Peer Learning: An Essential Ingredient of Executive Education

        - Stephen Burnett, Associate Dean of Executive Education at the Kellogg School of Management where he is also a Professor of Strategic Management.

        As a participant in an executive education program at the Kellogg School, you are likely to learn as much from your peers as you are from the faculty. This is what we call peer learning, a central element of the Kellogg School Executive Programs.

        Peer learning does not happen just because a group of people are taking a class together. In fact, it is a carefully orchestrated process, a joint endeavor with five essential ingredients: diverse commonality, time, process, preparation, and follow-up.

        Diverse Commonality. This is a fancy way of saying that an ideal executive education class is composed of people from a highly diverse set of organizations, industries, and cultures who are facing a common set of opportunities and challenges. It is difficult to learn from someone if their priority issue is merger integration while you are struggling with how to grow organically through more innovative product design. Yes, both are avenues of growth, but they are so different that little common ground is available on which to base a meaningful exchange of ideas.

        It is also difficult to learn from someone who thinks just like you. There is a tendency for managers to value knowledge highly specific to their industries, the type of information that you might obtain in an industry association meeting. While rubbing elbows with your competitors is always fascinating, the downside is the lack of industry diversity that enables deep peer learning. Competitors within the same industry are likely to share common issues, but they may see the resolution to those issues in the same way as well.

        In forming classes for Kellogg School executive programs, we put a premium on the goal of diverse commonality. For example, our most recent Advanced Executive Program (AEP) class was composed of general managers and senior functional managers with the potential for senior general management positions. They came to us from 15 different industries and 12 different nations. They were sponsored by both small and large government agencies, publicly- and privately- held corporations, and non-profit organizations. Many of the issues that they faced in their jobs were strikingly similar, but they approached them from radically different perspectives. This AEP class was one in which peer learning thrived.

        Time and Process. If the class composition yields the potential for peer learning, it will not occur unless you add time and process to the formula. At the Kellogg School, we are very fortunate to have our own residential facility specifically designed and managed to support our executive programs. Central to the experience of attending a program at the Allen Center is the time that you spend with your colleagues outside of class in small group activities, at meals, at coffee breaks, exercising, even watching TV together or playing billiards at the end of the day.  Without the time and opportunity to interact with your fellow participants, peer learning simply cannot happen.

        In addition to informal occasions, each of our executive programs includes carefully structured activities in support of peer learning. Classroom discussion and small group work on cases, exercises, and simulations are well-known and highly effective opportunities for peer learning. At Kellogg, we strive for more. For example, some of our participants keep action planning journals, noting for each class session ideas they will want to consider putting into practice when they return to their organizations. Periodically throughout the program, participants meet in small groups to share their “ideas for action” so they can learn how their colleagues from other industry types and other cultures might address these issues.

        Advance Preparation. Our fourth ingredient for peer learning is careful preparation by course participants before they arrive at the Allen Center. As has been noted in a previous newsletter , we strongly encourage our executive program participants to identify their motivations for attending the program as well as the issues in their organizations and careers that they want to address. Knowing what you want out of the program allows you to ask the right questions both in class and out of class, of the faculty, and of your classmates.

        Program Follow-up. Finally, there is no reason that peer learning must end when the program adjourns. Indeed, you could easily argue the most powerful opportunity to learn from your classmates occurs when you start implementing your new ideas. This is when you are eager for advice, especially from colleagues that understand what you are trying to do and why. At Kellogg we provide social media tools such as blogs, course websites, and discussion groups that enable participants to interact on an ongoing basis with each other and with the faculty.

        At Kellogg we emphasize that executive education is a process, not an event. Peer learning is central to ensuring that an executive education program yields benefits far beyond what is learned over the course of a few days at the Allen Center. Our best efforts can never be an adequate substitute for program participants who are dedicated to applying what they have learned and continuing to learn from us and each other.
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