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Community Learning Can Be the Best Instructor at Work

For eons, we've learned many of our most important lessons from friends, family and peers. When we're trying to get people to act in a certain way in line with basic do's and don'ts of workplace conduct, lectures and raw information won't be effective.

I listened as an instructor explained how our new software package will work. I’m excited to learn and use this tool; it will ease communication and improve how we do business. There’s a lot to absorb, but I’m confident that eventually it will become routine, even for me.

I followed the presentation closely, watching screen after screen of instruction. The instructor was very good. But certain processes just did not, excuse the pun, compute for me. I got lost in a flood of new operations.

My executive assistant Adrienne Morris sat next to me. At a couple of key places, she took over my laptop and showed me the right commands. What she taught me is what I remember now.

The simple lesson: Complex skills are best learned from others who are learning and dealing with the same problems, challenges and issues. That’s true whether the topic is new software commands or how to change the workplace to make it more civil, inclusive and productive.

Absorbing basic information can be accomplished via a solitary experience. Reading, watching a video or completing an online course will work fine; those are efficient and cost-effective learning methods.

But when you have questions and need to practice a new skill, you need help. Perhaps you disagree with or don’t understand a concept.

Who better to help you translate it to your situation that someone who has already worked through the same questions? In that way, colleagues are often your best tutors. They’re the ones who can give you a different perspective, challenge your assumptions, or explain an issue in a way that is specific to the work you do—something even the most talented instructors often cannot accomplish.

I’m far from the only person who has found it useful to have support beyond an instructor’s lecture. One skilled physics professor at Harvard University has learned that his students learn more from one another than they do from presentations he has meticulously prepared.

So he has them do reading on their own, then uses the class time for small-group discussions. In these groups, a student’s peers can say, as Adrienne did for me, “Here, take a look at this. This is how it works. This is what he means. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Or, what don’t you understand?”

At Harvard, peer teaching is being considered as an important, revolutionary learning method of the future. And this discovery is making news in the world of education.

The only problem is one of labeling. There is nothing revolutionary about this method.

For eons, we’ve learned many of our most important lessons from friends, family and peers. When we’re trying to get people to act in a certain way in line with basic do’s and don’ts of workplace conduct, lectures and raw information won’t be effective.

If you want to change behavior and culture, make sure you provide plenty of opportunity for colleagues and co-workers to talk to each other and work through key questions.

Build your own informal learning community by tapping into the talents of your own bright “peer instructors,” just like Adrienne and my other skilled colleagues teach me every day.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world’s leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.