How to Learn With Peers

Last month, I wrote about a missed opportunity for learning that's sadly too common among IT managers. While many believe that a career in management requires a commitment to continuous learning, they often miss out on chances to glean ideas, insights and techniques for leadership from their peers.

For a variety of reasons, they are unable or unwilling to share experiences of success and failure with their colleagues. Posturing and perceptions of competitive pressures interfere with some of the most potentially productive relationships in the workplace.

But how do you, as a manager, foster an environment that encourages and facilitates these exchanges? Below, I have gathered some of my own ideas and have mixed in some from your peers who read Computerworld who have generously shared their experiences.

Have weekly meetings without the boss. Let's be honest -- open discussions of challenges and failures are less likely to take place when the guy who writes everyone's salary review is sitting there with a notepad. For peers to behave as a group, they need time away from the official authority figure. They need to have a sense of mutual trust that can't form in the absence of time alone together.

At these meetings, they should review current situations and use the opportunity to discuss experiences and find solutions. If the meetings become only discussions of experience and theory, then they will be considered less important and ultimately will die from lack of participation.

Institute brown-bag lunches with topic discussions. Although it's important to keep meetings focused on practical matters, a dose of theory is still useful, too. Set aside a few of the meetings to explicitly discuss an article or idea. Select a couple of newspaper or magazine columns or even a Harvard Business School case study and have a go at open conversation. A good discussion of theory can help people make sense of their experiences and environments.

Assign a task force of peers to oversee a change initiative. But be forewarned: In my experience, when a group of colleagues is asked to oversee a change initiative that affects all areas of responsibility, there are three general patterns of group dynamics:

  • They cohere as a group and really learn a great deal about one another and their organization, succeeding magnificently.
  • They cohere as a group and agree to sabotage the effort together, learning little besides how to obstruct change.
  • They wallow around waiting for someone to take the lead, making little progress.

When this strategy works well, it's fantastic. But getting some outside help from a consultant or other facilitator can improve the chances of having a valuable peer-to-peer learning experience.

Disclose your own failures and ask others to disclose theirs. People learn a lot more from failure than they do from success. Most people who have great success don't really know why they succeeded; they just know that they did. They may delude themselves into believing that they've discovered some secret methodology, but they usually can't reproduce the results. But failure is a great teacher if one makes the effort to absorb its lessons. Sharing experiences of failure not only helps to process the lessons but also helps to create an environment of trust in which it's safe to admit that no one is perfect.

Encourage participation in associations. Not all peers are members of the same company. Sharing with peers from the industry is often less threatening than sharing with perceived competitors inside the company. Shop around and learn about which local chapters and national associations -- such as the Project Management Institute or the Society for Information Management -- are available in your area.

In IT, we are generally introverted, so looking for connections outside of work isn't necessarily second nature. Remember that what you get out of an association is often proportional to what you put in, so try out a few and find a place where you can both contribute and learn.

Attend outside courses designed to help peers learn together. There are a few programs designed to encourage this type of learning, ranging in length from a few days to a year or more.

It is possible for IT managers to overcome the natural tendency to isolate themselves from their peers, but it takes time and patience. If you can begin to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities, everyone benefits.

Paul Glen is the director of the Developing Technical Leaders program (www.developingtechnicalleaders.com) and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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