Peer-to-Peer Learning: An indispensible building block for developing a Learning Organization

In his epic book The Fifth Discipline published in 1990, Peter Senge – a Professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – coined the phrase “Learning Organization”. This idea of an adaptable organization that transforms itself through learning caught the attention and imagination of many academics and management practitioners worldwide.

Peter Senge 1

Peter M. Senge, The art and practice of the learning organization: Currency - The Crown Publishing Group - New York 1990, second edition 2006

You can see why such a concept was attractive then and is arguably equally if not more attractive now. Learning at the level of the individual is a fundamental life process which promotes survival and helps an individual to adapt to their environment. Why shouldn’t this feature be a fundamental characteristic of an organization as well?

Have organizations forgotten how to learn?

Unfortunately we know of too many organizations that refuse to learn or have forgotten how to learn. They are often victims of their past successes and are unable to adapt to new environments as demand for the products and services changes. They get stuck in their own assumptions and only notice too late that the rules of the game have changed.

One of the key questions facing learning organization practitioners has been to understand and codify the key processes which help to keep the learning flame alive – so that organizations embrace the passion for learning as part of their DNA, regardless of whether they are experiencing an upturn or a downturn in the marketplace.

Over the years Peter Senge and many of his colleagues have explored and discovered many different practices. For those interested, I refer you to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook – a book which helped to revolutionize the practice of management over the past two decades and has been an inspiration not only for managers but also for many consultants and trainers worldwide, including yours truly.

Fifth Discipline Field Book

The Fifth Discipline Field Book - strategies and tools for building a Learning Organization, Currency - The Crown Publishing Group - New York 1994

A breakthrough in the development of a learning organization

Today, however, I would like to inform you about what I consider to be another great breakthrough in helping to attain a learning organization – Peer-to-Peer Learning.

On the face of it, Peer-to-Peer Learning is a very simple process:

  • Four people come together along with a learning coach and engage each other in a dialogue on a pre-selected specific organizational topic for 90 minutes.
  • Topics for these dialogues can be taken from a library of pre-prepared modules or they can be custom developed to meet the company’s specific needs.
  • Typically this kind of learning process is scheduled to take place once a month for each employee that is involved in the program.
  • The process is normally designed in such a way that each time an employee joins a Peer-to-Peer learning session, they engage with different individuals from the organization.

This simple practice when expanded to scale out to the entire organization has profound implications for the organization’s ability to learn. For one client in Europe with ca. 3,000 employees for instance, Ensemble Enabler has been able to roll out a Peer-to-Peer Learning program that has involved almost 2/3rds of the company’s employees.

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How does these dialogues support organizational learning?

First: Establishing learning as a process throughout the organization

Peer-to-Peer Learning anchors the learning process deep into the organization. On a regular basis, employees from all over the organization are involved in learning. This is also not a solitary effort. Employees learn together. This learning process spills over into other activities and projects throughout the organization.

Second: Networking

Networking throughout the organization is enhanced. Through a software based scheduling system, Peer-to-Peer Learning occurs in a self-organized way. This means that employees sign up for Peer-to-Peer sessions that are convenient to them. When they sign up for a session, they don’t know ahead of time who will show up.

Example:  If an employee does 12 Peer-to-Peer sessions a year with 3 other participants in each session, there is a possibility that they will have 36 different learning partners throughout the year.

At Ensemble Enabler clients who have used this approach, participants have often commented that getting to know people (some from other departments or functions) whom they had seen but not really had an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with, was one of the most rewarding parts of the Peer-to-Peer Learning process. We also know from research that strong networks in organizations are essential for sharing knowledge and enhancing collaboration.

Third: Organizational feedback loops

Thirdly, Peer-to-Peer Learning provides useful feedback loops to the organization. At the end of each Peer-to-Peer Learning session, participants are asked as a group to reflect on what they have just learned and provide suggestions on what the organization could do to improve given the topic just discussed.

For instance, one Peer-to-Peer Learning topic at are recent client was “Continuous Improvement”. Participants at the end of the session were asked how Continuous Improvement could be supported and/or enhanced. During the course of six weeks that this module ran, participants at these sessions documented 250 improvement suggestions for the organization.

These included improvements in manufacturing processes, management practices, project management and office efficiency. These types of feedback loops allow knowledge and insight to overcome internal organizational barriers that sometimes prevent such improvement suggestions from being voiced and heard.

In short, Peer-to-Peer Learning provides a fundamental building block for constructing a learning organization!

Ensemble Enabler partners with organizations to transform their work environments.

Through the use of innovative practices in the context of our four thematic focal points - Organizational Learning, Network Leadership, Fluid Collaboration and Transparent Communication - new sources of energy are released throughout an organization and the internal information flows enhanced.  

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