For companies attempting to implement peer-to-peer learning, a well-oiled machine doesn’t only require all employees to pull their weight; it means knowing how every person contributes to the end goal.
Peer-to-peer learning isn’t new or complicated, but few companies have been able to implement it well because it requires employee initiative. Management can’t force colleagues to teach each other; they have to want to. A solid peer-to-peer learning program also demands structure, hands-on activities, a clear connection to company values and transparency. But if done well, peer-to-peer learning can heighten employees’ sense of loyalty, improve the overall culture and air out issues in a safe and constructive environment.
Let Employees Drive the Bus
Peer-to-peer learning can take many forms. At Eventbrite, an online ticketing services company, one product manager wanted to learn more about the coding his counterparts executed regularly. The employee, or “briteling” as they are called internally, asked around and realized he wasn’t the only one. They set up the first Britecamp and got through programming basics one Saturday morning.
The idea was simple, but the spontaneous learning caught on. Since then, Britecamps occur on a monthly basis and are regularly attended by employees during their lunch break. They include breakout sessions and hands-on activities. At first, classes focused on different parts of the company, such as understanding metrics and analytics, but the scope broadened to whatever employees wanted to learn more about, including photography and chess.
“Britecamps help us stay true to our internal culture,” said Michelle Leirer, an HR business partner at Eventbrite. “We are working on creating a culture of learning, and that’s exactly what it is: learning for learning’s sake.”
In peer-to-peer learning, employee initiative is key, according to Chris DeRose, business consultant and professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
He advises organizers to “hand over control to a well-resourced and trusted employee team to build.” Employee-level initiatives help get other peers engaged as learning is held by peers, for peers.
With IdeaJam, a software product that allows employees to share ideas and issues internally, the concept also began with employees. IdeaJam was born as an internal network for IBM to help employees communicate with each other about their experience and ideas. The program was so successful that Bruce and Gayle Elgort founded Elguji, a software company, to sell IdeaJam as a service. Today IBM still uses it, as does the federal government and a few banks to develop problem solving and peer-to-peer learning experiences.
“It allows anyone and everyone to share their open ideas with anonymity for people to learn and vet ideas,” Bruce Elgort said.
Both Britecamps and IdeaJam wouldn’t exist without employee action. In IdeaJam, an employee can submit an idea, question or issue. The process is similar to social media site Reddit where users can vote entries up or down so the most popular idea or comment appears first.
But just because peer-to-peer learning emphasizes employee initiative doesn’t mean a CLO can’t help it along. Leirer organizes Eventbrite events and uses employees to drive the effort. “We have a group of people called Britecamp counselors whose job is to go out and find people on their teams who have a skill they could share or something they want to learn from others,” she said.
The Britecamp counselors help coordinate the event and build enthusiasm, which is important to create an informal, fun environment. While the counselors take care of the recruiting, Leirer and her team make sure the essentials run smoothly.
Focus on Passions
IdeaJam was one of the earliest peer-to-peer learning software offerings, but now there are as many types of business communication products as there are social media sites, including Yammer, Jive, Chatter and Lync.
While the platforms differ in execution, CLOs say to use them effectively an organization needs to leverage employees’ interests and implement hands-on content.
“Today, P2P communication can help tremendously for knowledge sharing,” DeRose said. “Technical issues, analogous problem solving or even finding people in the network are easily facilitated if there’s a robust P2P network linking the right user communities. The right platform provides scalability for experts to assist and teach people without regard for geographic boundaries.”
Eric Dingler, CLO for Deloitte’s audit and enterprise risk practice, uses Yammer with several other in-person programs to facilitate learning and conversation in his division. “People can create groups or topics they are passionate about or around a certain position or ask questions or get feedback on a project,” he said.
Yammer allows employees to share information, photos and other material quickly and simply online. It was founded in 2008 and acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion in 2012. More than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies have worked with the network.
