Peer-to-Peer Learning Evolves

Learning communities becoming more than informal, follow-up to training

By Eric Krell Feb 21, 2013
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Peer-to-peer (P2P) learning communities, or communities of practice, are effective means for participants to share knowledge and learn from others in the group. But the ambiguity inherent in how these groups are set up, used and managed often makes them underappreciated, underused collaborative tools.

That’s changing as the concept—influenced by technological advances—evolves from a way to sustain learning beyond training events or product development projects to encompassing more possibilities for performance support.

Defining Peer-to-Peer Learning

P2P learning communities involve “the sharing of knowledge between two or more individuals ... with little or no expectation of what will be learned or shared,” explained Larry Durham, a director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) people and change practice.

Durham distinguished between structured P2P environments, often called communities of practice (COPs), and unstructured environments, which include the social networks that organizations use to share knowledge internally.

He says that unstructured learning communities are more effective “in a free-form environment in which learning and knowledge sharing is completely self-directed.” Successful structured learning communities “often involve a reasonable expectation for knowledge sharing and include a process by which shared information is validated for its relevance, timeliness and accuracy.”

Lisa Letke, who leads business development initiatives and oversees corporate operations at Washington, D.C.-based The Kaizen Co., said that learning communities also can be used by professional peers who work in the same business function (for example, accounting or information technology), sector (for example, health care) or special interest (for example, supporting women in business).

Texas Instruments’ (TI) engineer-to-engineer (E2E) community launched approximately five years ago and now hosts more than 100,000 participants, nearly all of whom are corporate customers. These P2P community members help each other with TI product issues and their own company’s engineering problems that they use TI products to help address.

P2P: Egypt’s Economic Support Network

Following years of civil unrest that have posed a significant drag on the country’s economy, Egypt was viewed as a country with an intense need for the type of supportive P2P environment that Letke described. Since 2010, the country’s unemployment has soared while its vital tourism industry revenues have greatly dropped.

In addition, consumer spending has declined and social services costs for the country’s population have climbed. As a result, the country’s gross domestic product rate plummeted from 5.1 percent in 2010 to 1.2 percent in 2011, and solutions for spurring economic development were desperately needed.

In March 2011, The Kaizen Company, a services firm specializing in performance improvement and organizational development innovations, responded to a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) request for proposals to help create jobs and support business consultants in Egypt. Kaizen was awarded the project in September 2011 and now provides support to AlRowad, a USAID-funded Internet-supported P2P program designed to help Egyptian service providers assist Egyptian businesses in creating and growing jobs.

The AlRowad program helps qualified Egyptian consultants:

  • Create online professional communities (PCs) in their areas of specialty.
  • Establish themselves as community leaders of the PCs.
  • Grow PCs as profitable services supporting Egyptian businesses.

The PCs may be focused on a functional area (for example, training and development), a specific industry (for example, health care) or a business methodology (for example, Six Sigma). Each PC is owned and operated by the community leader, who maintains it as a business opportunity while ensuring its interactive web portal content remains fresh, its discussions are moderated and members’ questions are answered in a timely fashion. These community leaders also oversee the offering of in-person activities for members, such as seminars, workshops and forums.

In turn, community leaders can leverage the communities to demonstrate their expertise and thought leadership to a wide number of Egyptian professionals and companies, and to support PC members’ efforts to expand their own businesses.

For example, as a community leader of AlRowad’s marketing PC, Noha Fathi, an Egypt-based marketing consultant and founder of The-Marketer.net, lends her ear and insights to emerging business and professionals in need of marketing help. Some of these relationships lead to business opportunities for Fathi, too.

“Through my personal experience, the P2P community helped a lot in getting deals finalized [and in] finding necessary resources,” Fathi said.

Components of Successful Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Learning Communities

A clear objective. “It is critical to be as specific as possible” when defining the community’s objective, Letke said.

A community leader. Like a learning-party host, a successful P2P leader’s activities and actions are pivotal during the period when the community is first formed, Letke noted.

A bond among members. A clear objective serves as a form of social glue. In-person gatherings of professionals who oftentimes hold the same occupation also strengthen connections among members. Kaiser said one of the most effective P2P communities he’s assisted is made up of global law enforcement professionals who forged the group’s bond via an initial in-person conference.

Visible management support. Virtusa, a Massachusetts-based global IT consulting firm, operates a P2P learning community among its employees. One of the keys to success is that the firm’s top executives regularly participate in the community, primarily by posting informal comments in discussion threads that equip them with valuable insights, reported Virtusa Vice President and Global Head of Human Resources, Sundararajan Narayanan.

Recognition. Each year Texas Instruments names an “E2E Community Contributor of the Year,” based on the quantity and quality of a member’s contributions.

She said the discussions also help participants to see that they are not alone in the business challenges they confront and help them to develop effective solutions to these problems.

Egypt’s P2P program also has helped spur job growth. AIRowad, which is made up of approximately 590 business members, has helped to create nearly 1,100 jobs in the country from its inception in September 2011 to December 2012. It also provided training opportunities for more than 800 people by the end of 2012.

Technology Enables, not Ensures, Success

The success of this type of not-for-profit, multiparty P2P learning effort, as well as some notable corporate efforts like that of Texas Instruments, suggests that a new era of organizational P2P learning has dawned.

One of the prime reasons the initial wave of organizational P2P learning communities generally have fallen short of expectations up to now is that structured efforts were undermanaged while many unstructured efforts were overengineered, Letke noted.

This is especially true when P2P communities are hosted on web-based platforms.

When organizational P2P learning initiatives started springing up a few years ago, “a lot of people gravitated to the online aspect,” of implementation, noted Andrew Kaiser, founder and managing director of The Kaizen Company. But focusing too much on technology and too little on people and process doomed many of these earlier efforts, he added. As a result, “many of these people said, ‘Oh, we tried that … and it didn’t work.’ ”

Kaiser said the emphasis on the concept of “if you build [the platform], they will come,” which is the core strategy of most “P2P Learning 1.0” efforts, is wrong and causes people to be reluctant to embrace them.

Technologies that support online interaction (for example, via discussion threads, blog posts, virtual collaboration and similar communications) are enablers for success, but Kaiser and his colleagues tend to mention them well after several other success factors.

“It’s not about the technology,” Kaiser said. “We’re at the point where the technology can do anything you want it to do. There is greater risk in trying to overdo it with technology than in underdoing the technology.”

AlRowad and TI’s E2E COP represent examples of successful structured P2P learning communities. Structured programs “add the most value when ongoing development of an individual or topic is desired,” explained PwC’s Durham. “Learning in this environment is triggered when individuals or topic/discipline-specific development is desired.”

Letke said that organizations with highly effective P2P learning communities also know when to let an inactive or underactive community end.

“Artificially keeping a community alive can be a waste of time,” she added. “Some communities simply won’t take off for one reason or another.”

HR professionals interested in harnessing the potential of P2P 2.0 efforts should apply lessons learned from past failures and ensure that their programs possess the right balance of structure and flexibility.

“The success of P2P learning communities hinges on much more than technology,” Kaiser said. “It’s all about sustained leadership. You need someone to be the driver of the community.”

Eric Krell is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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