How Google Uses Peer Learning

Smart leaders know they can gather heaps of valuable information about their companies if they look in the right places. But they often overlook one source right at their fingertips: people who already work for the company. Sourcing information from associates—or democratizing learning—requires a shift in focus, but as Sarah Kessler at Fast Company found out, Google has been implementing this for years, with great effect.

Employees taught by employees

The search engine giant invited Sarah to witness a special day on Google’s calendar called “Googler to Googler.” The event brings together employees from across different Google departments to learn from each other. “Teachers” fill the role that a normal HR manager would, teaching classes on everything from management, orientation, and public speaking to kickboxing, parenting and mindfulness.

Volunteer employees design and build these classes, drawing on their expertise and hobbies, and Google has seen real success from this practice. By the end of 2013, Google had 2,000 regular employees volunteer to teach their peers. Those 2,000 employees ended up accounting for 55% of all of Google’s training classes. That’s big a commitment to democratized learning, and Google sees it as a way to preserve company culture.

Democratized learning fosters a culture of learning

Karen May, Google’s head of people operations, says that allowing employees to teach “makes learning part of the way employees work together, rather than something HR is making them do.” Building a culture of learning in this way not only encourages deeper discussion and more employee engagement; it also avoids the reasons stale and outdated content fails so often. Karen says that putting employees into that teaching more makes them “light up,”

They sort of look at you funny and think for a minute, and then their eyes just light up. And they tell you about something they’re passionate about. And something they feel confident about enough to teach someone else.

Can you imagine employee productivity if even half of your team “lit up” when they came into work? Peer learning resonates with employees in a unique way. As Google measured the effectiveness of their peer learning initiative, they found that “performance of teachers outside of the HR department was consistent with teachers who facilitate employee learning education as their primary job.”

Google employs somewhere near 37,000 people. How does a company of that size facilitate this type of peer learning? Karen says, “Put the support structures in place to make it happen and then get out of the way.”

Looking to make the jump into peer learning? Our Definitive Guide to Democratized Learning provides the process and steps you need to turn your employees into teachers. Download it here.

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