If you’re sponsoring or developing a peer learning program, you know that professional communities of practice are a cost-effective way to leverage the collective wisdom and experience of a group of leaders with similar roles, challenges or interest areas. In anticipation of hearing about emerging practices, troubleshooting common challenges and inspiring collaboration, you may be tempted to simply get people together — virtually or in person — and wait for the magic to begin.
However, an intentional design of the structure, facilitation and tools is more likely to yield the results you want. Getting people together is great, but using the following strategies will significantly accelerate peer learning:
- Leverage common threads among participants. Peer learning works best when participants have a lot in common in their roles, functions or issues. What is important to everyone involved? Is there something at stake, a shared challenge, opportunity or goal? Multi-organization peer learning groups are likely to have shared focus areas, like a common client or user base or a community population they serve. For peer communities within an organization, focus on needs or challenges that span departments or center on organizational strategies.
As you identify the common thread that drives the need to connect and learn from one another, consider aligning groups around:
- Position or title.
- Level in the organization.
- Experience level.
- Function, duties, and/or responsibilities.
- Research projects, specific challenges, industry pressures or initiatives.
- Align around the peer learning community’s purpose. Stakeholders — sponsors, program staff, community partners, champions and participants — all have goals and expectations about what participation in a peer learning program will yield. Discover an intersection where a goal can fulfill multiple stakeholder objectives. Verify the value of the purpose with the different groups involved. Based on the needs, you can innovate and experiment with the best facilitation methods, frequency of interaction, online tools, success metrics and length to achieve those objectives.
Peer learning communities can best serve their intended purpose when integrated into a broader technical assistance or professional development strategy. The trends and themes revealed during group discussions feed back into the overall strategy so the alignment of activities calibrates with the context for participants.
A major pitfall occurs when the organizers or sponsors of the peer learning community are unaware of or disconnected from the participants’ current context. For instance, a sponsor might want the facilitator to say, “Tell us how you’re implementing your quality improvement plans,” when in reality, few people in the group have the resources to even get started on a quality plan. Peer learning facilitators help bridge this gap by returning to the common purpose, starting with the current reality, then growing capacity to move toward the desired future.
- Focus on what matters most. Check in with participants individually or in small groups to find out what is top of mind or keeping them up at night. To create a core of engaged, enthusiastic colleagues who help keep discussions dynamic, check in with members by email or phone; ask specific individuals to share their ideas or experiences in an upcoming discussion, or invite members to present or be a case study.
Prepare for your conversation to be as concise and engaging as possible, especially when speaking to busy senior staff whose buy-in can set the tone for the entire organization. Consider an informal advisory committee of active participants to identify their top issues, goals, challenges, opportunities, topics of interest, etc. Participants often appreciate being asked for their guidance. What’s going on in their world? What value could the peer learning group offer them? Share topics you are considering, and ask participants to suggest specific angles or examples they’d like to explore.
- Build trust and camaraderie. Peer learning facilitators, whether internal leaders or external consultants, listen for themes, capture key ideas and resources, maximize time, and create opportunities for participants to bond. Participants can concentrate on sharing and learning, knowing that one person is keeping the conversation on track and moving forward.
Ensure everyone feels safe and has a chance to participate. Psychological safety is an important component in willingness to learn, the sharing of ideas and admitting mistakes. Set aside time for participants to get to know one another before tackling heavy topics. Acknowledge and normalize the discomfort of being vulnerable, and set confidentiality guidelines. During each new peer learning community’s first session, we review a “Keys to Peer Learning Success” document, and ask everyone to agree to the terms of confidentiality, thoughtful discourse and respect toward one another.
Next, be aware of status dynamics — participants might be unwilling to share their challenges if their bosses are in the same peer group, or if an unfamiliar person is in the room. Not only is camaraderie important among participants, but also with program sponsors or senior leaders. For instance, participants told us they wished they could have a casual conversation with the program funder to better understand their goals, concerns and requirements. We asked the sponsor to join an upcoming meeting for a chat with participants. Fireside Chats are now a popular session in which participants and sponsors have an informal, engaging and in-depth question-and-answer session.
- Enhance social learning. Peer learning is social as well as professional. Create opportunities for participants to connect with each other in discussion, during a meal, a walk or a video call. Our participants often tell us they didn’t really “get” peer learning until they had a great small-group discussion face to face or an informal lunchtime meeting with a colleague in another state. We often hear, “Now I feel like I can pick up the phone and call anyone in this room when I need advice.”
- Engage more to learn more. Virtual peer learning groups especially benefit from an experienced facilitator who understands how to engage members who can’t see one another. If the goal for a peer community is to improve and learn together, bringing the discussion to relevant, pressing matters is a great way to engage participants in lively conversation around decision points, distinctions, resources and issues.
You may want to provide a participant case study in advance, or an article or a video link so that participants can be ready to share their ideas in the discussion. Live peer-to-peer mentoring, in which one participant shares a challenge and the group brainstorms ideas, helps build everyone’s understanding. Many other creative facilitation methods fulfill adults’ needs to learn experientially. We frequently have two team facilitators for a peer learning group so we can use interactive formats and still manage to summarize the insights.
- Difference is a point of value. Diverse perspectives can help us transform our thinking. When participants’ perspectives differ, normalize their experience by sharing how groups often come from different perspectives, but can still work together on a common goal. We often ask participants to consider how they can apply parts of another’s experience to their own work, and how that perspective might also be true. Participant check-ins will help you understand and prepare for differing perspectives.
- Capture insights. Make it easy for participants to get the main points from the discussion, whether they attended or not. One of the many benefits of a peer learning group is a record of ideas, strategies, tools and resources shared by members. Prepare summaries that include:
- Background or context for the discussion topic. Why is it a relevant topic?
- A clear presentation of the ideas, challenges, strategies and tools shared. The order in which they came up in conversation may not be the most logical or useful way to organize the ideas in the notes.
- Source material and reference documents, templates, examples and links to online videos, courses or databases.
- Resources that new members can access, which helps maintain continuity and allows current and future participants to get up to speed.
- Make data-driven improvements. Regularly collect quantitative and qualitative data from participants about their experience. Develop processes to capture data such as attendance trends, peer learning participant turnover, participant satisfaction with meeting facilities, and progress on team goals or objectives. Useful qualitative data includes participant feedback about what they valued, how the peer learning information has or will change how they do their jobs, and their ideas for upcoming sessions. This data will not only help program staff learn how and where to improve, it will demonstrate program value to stakeholders and participants.
By considering these points when designing and implementing a peer learning community, a program can flourish as participants collaborate and stakeholders realize their goals.
Kate Goff is a peer learning program manager, and Jessica G. Hartung is the founder and CEO for Integrated Work. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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