One of the most critical questions facing learning leaders today is: How do we develop workers for jobs where the knowledge, competencies and relationships needed change almost constantly? Leaders know that the typical approaches to learning must shift in order to keep pace with the demands of a new work environment. The focus today needs to be on accelerating the rate at which employees gain competency.
Senior leaders from large, dispersed organizations say they need a more connection-based learning model that allows people to:
- Engage in self-directed learning.
- Increase their speed to competency.
- Create adaptable and flexible development networks.
- Learn in collaborative ways across functions, levels and geography.
- Share and generate new ideas.
What learning leaders realize they need now are peer-to-peer mentoring networks.
The Power of Peers
In order to explore the opportunities in a connection-based learning model, learning leaders must radically change their assumptions about who can and should advise others in learning relationships focused on building competencies.
Case in point, multinational technology firm Dell surveyed its more than 5,000 mentoring program participants in 2010 and found that 46 percent of self-directed learning relationships occurred between people at the same job level. These mentoring participants chose to learn from their peers almost half the time. For the remaining relationships, 19 percent were reverse mentoring, where a person in a higher organizational position looks for an adviser who is lower in the organization, and 35 percent of the connections were traditional in the sense that someone lower in the organizational hierarchy sought out a more senior adviser.
The shift from a traditional learning connection to a more peer-driven relationship highlights a growing trend. More and more people today seek insight and information from their direct colleagues, rather than from a supervisor or senior leader.
Why do people seek out their peers when learning new skills and building critical competencies? What benefits can be had from peer-to-peer mentoring networks? How can learning leaders support these networks so that knowledge sharing can flourish?
Several reasons exist for the recent growth in peer-to-peer learning. Understanding these factors can help leaders position this new learning opportunity in the proper way.
At the beginning of the Information Age, the primary focus in learning was on gathering and making content available. Organizations worked to codify their knowledge, push their data out into knowledge repositories and then make that data available to anyone seeking it. To see the eventual result of this shift, simply do a Google search for “knowledge management” and watch as roughly 102 million results come flying onto the computer screen in mere seconds.
However, this type of knowledge gathering has outlived its usefulness when looked at in terms of building competency among the workforce. No longer is person-to-content the main focus of people’s learning needs. In today’s knowledge economy, workers need less generalized content and more relevant understanding of how to apply content and knowledge back on the job in the proper context.
With information overload a reality in many people’s lives, how can they know which piece of data is best suited for their circumstances? More and more people are turning to microlearning, which deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities, and situational mentoring to address this need. Engaging with one or more peers in microlearning relationships offers an ideal way to shift from too much content to the quick application of targeted knowledge in the right context. Learners get a true knowledge or skill need met by being able to apply the right information in the proper context of their jobs.
Organizational peers may work in different functions, but they have similar responsibilities related to their job levels. These peers understand the pressures, realities, limitations and expectations associated with a certain level of responsibility in the company. Because of this, they make ideal advisers for people in similar roles.
Peers can bring new insights to learning relationships that someone at a different organizational level may not have. They also can provide the right context for each other because they experience comparable situations. This comes into play particularly when making plans to meet organizational goals.
All employees need to plan for the future to some degree in order to do their jobs well. According to Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational psychologist Elliott Jaques’ time-span of discretion theory, the higher up in the organizational hierarchy people rise, the more responsibility they have and, consequently, the longer the time span from which they need to operate. For example, senior leaders typically plan three to five years ahead; middle managers look into the future roughly one to two years ahead; supervisors have a future vision that sees about nine months ahead; and individual contributors look ahead roughly one month.
Given these realities, a learning relationship with someone at a different level could produce confusion, misunderstandings and frustration. Peers who hold the same level of organizational responsibility plan into the future to the same degree. As a result, engaging with people at the peer level allows conversations, ideas and plans to fit appropriately with the learners’ needs. These peers can speak in terms and ideas that each understands. This connection allows productive conversations and planning to occur in peer learning relationships because advisers and learners approach issues from the same position and with a related mindset.
Conversely, cross-functional peers may seek out one another to gain a fresh perspective on an issue. These colleagues may encounter similar problems when trying to execute plans, but given their functional expertise, they may have unique ways of approaching the situation.
For example, a supervisor in customer service may be able to share new ideas on client interactions with a supervisor in marketing. These colleagues have the same level of authority in the organization, so they experience similar pressures and expectations in their roles. However, because their expertise areas differ, cross-functional peers can help one another innovate, brainstorm, generate ideas and gain unique perspectives. This is particularly beneficial when trying to reach organizational goals.