One of the most important elements to leverage Yammer effectively is the passion that gets an individual to participate. The content needs to apply to what employees do on a daily basis. “If I want to use Yammer to drive learning, I know that people participate in what they are passionate about or when they can make a direct connection that it’s going to help them do their job better,” Dingler said.
Using a software tool can be helpful to understand what people gravitate toward and what they are excited about learning because of the analytical data available, he said.
Both Dingler and Leirer discussed the need to leverage the passion into hands-on learning. To make Britecamps more than speeches or lectures, Leirer asks teachers to make classes interactive to accommodate different learning styles. For instance, with the coding class and Photoshop workshops, employees walked away with a completed project.
“We want it to be something people are excited to come to; it’s not meant to be a speech or lecture,” Leirer said. “Nobody is afraid to ask questions, and everyone wants to engage in the project.”
Peers’ Role in Workplace Learning
Dingler uses Yammer to help people in learning programs share information and progress. Placing people in different groups can provide additional context for learning. “Our challenge is making a value add in the objectives instead of just creating busy work.”
For chief learning officers and administrators, Dingler said this means a lot of collecting stories and experiences and encouraging people to share those within their Yammer groups so that new trainees can see and learn from others’ experiences. The goal of this type of system is to create the viral effect of a YouTube video or a Facebook post — something that inspires employees or relates closely to their work.
For those learning leaders creating a new peer-to-peer learning platform, Leirer said they should emphasize bringing the company’s values and culture to life because they are intrinsically connected to recruiting and hiring. “We try to hire like-minded people who have the ‘make-it-happen’ spirit. That’s essentially what it means to be a briteling,” she said.
Those with this type of personality will naturally take initiative and develop new programs to help co-workers, she said.
Building a successful peer-to-peer learning platform must flow from the overall culture, and those who drive the Britecamps help with training because they can easily communicate the culture. Eventbrite has a fresh, fun and humorous culture, so it follows that Britecamps would exhibit those qualities.
When the people creating the content for a Britecamp understand the company’s feel, they can add that cultural tone, Leirer said. It’s during those anecdotal moments where people feel comfortable and learn most easily.
However, each company will have to evaluate its core values and see how best to draw out these characteristics via a peer-to-peer learning platform.
Talk It Up and Be Transparent
Transparency between leadership and employees is key for peer-to-peer learning to take root culturally. “At IBM, IdeaJam is breaking down hierarchy; it puts everybody on a peer level regardless of how many stripes you might have,” DeRose said.
He also said that while IdeaJam and other peer-to-peer software can be valuable for organic, natural learning and problem solving, they also can become a place to air grievances and complain. The challenge is learning how to communicate openly about issues.
In one example, “a company changed its compensation system, and employees vocally criticized it using the internal system, feeding negatively off of each other’s comments,” DeRose said. “Company leaders didn’t reverse the policy, but they had a serious issue that was spotlighted as a result of this.”
Elgort said this is why each idea should have a deadline assigned to it. People can submit ideas and solutions only until a certain date, which generates a sense of urgency. He said the deadline also puts the onus on administrators to manage the ideas and provide results.
“You don’t just leave ideas out in the open. You take an action on them within the time frame so people can see the progress and see what’s being done,” he said.
Action helps build trust between employees and management. Employees have to know their input and initiatives will be valued or they won’t participate or attempt to build up new programs. The ability to implement employee ideas needs to be evident, and welcoming ideas can take several different forms, but should involve management, including CEOs.
“We have a lot venues for discussing employee ideas and healthy debate,” Leirer said. “We have fireside chats with founders called ‘heart to hearts,’ where the CEOs take the opportunity to open themselves up for any questions or issues employees have.”
While some of Eventbrite’s startup antics might sound out of place in corporate culture, consultant DeRose said these opportunities for employees to voice ideas and concerns are extremely important for their future engagement in peer-to-peer learning initiatives.
“Companies should focus on providing a place for open dialogue and resist any urge to defend or censor if the community is critical,” DeRose said. “Publish guidelines on appropriate use and hold everyone, including top leadership, to the same standards.”