Peer coaching is a powerful method for organizational transformation. However, we don’t normally think as such, and therefore, we often overlook one of the most effective tools in a learning professional’s repertoire.

Peer coaching was put to the test, at a large scale and over an extended period of time, at Fujitsu SSL. The company’s business objective was to increase alignment between its solutions group and its systems integration group. This improved alignment was crucial to enabling the business to succeed at a time of rapid change in technology.

Fujitsu’s peer coaching method was developed by Professor Henry Mintzberg at McGill University. Mintzberg is one of the world’s most cited professors of management, and he had become increasingly frustrated with the flaws in management education. So frustrated, he wrote a best-selling book “Managers, Not MBAs.” While the book identified what was wrong with MBA programs, it did not provide a method that organizations could use to improve their managers’ capabilities.

Friends challenged Mintzberg to develop a method that would make a difference in developing managers. He eventually launched a program called the International Master’s Program for Managers (IMPM), and from that program flowed a peer coaching methodology called “CoachingOurselves.” This methodology brings together small groups of leaders to meet for 90 minutes, typically twice a month, to learn from each other. In these learning meetings, as opposed to planning meetings or status meetings, the managers work through prepared topics, such as “Becoming a Visionary Leader,” “Silos and Slabs in Organizations,” “Zen and Management,” or “Sources of Motivation.”

Fujitsu saw that this method would be an excellent way for managers to develop their skills by discussing business topics in the context of their own working situations. Just as importantly, the conversations in those learning meetings could potentially provide a means for building relationships, understanding and trust within the team.

The Business Issue at Fujitsu SSL

Fujitsu SSL provides system integration and IT solutions to large organizations. Two separate units delivered these services: systems integration and solutions. However, the IT world had evolved to the point that systems integration and solutions could no longer exist as distinct service lines. They had to work seamlessly together to meet client needs. To meet the transformed need, Fujitsu SSL needed change within its organization.

Learning professionals know how to deliver training that increases knowledge or develops skill, but how does the learning function go from teaching content to driving an uncomfortable change that spans across the organization?

The answer was a sustained peer coaching program that brought managers together to learn skills relevant to the transition while building relationships and mutual understanding.

The Details of the Approach

The core of the change intervention was to have teams of managers participate in weekly peer coaching sessions. Having the sessions weekly, rather than just twice a month, ramped up the intensity of the intervention to reflect the urgency of the business objectives. Over the course of almost nine months, the learning teams would each complete 30 peer coaching sessions.

The program was delivered by a Tokyo-based consultancy, J-Feel. The facilitation had a light touch. Peer coaching is quite unlike traditional training where an expert relays information. In peer coaching, the facilitator simply ensures the groups are moving through the material at the right pace and checks that nothing is going off track (e.g., conflict between team members).

When you listen in on a peer coaching session, you’ll see it is more akin to problem-solving than sitting in a classroom. The prepared topic presents ideas and questions for the team to grapple with. They draw on their own experiences and share what they think is relevant to the issue. In doing so, they consolidate their own understanding and learn from their peers while simultaneously learning about their peers and their work challenges.

However, Fujitsu SSL wasn’t just promoting learning. The goal was to use this learning methodology to drive organizational change. Did it work?

Assessing the Impact of Peer Coaching

The work at Fujitsu SSL was unusual in its scope and duration. As a result, they were able to do some interesting analysis on the impact of the program. Here are the findings:

  • Departments with higher participation in peer coaching posted higher profits. Some departments put many managers through the peer coaching program, others just a few. A plot of department profits versus participation rate showed a strong correlation between peer coaching and profitability.
  • As overall participation in peer coaching increased so did the organization’s revenue and profits. Over the nine years of the program, participation steadily increased, as well as revenue and profits. The core goals of the organizational transformation were achieved.
  • Managers rated the sessions as valuable. Peer coaching is a novel approach to learning. However, managers at Fujitsu SSL saw the value; they were particularly positive about modules that focused on reflection.
  • Generally, individual managers’ results improved after participating in peer learning. While there were some ups and downs, on average, performance ratings for the individual managers improved after participation.
  • Peer coaching participation is correlated with improvement in various engagement survey measures. As peer coaching participation went up so did scores on various engagement survey measures, particularly teamwork and cross-functional communication.

What are we to glean from this data? Does it lead you to believe peer coaching has no meaningful impact? Of course not. The data can’t prove peer coaching drives organizational success; however, the data certainly suggests that it does. Overall, this collection of findings gave leadership confidence that peer coaching was a wise investment and one that has contributed to getting through difficult organizational transformation.

Recommendations for Practice

Peer coaching is more than just an extra tool that sits in the learning professional’s toolkit. It can be a powerful means for organizational change. Listed below are a few lessons learned from this process:

  • Peer coaching made a difference. The learning intervention was clearly in aid of a larger business purpose; it was not just learning for the sake of learning.
  • It would have been impossible to get a reliable assessment of the impact had the program not been run over a period of several years.
  • It is crucial to gather a variety of measures that highlight whether or not the program has the desired impact. Avoid simple-minded ROI measurements.
  • A training intervention can go well beyond transmitting knowledge or developing skills; it can be a catalyst that enables managers to achieve impressive results for the organization.

Every learning professional should experiment with peer coaching to get a hands-on sense of the change it can deliver.