Dell found that 56 percent of mentoring relationships in its organization were cross-functional. Additionally, 29 percent of its engagements took place across geographies in its global enterprise mentoring program.
These numbers may astound some learning leaders. The results highlight the fact that people seek out their peers for knowledge and support and to build critical competencies — regardless of what department they are in or location they operate from. This increase in openness and diversity actually benefits organizations because it helps to create a broader view and greater understanding throughout the enterprise.
One last area where peers are best suited is as sources of social support. Because of their similar situations, peers can encourage one another in a way that no one else can.
With all the pressures workers face these days, it can sometimes feel like no one cares about them as people. Worries about layoffs and concerns about being relevant in the ever-shifting workplace may loom over their heads as well.
Organizations that provide ways for peers to connect and share in learning relationships can help them break free of feeling isolated and unappreciated. Engaged workers are much more likely to contribute to the company and be of greater value than unengaged employees.
In enterprise mentoring systems provider Triple Creek’s 2007 survey on e-mentoring and employee engagement, 90 percent of respondents said their company’s mentoring program helped them develop a positive relationship with another individual in the company. This personal connection can be quite powerful, particularly when peers who feel the same pressures around deadlines, expectations and organizational goals can lean on one another and share ideas about how to overcome perceived barriers.
Training and development is moving away from time-constrained methods of surveying employees, analyzing for skill gaps, spending several months creating a learning intervention to address a single or limited few gaps, piloting the program over the course of six to nine months to evaluate applicability, revising as needed, and then finally launching to the employees who have been struggling with their knowledge needs for roughly 18 months or more. Unfortunately, by the time these programs launch, employees’ learning needs have typically changed.
That slow, cumbersome process no longer fits workers’ needs for swift insight that they can readily apply to their jobs. Nor does that dated method serve the organization. What organizations and employees alike need today is a way for people to immediately connect with knowledge sources that can provide information and context that is relevant and applicable to their jobs.
A shift toward self-directed peer-to-peer mentoring networks can help organizations address their pressing problems related to building knowledge, competencies and relationships in the rapidly changing work environment. A networked mentoring approach uses multiple modes of learning to address these needs, namely through traditional one-to-one mentoring, group mentoring and situational mentoring.
Triple Creek’s 2010 survey on the use of group mentoring showed that 72 percent of participants found their peers to be good or excellent sources of learning in the group. Additionally, 96 percent reported that they could apply the information gained from the group mentoring experience directly to their role in the organization. This has an impact on organizations where knowledge needs are constantly changing.
Peer-to-peer learning in mentoring networks benefits both the individuals participating as well as the organization. Triple Creek’s 2009 survey looked at how an enterprise mentoring system affected productivity and effectiveness. Participants reported seeing improvement in expanding their networks, interpersonal effectiveness and confidence in role — just to name the top three. For organizations, the top three effects they saw from mentoring relationships were transferring valuable knowledge, providing or receiving encouragement and understanding a different point of view.
These are not small effects. When looked at in terms of what learning leaders can expect from mentoring, they can bank on valuable knowledge being shared among peers, anticipate that cross-functional participants will come away from their relationships with a new appreciation and understanding of another point of view, and count on participants’ learning networks to expand.
Organizations that operate on the assumption that only experts should teach or advise others are missing the power of peer learning to speed their employees to competency. Providing ways for peers to connect in learning relationships across the enterprise can help them build support networks and increase the flow of knowledge throughout the organization. This, in turn, can create an organization that runs well and where different departments know what the others are doing and work together to meet strategic goals.
To build an effective peer mentoring network, learning leaders must keep two words in mind: agile and flexible. An open and self-directed process for making learning connections should be employed. This will allow the networks to grow without restriction and in the ways that best suit the participants, helping to increase their speed to competency.
Learning programs should no longer be small, isolated initiatives that only serve a handful of people. Limited opportunities do more harm than good. People who confront the same organizational pressures and expectations because of their roles and job levels can profoundly benefit from relationships with their peers in other functions and locations.
Leveraging the power of peer-to-peer learning can help create better contextual understanding for learners; bring them advice from people who understand their position in the organizational hierarchy; allow them to see another point of view that is relevant to their work; and help create peer networks for ongoing support as people strive to build similar competencies and skill sets.
An agile and flexible solution is needed to address the ever-changing learning needs of today’s workforce. By providing opportunities for peers to connect and learn from one another, organizations can help spread critical knowledge among those most suited to benefit from it and at the quick pace needed in this knowledge economy.
Randy Emelo is president and CEO of enterprise mentoring systems provider Triple Creek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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