The good news is that more and more businesses are recognizing the importance of ongoing employee learning and development (L&D)—not just for increase capability and productivity, but also for employee engagement and retention. The bad news is that many companies are neglecting one of the most important parts of the L&D landscape: peer learning.
Indeed, not all learning opportunities have to come from classes, seminars, or other outside development programs. On the contrary, much of the knowledge that you want your employees to learn is already in your organization somewhere. The tricky part is figuring out how to facilitate the knowledge transfer from the person or people that have this knowledge to the people who want it.
The Brain Block to Peer Learning
Looking at workplace peer learning from an analytic perspective, it’s easy to see that there is value there. Any given organization will typically have workers from a range of different specialties, generational groups, and experience levels.
Facilitating knowledge sharing among these disparate groups can drive innovation, smart solutions, productivity, and understanding across the entire company. Older, more seasoned members of the organization can share their considerable experience with younger groups. Younger workers can share their innate expertise in technology with older employees who are less tapped into the latest trends. Employees across different departments—from marketing to IT to sales—can knowledge share in such a way that makes each group more self-sufficient and more sensitive to the challenges that other teams face.
The benefits of peer learning in the workplace are so obvious that it’s easy to assume they will just happen naturally. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case—not because managers and employees in your enterprise don’t want to share knowledge, but because there are numerous neurological barriers that make it difficult.
There are many brain blocks that prevent peer learning from taking root in the workplace. Collectively, these barriers keep team leaders from embracing peer learning—and from reaping its considerable benefits. These barriers include:
Structure and Organization
Peer learning is usually considerably less organized and less structured than other types of employee learning and development. The attraction of a course or seminar—even an e-learning opportunity—is that they offer a distinct structure for knowledge sharing and skill acquisition. Peer learning in the workplace is occasionally executed in a structured fashion. For instance, you might enroll a few managers in a course and then request that they teach a workplace seminar on the skills and knowledge they gained.
Often, though, peer learning is more spontaneous—driven by teamwork and social interactions between different members of your organization. These interactions are difficult to structure, which means that many team leaders simply don’t take any steps to promote them.
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The challenge of structuring peer learning within a workplace leads directly to the next challenge: learning administration. When it comes to employee learning and development, higher-ups always want to see the bottom line elements—including financial investment and ROI.
Since peer learning is more nebulous than many types of L&D, it is difficult to schedule, track, or report.Learning administration and tracking is a hassle almost no matter what, but it’s an especially large hurdle for peer learning.
Identifying Who Needs the Knowledge
No one within your organization is “hoarding” knowledge. On the contrary, it’s probably a safe bet that everyone—from managers and team leaders down to entry level workers—is interested in sharing the knowledge they have and absorbing new skills and knowledge from others. The problem is that no one really knows who wants or needs specific pieces of knowledge.
How can you share knowledge with other team members who would benefit from that knowledge if you don’t know who they are? This issue creates a problem of inefficiency with peer learning—inefficiency that most of your employees have neither the time nor the inclination to handle.
Fostering a Strong Peer Learning Culture in Your Work Environment
So how can your organization get passed these common brain blocks? How can you stop managers, team leaders, and employees from regarding peer learning as something that is “too hard” or “too much of a hassle” and convince them to see its value over its challenges?
First off, build peer learning into your company’s DNA from the get-go. Make employee onboarding a team endeavor, where a new employee works closely with and learns from multiple peers. Not only will this structure help trigger better knowledge sharing within your organization, but it will also foster better relationships among your team members and make new hires feel more at home and at ease early on in their tenure.
Secondly, build peer learning communities within your organization by putting people with a range of different skills, specialties, and experience levels together in teams or groups. There should be a core shared focus among these employees—be it a client, a project, or an organization initiative. As they work toward the same goal together, they will learn to harness one another’s skills to achieve their aim, learning from one another along the way.
Finally, make knowledge accessible in your organization. Build a company intranet where peers can easily interact, ask questions, and share projects digitally. Social networking within your organization can help build connections and trust, which ultimately foster knowledge sharing. Your intranet can also include blogs, wikis, and other resources—authored by people within your organization—that help answer frequently asked questions or provide tutorial content.
Don’t let the neuroscience of peer learning prevent your organization from capitalizing on all the valuable knowledge that is already in-house. Instead, find ways to create connections through which that knowledge can be shared throughout your organization. Sure, it’s tough to structure and track, but it will lead to a smarter and more connected workplace—one where employees know each other and want to work together to achieve shared goals. There isn’t a business out there that couldn’t benefit from those perks.