Say you’re feeling a bit under the weather. Ache here, pressure there, friends asking « Are you ok? ». What’s the first thing you’ll do? Go to the doctor?
You Google your symptoms, so you can judge if 1) you can cure this beast on your own, or 2) if it’s worth going through the trouble of seeing your doctor. And if you end up going, you’ll proudly share your diagnosis with her before she can even examine you, just to make sure she doesn’t waste her time/screw up (after all, she can’t use Google right in front of you, can she?).
A mutation in authority is taking place. In health, in education, in culture: we now want to play an active role in the way we care for ourselves, in the way we learn and in the way we interact with culture. We don’t want to be told what to do, what to think, to listen quietly because I said so: we want to actively make up our own mind, with the help of others.
This shift is certainly influencing learning – not to be confused with schooling – in all its representations. In this era of collaborative everything, the model of one-teaches-all is rapidly being transformed into a model of all-teach-one, with the incredible individualization of learning it allows. According to the study New Approaches to Lifelong Learning, 60% of Canadian employees state that their main resource for professional development is informal conversations with their peers (keep that water cooler running!). Why limit our learning to a few teachers when the whole world can be our guide?
This is a great opportunity for organizations to become the connectors, but it doesn’t happen on its own! What are some of the key components to keep in mind when setting up your peer-learning events or projects? Here’s a framework based on what we’ve learned from the past four years at generating knowledge-sharing in events, cities, organisations and spaces. We call it Our 5 C’s, or The 5 Core C’s of a Bustling Peer-Learning Community.
First and foremost, participants must be available and dedicated, i.e. committed. It seems that should go without saying, but it doesn’t. We’ve seen our partners sabotage their peer-learning initiatives, simply because they were not aware of the importance of not getting in the way of their participants’ commitment to sharing knowledge with each other. Some examples include: not leaving enough time in an event schedule for peer-learning to occur, or overstimulating their participants with too many things simultaneously, implicitly sending the message that peer-learning is not that important. A festive event where people already know each other (and god forbid, where the wine is free) is also an enemy of Commitment, simply because distractions are numerous and tempting.
It might mean that you dedicate clear timeslots for peer-learning in your schedule. It might mean that you keep your participants “captive” in a dedicated space, far from temptation. It might mean that they have to register to a peer-learning workshop. In all cases, you will have to sent the clear signal that peer-learning is worthwhile, and that a certain time commitment is expected.
While the idea of everyone sharing whatever they are passionate about is enticing, we’ve discovered that curating the topic around which participants will share knowledge is much more efficient. The trick here isn’t to heavily moderate the themes of the conversation, but rather to provide simple, general guidelines.
For instance, in the context of C2 Montréal, a conference on creativity and business where E-180 curates brain dates among attendees, a participant was offering to share her knowledge on How to kickstart your meditation practice. Our client was wondering if we should remove it, as it was not directly connected to the topics of creativity nor business. Meanwhile, a fellow attendee, who happened to be an MBA professor at NYU Stern, booked a brain date with that participant, in her hope to help her students use meditation to enhance their capacity to innovate. Definitely an outcome we couldn’t have predicted. The secret is therefore to set a scope that helps guide participants in the creation of their offers and requests for knowledge, but to keep a light approach to content moderation, because the interests and ingenuity of learning humans always surpass our wildest expectations.
The critical mass necessary for a peer-learning community to take off is proportional to the expectations about the preciseness of the knowledge shared. The more spontaneous the knowledge-sharing, the more elastic the definition of “common interest” becomes. The contrary is also true: the more planned the peer-learning conversation, the higher the expectations in terms of the accuracy of the knowledge shared.
All peer-learning scenarios are not created equal.
Our work taught us many things about the importance of considering the context when designing a peer-learning experience. For instance, we’ve discovered that while physically at a conference, attendees are mostly interested in discovering and learning from new people. However, once they are back in the context of their daily professional lives, they are much more focused on deepening existing relationships. Being aware of such changing motivations will help you to set up the right parameters to your peer-learning community.
ROI is not exclusive to financial investments. In an era where time is our most valuable asset, there’s no such thing as selflessness when it comes to choosing how we spend it. We’ll spare you the cliché of “we now live in an individualistic society”. We simply want to invest our time where it matters the most, and we look guarantees that the soil we plant our seed in is fertile and holds the promise of exponential benefit. It’s not that we are selfish: we simply want our time investment to convert into a meaningful contribution to the lives of others, and to society.
Anything we, as peer-learning curators, can do to help participants invest their precious time in sharing knowledge with the right person (through individualised matchmaking, referrals, vetting, learning plans, etc.) is helping to create a vibrant and active peer-learning community.
 Livingstone, O. (2008). The Research Network for New Approaches to Lifelong Learning. Consulté le 27 septembre 2010, http://nall.oise.utoronto.ca/