First among equals

A
modern take on that oldest of concepts -learning from colleagues – is being
worked on by major organisations. Lucie Carrington reports

Ror
the past 15 years or more the training community has poured scorn on what was
for centuries regarded as the best way of getting new recruits up to speed –
sitting next to Nelly. But over the past few years, the idea of learning from
more experienced, but not necessarily more senior colleagues, has gained new
credibility. It has even acquired its own new-age label – peer learning.

Aficionados
of peer learning – admittedly there aren’t many yet- insist it is more than
sitting next to Nelly. The problem with sitting next to Nelly was no one could
guarantee how good Nelly was, how long you had to sit next to her or what you
had learned from her.

However,
Liz McGivern, learning and development director with consultancy Chiumento,
insists that current ideas around peer learning are more an evolution of the
Nelly fixation, not a rejection. "If you look at the scientific community,
you will find that they have always relied on their peers to validate their
research. Look too at much of the structured training initiatives that are
around such as mentoring or shadowing – they all rely on observation."

The
great thing about peer learning as a term seems to be its flexibility – right
down to the point of who we deem to be our peers. The only common ground among
commentators seems to be a belief that businesses thrive when we are prepared
to learn from each other and not clutch our valuable skills and knowledge
selfishly to our chests.

Ruth
Spellman, chief executive of Investors in People UK, thinks of peer learning as
different forms of networking including mentoring, coaching and more formal
networks. "There is nothing new about peer learning and you cannot tie it
into any sort of pseudo science. It’s about flexing your learning opportunities
and using the personal route if you can," she says.

Networking

"I
am a great believer in business networking. It has been around for a long time
but we have not always valued its benefits. Organisations should encourage it.
What’s more, a lot of middle managers expect this sort of learning now and they
get worried about how they are going to keep up-to-date if it is not
there," she adds.

Spellman
says some organisations do some sort of peer learning almost routinely. Lloyds
TSB operates learning programmes internally where people identify who they want
to learn from. "It’s almost as important as what they learn," she says.

Increasingly,
peer learning is being seen as a way of getting senior executives to take their
own development seriously – although many firms would be loath to badge it in
that way. For example, this month, Carlsberg Tetley launches what are effectively
peer learning groups for its top 35 executives [see Case Study left].

Ashridge
Management College runs something similar as a public programme for
organisations to use to develop their senior people. Groups meet every six to
eight weeks, usually over a year, and spend half a day together. "The idea
is that each participant brings forward a current problem," says Gene
Horan, director of the Ashridge Leadership Centre. "It could be
operational or managerial and the team thrashes it out. Ashridge uses its access
to research to dip in too and it seems to be quite an effective process."

With
a view to taking this model a step further, Horan and his colleagues are in the
process of doing some research into how new chief executives learn. "We
are interviewing 50 or 60 and the suggestion is that most want a combination of
academic input with some ‘I’ve been there too’ stuff," Horan says.
"This probably means a mix of high-level mentoring, and a peer group or
network of other chief executives."

Another
view is that current notions of peer learning have grown out of 360 degree
feedback – a learning tool that is much newer than networking or sitting next
to Nelly. It is certainly becoming increasingly popular says Geo Roberts, a
director of people development with coaching specialists the Wilsher Group.
When it comes to changing behaviour, 360 degree feedback is a very powerful
tool at all levels of an organisation, but it is not without its dangers.

"There
is a risk that some people might want to use it to score points off their
colleagues, so you have to train people in how to give and receive feedback.
So, for example, when they give feedback they have to know how to start with
something positive. And when it comes to receiving criticism, they have to when
to take it seriously."

As
a result, 360 feedback is not something firms can impose on staff. "People
have to agree to this sort of exercise. It has to be under their control to the
point of choosing the areas they get feedback on," Roberts says.

Integration

Some
organisations are looking to integrate peer learning into the business culture.
This is certainly how Paul Beesley, career and leadership development
consultant at the Nationwide, views its approach to training and development.

"It
is about learning from experience and that is very much what we seek to do here
– learn from experience as we go along," Beesley says.

There
are some fairly formal structures in place to ensure that happens, such as work
shadowing and buddying, although Beesley points out that staff wouldn’t
necessarily describe them as peer learning.

Another
example would be the regular meetings that project managers in the group
services division hold explicitly to share their experiences. "Something
similar goes on among our technology people and in our branch network,"
Beesley says.

"Essentially
peer learning is about getting value for money and making the most of learning
opportunities wherever they occur. Learning goes on all the time."

It
is a noble sentiment but rather belies the structure surrounding training and
development at the Nationwide. And thank goodness for that, suggests Liz
McGivern, because the real problem with sitting next to Nelly was the lack of
structure which has to be there if peer learning is to gain any kudos with business.

"Unless
you make it more formal – and by that I don’t mean formulaic, but formal in a
sense that people are aware of those opportunities and have a framework and
model to follow – then it won’t happen," McGivern says. "Because if
people are not aware there are learning opportunities, they will simply
overlook them."

Case
study
Brewing up good ideas

Carlsberg-Tetley
is about to launch a peer learning initiative for its top 35 managers,
including the board.

"The
idea came out of workshops we held for this group looking at how we can better
manage performance," says HR director Julian Duxfield. "We spent a
lot of time talking about managing other people’s performance but came to the
conclusion that we should also focus on our own performance as a senior team."

The
mangers will be split into six groups of six managers. Each manager will have a
10 to 15 minute slot to present a success or a problem they want to share.

"The
idea is that if they are presenting their successes, the rest of the group can
share their learning, and if they are presenting a problem, they can help find
solutions," Duxfield says. "They will probably want to present their
successes rather than their problems at first. But we don’t know enough about
the good things going on elsewhere in the company so that’s not a problem. And,
hopefully, if we can manage these groups correctly then after a couple of
sessions they will open up about the problems too.

"We
want our execs to come away with an idea or two, but this is also about helping
them forge more effective links with each other."

There
is universal support for the move, Duxfield says. But they won’t be calling it
peer learning. "That’s a bit trendy for us and we want it to sound like a
Carlsberg-Tetley idea," says Duxfield.

Case
study
Clear view of skilling

If
peer learning is about helping your colleagues with their personal and
professional development, then it’s a perfect description of the work Autoglass
has set in motion to upskill its fitters.

"Sitting
next to Nelly has really negative connotations and it has been a problem at
Autoglass in the past," says Simon Fitzgerald, development and training
manager. "We used to send new fitters out with more experienced guys but
everything depended on how good the experienced fitter was."

But
that all changed last February when the firm opened its National Skill Centre
in Birmingham. Here new fitters receive a two-week induction from experienced
Autoglass fitters who have been trained as trainers.

Alongside
this, Autoglass has introduced the job of training supervisor into all 130 of
its branches to provide further training support. "The idea is that they
should be role models for other fitters but also a person with the technical
expertise who can pass on good practice and the right practice,"
Fitzgerald says.

"It
is a two-pronged attack. They get excellent training when they start, with
excellent training and support within their own branch too," he said.

Conatcts

www.wilshergroup.com

www.chiumento.co.uk

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