What Is Peer-to-Peer Learning?

Learning and development go through trends like any other field. And it can be difficult to know which trends are worth following. Microlearning, personalization, gamification, and mobile-friendliness are all trendy right now. Will they stay around?

(We think they will.)

Peer-to-peer learning is another trend that’s been gaining traction in the learning and development world. But what is it? How can it benefit the learning at your company? Is it worth investing in? Will it stick around?

And, most importantly, how can you get started and make peer learning a success at your company? Let’s take a look.

Learners Teaching Learners

In school settings, peer-to-peer learning is all about students teaching other students. Peer-to-peer learning in the workplace is similar—instead of students, though, it’s employees teaching one another.

Peer teaching can take many forms, as we’ll discuss shortly. But the common factor is that knowledge is shared not by an instructor or other person of authority. It’s all about people on the same level teaching each other what they know.

Peer learning In the workplace can be both formal and informal. And the combination of both is key to successful learning and development. We’ll talk about a few different forms of peer-to-peer learning that you can use to take advantage of both methods.

But first, let’s talk about why peer-to-peer learning is a great way to share knowledge at your company.

Why Is Peer-to-Peer Learning a Good Strategy?

You might be surprised to find out that peer-to-peer learning is an effective method of knowledge transfer. After all, companies hire experts for a reason. They have more relevant knowledge than learners, and there’s a good chance they’ve had formal instruction on teaching as well.

So why would you give that up to have unqualified teachers driving your learning strategy?

Because peer learning is a cost-effective method of training and development. In 2010, Learning Solutions magazine reported that British Telecom was saving $12,000,000 per year by using an open-source learning solution and encouraging peer teaching.

(While the number isn’t quite as staggering, we’re proud to report that our own platform saves customers an average of $107,000 per year.)

Why is peer learning so effective? Much of it comes down to the fact that learners share similar experiences, and that common experience has significant benefits. Employees understand the issues they face on a day-to-day basis better than any consultant or trainer could.

That level of insight does wonders for learners. Think about it this way. If you’re a manager, who are you going to trust for insights on how to better communicate within your group? An external trainer who has a management consulting certificate, or another manager in your company who’s already gone through the same problems and come up with an effective solution?

That shared experience builds a connection between teachers and learners based on trust and respect. That connection fosters learning in a way that consultants, trainers, and experts just can’t.

These benefits of peer teaching have been recognized in education for decades. It’s only now becoming more prevalent in the workplace.

It’s not just the learners that have advantages in peer-to-peer learning, though. Teachers also get a lot out of it. It’s been said for centuries that teaching is one of the best ways to learn.

And that applies in peer-to-peer learning. Teachers both reinforce their own knowledge and gain insights from learners who aren’t as familiar with the topic.

It’s a win for everyone.

People are more comfortable in peer learning situations than they are in traditional training environments, which rely on authoritative outsiders. By replacing an outsider with someone who the audience immediately feels a connection with, the learners are in a more receptive mode.

In addition to classroom-type interactions, peer-to-peer learning also includes one-on-one learning (we’ll talk about how you might do that in a moment). Through mentoring or simple problem-solving meetings, employees build strong connections with each other and share the lessons they’ve learned in their experience at your company.

Let’s take a look at how you might but a peer learning program in place.

How to Start Peer-to-Peer Learning in the Workplace

No matter how big your company is, you can start a peer learning program without much investment. One of the strengths of this type of learning is that it can be done rather informally. Here are three things you can do to kickstart peer learning at your company:

Learning Lunches

Many companies have instituted a learn-at-lunch program, and you can organize one in just a few minutes. A learning lunch is simple: everyone in a group, department, or company gets together on a certain day to have lunch together (you can have the lunch catered or just ask everyone to bring something). During the lunch, one person presents on a topic of interest.

The restrictions you place on the topic are up to you; some companies encourage their employees to talk about work-related things, and others leave it completely up to the presenter. Either way, people are learning.

You can also choose the frequency that works best for your group; you might do it weekly, monthly, or quarterly (though more often is probably better).

The level of formality is also up to you. If you think your employees would be willing to put together a short presentation, feel free to ask them to! If you think they’d rather keep it as informal as possible, that’s an option, too.

If you want to see a great example of a learning lunch, look no further than Bitly. They’ve had presentations on things like how to build an iOS app and and the importance of international collaboration . . . as well as puns, GIFs, and a bike ride across Iowa.

Bitly has grown their sense of community, learning, and growth with a learning lunch. It might be the easiest way you can, too.

