How Peer-to-Peer Learning Benefits Business Success

 

While a recent LinkedIn survey reports that 92% of employees are “completely satisfied” with their work, about half of those respondents are still considering a job change in 2023. Meaning: companies that attract high-performing talent still face the challenge of keeping them there.

Also worth noting: a lack of learning opportunities is frequently cited as the top reason employees may leave their roles in the upcoming year. Employees who have opportunities to learn and engage in professional development in the workplace find more value and purpose in their work, which reduces the likelihood of quiet quitting, overemployment, and attrition.

The most successful organizations understand that there’s a bottom line value to creating a learning culture in the workplace. According to a Degreed report, businesses with effective learning cultures are 166% more likely to report faster-growing revenue than competitors. Other benefits include better-skilled people, more agile teams, and more adaptability across the org.

However, not all learning opportunities are created equal.

One of the most potent ways to add meaningful development experiences to the workplace is through peer-to-peer learning. It helps leaders meet two related goals: answer employee demands for professional growth, and build an organization with a strong, resilient foundation.

 

What is Peer-to-Peer Learning?

Unlike traditional instructor-led, low/no interaction training, online courses, or one-off webinars, peer-to-peer (P2P) learning involves employees upskilling and idea-sharing alongside colleagues or fellow attendees. It’s a form of social development that leverages the power of individual strengths and interests to guide the learning experience, with an emphasis on community-building and long-term knowledge retention.

P2P learning can also be structured or unstructured. Unstructured learning relies on pre-established networks that organizations use for internal knowledge sharing and one-time events like live workshops, that, while often can promote free-flowing connections and thought development, can also be hard to measure and not easily repeatable or scalable.

On the flip side, structured learning communities, often called “communities of practice,” generate ongoing expectations of learning and knowledge sharing through more formalized events and programs that are often integrated into the larger company mission. Communities of practice typically bring like-minded peers together, such as those who work in the same department or perform similar functions, or those dedicated to special interest groups or ERGs (i.e., Women in Tech).

Because this method is more active, it is also easier to track the impact of each investment, and to refine and scale the company’s approach over time. But whether structured or unstructured, there are a few non-negotiables if business leaders want to reap maximum benefits from peer-to-peer learning.

 

Effective Peer-to-Peer Learning

Below are three components of effective peer-to-peer learning experiences.

1. An (indispensable) org-wide culture of learning.

Peer-to-peer learning will never get off the ground without the right workplace culture to support its success. According to an article from McKinsey & Company,

“As organizations recognize the need for skilling at scale to keep up with and anticipate the pace of change, the most successful are building learning into the flow of work and expectations of all employees.”

In other words, learning that supports business success shouldn’t be an add-on or nice-to-have, but an essential part of the organizational mission and culture. This is especially true of P2P learning since it relies on the motivation and initiative of employees rather than an outside instructor. Employees aren’t likely to tack on professional development to their calendars if it conflicts with other responsibilities or lacks manager support.

For P2P learning to work, leadership needs to play an active role in supporting a workplace culture where learning as a whole can thrive. Coca-Cola is an example of setting this in motion. In the SHRM article “The Journey to Become a Learning Organization”, Coca-Cola Global VP of Talent & Development Tapswee Chandele explains that when Coca-Cola invested in a substantial culture change in 2017, all fifty leaders in the company collaborated on a vision for a learning-centered company transformation and then modeled learning behaviors for employees.

As Chandele explains:

“The alignment and commitment needed to begin at this level because, while culture change ultimately happens when behaviors are adopted at all levels, to have any chance of efficient success, the tone must be set and reinforced at the top.”

Meaning: leadership needs to deliver the vision, financial resources, and time needed to ensure learning becomes part of the cadence of the workday, rather than something that might or might not get squeezed in once the rest of the budget is accounted for. Then a peer-to-peer learning program is more likely to be successful.

 

2. An organic and people-focused approach.

Similar to when efforts are not sufficiently invested-in, peer-to-peer learning will likely fall flat if it’s a mandate from on high or presented as another “required” function. Leaders should provide top-down support and then let the learning itself happen from the bottom up, with employees taking charge of defining learning goals and outcomes.

This is important since meaningful P2P learning draws on the strengths, interests, and curiosities of current employees, whose experiences feed into a wellspring of practical, in-the-trenches advice and knowledge that others can benefit from. Employees are empowered to take control of their own learning and advocate for work that matters to them. They won’t have that level of agency if learning programs are designed without their input.

Put simply: at its heart, P2P learning is about people, connections, and building stronger networks across departments — a process which hemorrhages value and impact when too much involvement is taken out of the control of employees, including learning that is automated or handed over to technology.

In an article for SHRM, business leader Andrew Kaiser offers this advice: “We’re at the point where the technology can do anything you want it to do. There is greater risk in trying to overdo it with technology than in underdoing the technology.”

Be careful not to assume that if a platform is there, learning will happen, or that because people can connect that connection will be there. Chats, blogs, videos, and discussion boards are fantastic tools for enabling peer collaboration and knowledge sharing, but they won’t go far if people are not inspired to use them in real life.

3. A safe, supportive environment.

Peer-to-peer learning will only be successful if employees feel empowered to share their ideas, experiences, and questions without worrying about criticism or judgment. To make that happen, it’s important for leaders to enable an organizational culture of learning and to model learning by embracing humility, vulnerability, and a growth mindset. Leaders may consider joining their own peer-based learning community, both to set the tone for professional development for the company as a whole and to invest in their own continuous learning.

When leaders pave the way, employees are more likely to follow and feel safe doing so. P2P learning itself feeds into creating a workplace of stronger psychological safety. Because peer-to-peer learning occurs in community, often agnostic of employee rank or supervisory roles, it can reduce the fear of risk-taking and failure. Employees will feel safer to test new ideas, fail, and try again, which will also improves creativity and innovation in the workplace.

As a result, P2P learning helps buttress an organization against unseen challenges by equipping employees with better problem-solving skills and a more agile mindset.

Bonus: employees can use the process of P2P learning to brush up on their own leadership skills and prepare for future career advancement in a supportive and low-risk setting. Employees gain practice in giving and receiving feedback, empathy, and mentoring.

While there are benefits at all levels of a business for designing an organizational learning culture, kickstarting that kind of org-wide transformation is no easy (or inexpensive) feat. Learn more about how The Forem can help your organization create a (budget-friendly) culture of lifelong learning, or see how we do it with a live demo.

 


For more resources on creating a positive workplace culture that supports both employees and business success, check out these other resources from The Forem:

Why Businesses Fear Career Pivots (and Why They Don’t Have To)

The Problem with “High Potentials” Development Programs

The Cash Cost of The Glass Ceiling: How Biases Break the Company Bank