We’ve Already Tried Peer Learning: 7 Reasons Why It May Go Wrong and One Effective Way to Fix Them

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At a recent workshop on peer learning groups, I was told that some of the participants’ companies had “already tried peer learning and it didn’t work.” When I delved deeper into their experience, it became clear that there were very obvious reasons why their peer learning “didn’t work.”

There are seven main reasons why many peer learning efforts may go awry.

  1. Equality

Peer learning involves peers – employees or managers – who are at a similar level in the organization and face similar challenges. Everyone needs to be equal in a peer learning group. Even if the group members agree to leave their position titles outside of the room, there is still the sense that some members are more important than others. When they speak, other members at lower levels in the organization may defer to them. Every group member must have an equal voice, with equal time and space to express themselves without fear of judgment.

What doesn’t work is throwing employees and their supervisors together and expecting there to be an even give and take in the conversation.

  1. Topic of Mutual Concern

A peer learning group convenes to discuss a shared topic of concern. There has to be a compelling reason to be part of a peer learning group, some problem or challenge that the individual group members have had little success in handling and want to learn how to handle better. They select a topic before they meet, not afterwards.

What doesn’t work is bringing a group together and then expecting their random conversation to identify a viable topic relevant to all of the group members.

  1. Structure

A peer learning group needs structure to ensure that every member has an equal opportunity to share, speak and contribute to the problem-solving discussion. The conversation needs to be directed so that key milestones are met. Otherwise the peer learning group is simply a random group discussion.

What doesn’t work is leaving a peer learning group to its own devices and then expecting specific skill-building results.

  1. Knowledge

A peer learning group needs to build on the members’ knowledge and experience as well as provide additional knowledge and tools. New information about best practices needs to be incorporated into the peer learning group experience.

What doesn’t work is letting a group discussion turn into a venting session, or worse, having the wrong information communicated and used to find solutions that are ineffective.

  1. Application

It is important for the members of peer learning groups to have an extended opportunity to apply new knowledge or strategies. New learning needs repetitive practice, trial and error, until mastery is achieved. That practice needs to be supported. It also has to be long enough to build a new habit. The managers should be supported in this process by peer partner meetings, journaling, and microlearning opportunities.

What doesn’t work is having a group meeting with no individual follow through afterwards, and with no reflection to solidify learning and bring change.

  1. Psychological Safety

The members of a peer learning group need to feel comfortable enough with each other that they are willing to admit failures and collaborate to find solutions. It is a vulnerable thing to admit failure and have faith that others have one’s best interests at heart. Many organizations may foster a climate of competition rather than abundance. Groundwork has to be laid to help group members relax and believe that their concerns will be kept confidential.

What doesn’t work is bringing people together and expecting them to have an immediate rapport and a sense of trust.

  1. Support and Freedom

Managers participating in a peer learning group must feel that they have the freedom to meet, lead their own discussions, and spend company time on peer learning. They have to have the support of their superiors and the acknowledgement that what they do is important for the company and contributes to the bottom line. They also must be free to meet without their supervisors’ participation and without reporting to HR about what has been discussed.

What does not work is when their supervisors or HR managers insist on participating in or ‘facilitating’ the peer learning groups. The groups also fail when their efforts are not acknowledged or are outright negated as useless or a waste of time.

Peer Learning Will Work for You If …

So, if you’re thinking that your company has “tried” peer learning and it didn’t work, there’s probably a good reason. If any of these seven basic requirements are not met, it is very likely that a peer learning group experience will be unsuccessful.  All these conditions must be met to allow the peer groups to feel empowered to be open and vulnerable, which opens the doors for new learning and better confidence in their abilities.

For a successful peer learning group program, please contact us at https://peerlearninginstitute.com.

Deborah Laurel                                                                                                                                                                                        Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer                                                                                                                                              The Peer Learning Institute

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