There are times in our lives when we need a little help from others. Learning has become one of them. Long gone are the days of traditional learning programs. Today’s learners seek more practical, hands-on learning experiences. Although classroom-based learning has its place in your learning mix, it’s worth broadening your learners’ horizons by tapping into peer learning.

Real-world Experiences

Peer learning is a powerful tool, as it uses the wealth of real-world experiences that people bring to the group as a catalyst for discussing and practicing skills and knowledge. Cross-skilling is enhanced, as is collaboration and teamwork. Peer learning takes you away from theoretical content and harvests ideas and perspectives from others — stretching and building skills. It is especially useful in two areas: developing power skills like communication and change management, and creating the next generation of successful leaders.

Adapting to Learners’ Needs

When I was the chief learning officer of LinkedIn, my team created a four-week learning program called Conscious Business that focused on building power skills. Each week, the learning cohort began with a video overview of that week’s topic, followed by a discussion question. Participants were then given an assignment to practice the learned skill with one person in their peer group, and then practice the same skill in a real-world situation. At the end of the week, the group joined a live one-hour video session, and a facilitator led the group in a discussion.

There are several notable points about delivering peer learning in this mostly asynchronous format:

  • It allowed people to access the peer learning initiative, even when they had time constraints. It only required a one-hour live session per week.
  • It suited both in-person and remote work set-ups.
  • It allowed people to discuss actual work situations before facing them in the real world, in a safe space, supported by peers. This increased participants’ openness and vulnerability.

Peer Learning for Leaders

This, incidentally, made it ideal for leadership development. Research published in a Harvard Business Review article backs this up, finding that peer learning programs specifically for leaders are successful when they “allow participants to share concerns, show vulnerability, hear different viewpoints, clarify priorities, and make decisions with greater confidence. Members also build camaraderie and form connections that help them feel safe, grounded, and capable in a volatile and uncertain world.”

Vulnerability and Empathy

In one of the LinkedIn Conscious Business sessions on having difficult conversations, one participant, “Juan”, brought an example of a challenging conversation that occurred with one of his teammates, “Mark,” who had missed some deadlines. During the conversation, Mark became defensive and Juan left it feeling awkward and with little progress made. Through sharing this with his peer learning group, he realized that many of them had experienced similar situations and had a variety of advice that he could consider. The group reflected on Juan’s experience, with everyone learning techniques on how to better handle difficult conversations.

Real-world experiences make the peer learning program engaging, timely, and topical. When everyone shares their situation, challenges, and solutions, the group as a whole benefits from the diversity of everything happening in the workplace. Through our peer learning program, we discovered it was one of the most effective ways to broaden viewpoints and build empathy quickly.

Connecting the Disconnected

Creating connections is incredibly important in today’s hybrid workplace. According to Pew Research Center, 65% of hybrid employees feel disconnected from their coworkers now. Worryingly, employee disconnection is one of the biggest causes of voluntary turnover, costing U.S. companies an estimated $406 billion a year. Disconnected employees have higher turnover, lower productivity, lower work quality and more missed days at work.

You can combat this with a peer learning program that gives employees a chance to meet others in your organization and deepen existing connections. Offering both online and offline options for your peer learners will make it more accessible and enable learners to create working relationships at a time and place that suits them.

Taking it a step further, you could expand your peer learning opportunities to include those in your extended enterprise, like contractors and partners. Not only does this give those key stakeholders a baseline level of knowledge in an area of your choosing, but it can also deepen their understanding of your workplace culture.

Getting Started With Peer Learning

Now that you understand the benefits of promoting peer learning to your workforce, it’s time to get started. Putting a clear plan in place for peer learning can be done in five simple steps:

  1. Organize your group: When selecting people to take part in a peer learning program, ensure everyone is of similar seniority levels so their experiences, insights, challenges and questions are relevant to the group.
  2. Choose your facilitator: This person will play a critical role in guiding discussions, synthesizing information and keeping conversations on track. Ideally, you’d invite an external facilitator to join, as they can remain impartial.
  3. Establish psychological safety: If you want people to be open about their challenges and learnings, you need to build their trust. There should be no fear of repercussions outside of the group if someone is sharing something about a challenge they are facing at work (managers and bosses should not participate in the peer learning group). If your peer learning is happening online, ensure everyone is in a comfortable physical space where there’s no risk of conversations being overheard. Positive lessons learned, not negatives, should be the focus to bring outside of the peer learning session.
  4. Encourage real-world scenarios: Real-world challenges and experiences elicit a stronger emotional connection and more engagement from learners. You might begin a session with a talking point like a video or book excerpt, but then move onto sharing examples from everyone’s daily lives and have discussions based on this.
  5. Promote networking and collaboration: To deepen the connection between peers, provide opportunities for people to meet outside of the learning program for continued support. You can additionally suggest that people who share similar interests and career goals pair up for peer discussions. This will help them find common ground early on in discussions, particularly for those who are participating remotely and won’t simply bump into colleagues in the workplace.

Putting Peers in Control

Peer learning is a big step forward if you’re used to more traditional corporate training programs. They promote learners being at the center of the experience with the autonomy to discuss real-world work challenges and learn from others while maintaining psychological safety. It can feel scary to loosen the reins and allow learners to drive the learning happening in your workplace. Yet, progress always comes with a touch of fear, as we don’t always embrace. Take the leap, hold your nerve, and in months and years to come your learners (and senior stakeholders) will thank you.