think for themselves.

Learning from Others

“So how do I start learning from others and with others?”, asked Suzy when she realized that what she had learned was already knowable and known in the organization. It is a challenge for many organizations, but the good news is that it can be done, and it may be easier than you think. It takes courage to allow people to say what they really think, and it may be scary at first.  Organizations will quickly discover that, when employees realize that their opinions and knowledge are valued and appreciated by others, the conversations between peers will soon become meaningful and knowledge enhancing. The power of peer knowledge will be unleashed.

Deborah Laurel, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer

Peter Korynski,  Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

 

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