An employee’s number one preferred source of company information and interpretation is fellow employees, according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report. More workers turn to their peers first (55%) — second only to asking their bosses, when they wanted to learn a new skill, says a study reported by the Harvard Business Review. Why is peer learning so important?
Employees trust their peers more than the company’s top leaders and board of directors, but that trust does not originate in business environments. Social conditioning and human tendencies beginning with the socialization of children result in this phenomenon. It should come as no surprise that people value information from their peers, especially in the age of social sharing and influencing. What may be surprising are some of the powerful benefits organizations and individuals can derive from harnessing the power of peer learning in their careers.
Why Is Peer-to-Peer Learning Effective?
According to CEOWorld Magazine, “Horizontal communication beats vertical communication every time.” There is a reason for this. Horizontal communication is suited to the ways in which humans naturally learn. “People gain new skills best in any situation that includes all four stages of what we call the ‘Learning Loop’: gain knowledge; practice by applying that knowledge; get feedback; and reflect on what has been learned. Peer-to-peer learning encompasses all of these.”
Another consideration is that formalized learning opportunities require planning, budgets, experts, and time away from work, while informal peer learning often happens organically. When organizations nurture peer learning as part of the culture, workers take the initiative to make themselves available to others in their departments and at their hierarchical levels to share needed knowledge. That knowledge is transferred precisely when needed, and often applied immediately, so that it moves from short-term to long-term memory. Encouraging informal knowledge sharing is becoming increasingly effective as the younger generations have come up learning new collaborative mindsets and are more willing than their predecessors to teach peers. In fact, many embrace the opportunity.
Peer-to-peer learning, unlike tests and memorization, enables people to learn with less pressure and to feel that they can take risks and make mistakes without paying a price. It is also a two-way dialogue, unlike a lecture or presentation. Peers feel free to ask questions and to make sure they understand the information before moving on to the next topic. While expert-led presentations have great value, the Q&A sessions tend to be limiting for individuals who would ask a series of questions if they could.
How Can Peer Learning Be Instituted?
There are many ways to promote peer learning within an organization, from highlighting its value from the top down through management to instituting programs like mentoring or setting up online forums for employees to share knowledge. In some companies, there are even proprietary programs designed for peer sharing of knowledge related to both hard and soft skills.
Programs can also pair people in complementary or similar roles in one-to-one sessions. They can also be structured similar to collaborative work groups, but done in such a way as to encourage questions, discussion, and reflection.
Regardless of how the concept is instituted, it works best when there is a facilitator or leader who is accountable to specific goals within a group. The environment should be safe and individuals should feel free to open up to provide and receive constructive help and honest feedback. Ground rules that make an environment safe include confidentiality, empathy, and the acceptance of ideas without ridicule.
Peer learning is clearly here to stay. It is the natural outgrowth of a combination of communal dynamics and recent trends like collaboration, networking, social media, and even the limitations of corporate budgets. Organizations will continually find new and better ways to implement and benefit from peer learning.
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