Mentoring

Mentoring is a great example peer-to-peer learning, even if it doesn’t feel like traditional training. It’s not always focused on a particular issue or area, but mentors are great at helping newer employees solve problems they’re facing.

There’s a very strong social component to mentoring, and that’s one of its greatest strengths (we’ll talk about social aspects in a moment). Which is why it’s important that mentors and mentees have a good social relationship. Not everyone is cut out to be a mentor.

But those who are can be a huge credit to your organization.

In addition to sharing knowledge, effective mentoring builds strong relationships within your organization—the importance of which can’t be overstated. Both parties gain a great deal in the process, and your company benefits in the long run.

Inc has a great article on how to start a mentoring program at your company. With structure, a bit of training, and the right format, a mentoring program can help your employees learn more relevant, practical information than they could ever hope to with traditional training.

Employee-Accessible LMS

Learning management systems often focus on top-down knowledge sharing. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, we argue that it shouldn’t be the case. Learning platforms are perfect for distributing knowledge between employees throughout your company.

Flexible platforms make it easy to share a variety of content. It could be presentations for people to read over, documents that employees find useful, webinars, or just a simple list of tips that someone has learned throughout their career.

If employees are going to use the platform in this manner, though, they have to feel comfortable doing it. Employees need to be given agency over what happens on the training platform. That’s what drives engagement with learning.

You can extend this beyond your learning system as well—a company communication tool (like Slack or HipChat) can become a fantastic learning tool if you encourage employees to use it as one.

The simple act of making it easy for employees to share knowledge might be all you need to foster a learning atmosphere in your company.

How to Make Peer Learning a Success

There are plenty of ways to institute peer-to-peer learning at your company. These three methods certainly aren’t exhaustive. And different types of learning will work better for different groups. It’s worth experimenting with.

There are a few things, however, that tend to work well across most peer learning applications. Here are a few to keep in mind.

Encourage Social Learning

Social learning encompasses the learning that happens when people observe, imitate, and interact with each other. It’s a powerful form of learning, especially in the workplace. In fact, up to 80% of learning might take place through interactions with peers and supervisors.

This method of learning is largely informal, and you can support it with digital tools that help employees see what others are doing and learn from it. It’s low-pressure, high-engagement, and compatible with the types of interactions that younger generations are comfortable with.

You don’t have to model your learning solution on Facebook or Twitter . . . but at the same time, don’t discount a system that draws from these platforms. Using technologies and learning strategies that people are accustomed to, whether in school or in their social lives, makes learning and development easier.

Let Employees Drive Learning

When you have specific learning and development goals, letting go of the reins even a bit can be harrowing. But if you want employees to engagement with the learning process and content, it’s good to give them control over what they’re learning and how they learn it.

That doesn’t mean not putting system in place or letting people teach and learn whatever they want. But you should let employees choose what and how they want to learn whenever possible.

By giving employees more control over the learning process, you not only empower them to make the most of their training, but you also encourage them to be more engaged.

We know that you can’t totally give over control, especially if you have specific goals or plans for learning. But you can always encourage peer learning as a supplement to more traditional learning and development, too—it doesn’t have to be a formal affair (using a peer-learning-friendly LMS is a great way to make this type of learning easily available to employees).

Regardless of where peer-to-peer learning fits into your overall development strategy, letting employees drive it will increase engagement.

Mix Things Up

It’s easy to get in into a pattern when it comes to learning. Using the same methods, collaborating with the same people, and discussing the same topics can get people into a rut. The same is true with peer-to-peer learning.

People fall into patterns when it comes to the other people they spend time with, what they talk about, and so on. It’s important to change encourage variety.

Set up groups where people from groups that don’t usually work together meet to solve problems. Vary training methods; do a seminar one day and a brainstorming session the next. Post a variety of content (video, audio, text, interactive webinars) to share information.

Providing variety helps you reach everyone, regardless of their preferred medium. And it exposes them to new viewpoints, information, and content. It might take a little effort on your part, but it will boost the efficacy of your training.

Start Peer Learning Today

It might seem like peer learning requires a great deal of planning and preparation. And while planning and preparation will certainly help, you can get started with some simple learning tasks right away.

Peer teaching might be a trend today, but it looks set to be an important method of learning and development for a long time. As we learn to let our employees drive some of their own learning through social methods, we continue to see great results. And that’s not likely to change.

Dann is a content strategy and marketing consultant who helps B2Bs generate demand and leads. He also blogs about strategy and content marketing at www.dannalbright.com.