Learning At Work – An Evolution

Written by Holtby Turner

Bill Gates reads a lot. Twice a year he spends seven days in his secluded cottage for what he calls a “Think Week.” This is a way to ponder the future of technology and new ideas for Microsoft and his foundation. Completely alone with his own thoughts and a pile of readings, Gates disconnects from the world. Some of Microsoft’s core innovations come out of these Think Weeks. This is all well and good for Gates:  as one of the world’s richest people he can do as he pleases. For the rest of us in real estate, this may be trickier to pull off. Yet we too need to upgrade our learning. As our last insight report A Very Modern Leader pointed out, transformation demands leaders who promote learning environments. Strategy is key here, as the path to distributed learning is by connecting knowledge flows, often across multi-disciplinary facets in an organisation. But how can leaders manifest curiosity and a love of learning? 

Learning To Find

To enhance curiosity, consider your inputs. An increasing trend for CEOs around the world is micro think-tanks, with both domain experts and end-users. These bring fresh thinking and expose blind spots, and highlight that which is valuable and relevant for the executive team and organisation. Regularly changing members is essential. For example, if your project directly targets zillennials, then where are the zillennials feeding through relevant insights to you and your board?

Learning To Process

Processing information through reflection and critical thinking gives our thoughts meaning, and is where we can begin to connect the dots and find opportunities. However, processing what we learn is maximised by sharing.  Whether at learning lunches, a monthly all-hands meeting or a weekly blog-email, as CEO you are not just sharing the thinking behind your vision but actively sharing your growth, thus reinforcing that learning does not show lack, but leadership. 

A genuine love of learning can be felt by employees and has been shown to become contagious. Let’s next look at how it can be seeded to grow, peer to peer.

Peer-To-Peer Learning 

Many organisations in real estate and construction do not have formal structures in place for peer-to-peer learning, despite research showing that asking our colleagues for advice or feedback is the default action for the majority of us. So if formal training and experiential learning are common, why not formalise a peer-to-peer learning system? 

The reasons are surprisingly complex, according Kelly Palmer and David Blake in their book The Expertise Economy. Their research found that managers were apprehensive about establishing formal peer-to-peer learning because of the widely-held belief that external experts are better teachers than those inside the business. Additionally, because peer-to-peer programs often had less time allocated to them, due to workload demands, group learning got spaced out, often over months – which was deemed less beneficial than an intensive training with an external consultant.

Whilst logical and something we feel makes sense, this is wrong. As The Expertise Economy argues, “peer-to-peer learning taps into the expertise that already exists in your organization (sic). Think of all the smart people that you hire and surround yourself with every day, and how much could be gained if peers shared their expertise with each other to learn and build new skills”. It mirrors the way in which we learn. The authors continue: “People gain new skills best in any situation that includes all four stages of what we call the ‘Learning Loop’.” In this loop learners gain knowledge; then apply that knowledge; get feedback on their learnings, and reflect on what has been learned. 

Peer-to-peer learning has no hierarchy or ranking system, and enables a space where staff are more likely to be honest about development needs. Off-site or online training often stifles openness, whereas peer-to-peer learning demands the giving and receiving of honest advice and constructive feedback. It also helps those involved to think carefully about their feedback, putting more time and energy into making it meaningful, relevant and constructive. As those involved are given the opportunity to work through conflicting viewpoints and belief systems, they also practice essential leadership skills by fostering empathy, reflection and creativity. 

Peer To Peer Learning In Practice

Structure. Depending on the size of your organisation, peer-to-peer learning programs can be online or in person; with members paired up for one-on-one sessions; or in groups of 6 or less working together on real work problems, over a set period of time. Perhaps the most common are weekly sessions, followed by a company organised lunch, allowing time for questions and reflection. 

Appoint a facilitator. Although peer-to-peer learning has no hierarchy, appointing  a skilled facilitator helps organise sessions, keeps things on topic, and ensures the atmosphere is friendly, relaxed enough for experimentation and where no question is ever deemed ‘stupid’.  

Focus on real-world situations. Sessions have the best outcomes when they focus on real problems members can get stuck into solving. Taking the theory out also makes it easier to remember what has been learnt.  

Get social. Whether in person or online, regularly meeting to discuss ideas is the only way learning becomes a way of life. Larger companies such as LinkedIn, Zalando or Proctor & Gamble even run wide campaigns that get everyone involved.

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