Employee skill development is one of the many dilemmas small businesses struggle with. Unlike their larger counterparts, they neither have the budget nor resources for a dedicated learning and development function. Some problems need an out of box thinking. Peer to peer learning can come to the rescue of small business owners.
Although there are several knowledge sources, both formal and informal, learning at work needs practical application of knowledge.
Can theoretical training alone help you master the principles of Six Sigma or Project Management?
No, you need to participate in actual implementation of these tools and processes. This is true for most skills.
While online courses, blogs and books introduce new concepts, practical application gives employees the opportunity to experience and excel at those skills.
How can small businesses simulate such a learning environment?
One answer is peer to peer learning. These are not peer groups working in the same organization. I am proposing cross-business peer to peer learning programs.
As a business owner, let’s say I am struggling with improving my digital marketing ROI. Would it help to depute my marketing manager to a friend’s business where they have cracked the digital marketing success formula?
I’d say YES. Of course, the friend can’t be a business rival for this arrangement to happen and work.
Are there existing peer to peer networks?
For owners of a business – Yes. We’ve all heard of BNI – the largest business networking organization with members and chapters in over 74 countries.
The Ascent Foundation, the brainchild of Mr. Harsh Mariwala, Chairman of Marico Ltd., is “a not-for-profit venture, designed as a unique and powerful peer-to-peer platform for ambitious entrepreneurs, who have already embarked on their journey and are raring to go.”
This is a great proof of concept for the effectiveness of peer to peer learning. Business owners meet in groups to network and learn. Strategies are discussed. Success stories are shared.
If cross-organization peer to peer learning works for Entrepreneurs, there is enough merit to introduce a similar program for employees.
How would peer to peer learning work?
Businesses have similar organizational and departmental structures. HR, Sales, Marketing, Design, Operations, Administration, Production, Supply Chain to name a few.
While each business has custom processes and steps to complete each action, there is a lot of overlap irrespective of the line of business.
The steps for planning a promotional campaign would be very similar for an apparel selling website and another that sells designer eyewear.
Similarly, HR processes would have a lot of similarities for two manufacturing firms – one manufacturing furnishing fabrics while another making disposable packaging products.
These businesses do not compete with each other. But, they share similar team structures and business processes.
This overlap and similar processes create a practical learning environment.
Employees from one business can be sent as interns to another business from a different line of business. They can observe, learn and practice skills that make them more efficient and improve quality and productivity.
Afreen runs a small professional services firm. They provide gig workers on demand to clients. If a client needs the services of a content writer while developing a new website, Afreen’s firm will provide a resource for a short duration to the client.
They have service packages ranging from a few hours of work to annual contracts.
To efficiently manage supply and demand of talent, the firm maintains a team of full time employees skilled in services with frequent demand. They also have a roster of skilled gig workers who can be roped in as per requirement.
Business challenge for Afreen
The firm gets more than three quarter of new business from paid advertising. While client referrals make up for the rest, organic leads are few and far between.
One of her business connections – Rajeev, owner of a UI and UX design consulting firm, shared how they have set up a lead generation process for organic inquiries.
Rajeev has an in-house team of marketing executives and content creators. They use blog articles, YouTube videos, email marketing and social networks for content marketing and lead generation.
Rajeev offered to share the best practices with Afreen.
Afreen deputed one of her marketing executives to intern with Rajeev’s firm for a week. She would understand the lead generation strategy, learn the nuances and best practices. Rajeev’s team would give her certain tasks during her internship and give feedback for improvement.
At the end of the internship, the marketing executive would have learned enough to prepare a transition and implementation plan for Afreen’s firm.
This learning could happen otherwise as well – enroll for an online course, read a few blog posts and use trial and error.
Peer to peer learning is not a replacement for these traditional learning processes. It is meant to complement traditional learning and shorten the learning curve.
Try it for yourself
I am sure this definitely sounds worth a try.
Do you have a network of friendly businesses who would be open to participate in a peer to peer learning program? Even if you don’t, give a shout out on one of the business networking sites – LinkedIn or Twitter.
Your checklist for the program:
- Compare your strengths and areas of improvement with the participating business owner
- This will help both of you identify processes where you need help and where you can offer help
- Identify resources to be sent for an internship
- Decide on the duration of the internship. This would depend on the complexity of the processes and skills
- Write down the objectives for the learning program. Be specific. What do you want as an outcome of the internship?
- Monitor the progress after the learning and seek feedback if necessary
As I write and share this peer to peer learning concept with my readers, I must admit I am yet to try it myself. This seems to be a great learning alternative and I’d be happy if some of you could test it and share your feedback and suggestions.
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