Shaping success through peer learning

With the world of work undergoing rapid change, learning and soft skill development still benefits from in person, group experiences

Shane O’Sullivan, chief executive, Irish Management Institute

In a world awash with digital communications, the importance of face-to-face peer learning has never been more important, according to IMI chief executive Shane O’Sullivan.

“The power of direct human interaction cannot be replicated through digital means alone,” says O’Sullivan. “When leaders from different sectors come together in face-to-face interactions, they create a dynamic environment for exchanging ideas, experiences and strategies. This collaborative atmosphere sparks innovative thinking that often transcends conventional boundaries. Peer learning is a cornerstone of business excellence.”

IMI research conducted earlier this year found leaders at all levels are increasingly time-poor, and only short bursts of learning delivered flexibly and by world-class faculty can justify taking time away from day-to-day responsibilities. Coaching needs and time for reflection were also found to be paramount, with younger entrants to the workforce often requiring more support and coaching than previous generations.

However, the biggest takeaway coming out the research was the demand from leaders and executives to learn alongside peers of a similar stature, primarily in-person, who they can share experiences and build new business relationships with.

Along with facilitating relationship building, networking, and creating a shared learning experience, in-person peer learning allows participants to engage in real-time discussions and receive immediate feedback from peers and faculty. In an increasingly complex world where change is the only constant, O’Sullivan sees peer learning as a dynamic catalyst that propels organisations forward.

“When leaders convene to build networks through peer learning, they lay the groundwork for collaboration that expands their collective knowledge,” says O’Sullivan.

“This shared learning experience provides insights into new avenues for growth. It’s not just about expanding individual skill sets; it’s about collectively expanding the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Building networks through peer learning often directly translates into business growth, according to O’Sullivan.

“IMI were delighted to be the academic partner for this year’s Best Managed Companies Symposium event, where leaders from various industries exchanged insights, triggering new ideas. These ideas often lead to the development of innovative products and services, the identification of unexplored markets, or the enhancement of existing processes. This on-site collaboration is deeply important to us, because it helps foster a culture of growth that extends beyond individual organisations. Creating real value for our diverse cohorts of participants is paramount.”

While the proliferation of digital technologies and remote ways of working have allowed organisations to be more agile and flexible on one hand, Slack’s research consortium Future Forum found that 42% of workers feel working from home gave them fewer chances to learn from colleagues. A recent Growth Engineering report found 20% of all learning comes from simply observing and interacting with colleagues in-person, although research from London Business School suggests that figure could be even higher.

O’Sullivan notes that multiple IMI clients and members — in both focus groups and informal conversations — have echoed similar concerns, with the development of so-called “soft skills” being a particular area of concern.

“Developing emotional intelligence, trust, empathy, creating a sense of ownership and belonging, and going from being an individual contributor to a people manager — with the requisite communication skills to influence below and influence above — have all been cited as skills challenges made more complicated by remote conditions, and which requires a learning provider that facilitates face-to-face peer learning,” says O’Sullivan.

It’s not about forcing people back to the office and trying to turn back the clock, he adds. “It’s understanding the world of work is undergoing a period of rapid change, and thus finding solutions to overcome the challenges resulting from this change. Otherwise we can’t reap the benefits.”

O’Sullivan sees continuous learning and upskilling initiatives, in-person or otherwise, as vital. It’s a sentiment echoed by the OECD, who recently raised urgent concerns about the readiness of Irish adults to adapt to changes in the world of work.

Despite a high proportion of adults holding third-level degrees, this year’s Skills Strategy Report indicated that a lack of essential upskilling and participation in lifelong learning places many Irish workers at risk of falling behind, overall emphasising the urgent need for increased investment in lifelong learning initiatives and programmes.

“Continuous learning is a cornerstone of sustainable growth,” says O’Sullivan. “When organisations invest in the growth of their workforce, they’re investing in their future. Not only through empowering employees with the skills and knowledge required to navigate the complexities of today’s business landscape, but these learned insights drive innovation, refine strategies, and ultimately contribute to business expansion.”

Of particular concern to both O’Sullivan and the OECD is the vulnerability of Irish workers to automation, although as far back as 2017 McKinsey was predicting at least 375 million workers worldwide may have to switch jobs by 2030 due to automation rendering certain skills obsolete.

However, O’Sullivan emphasises that digital competitiveness goes far beyond technological prowess, and would like to see this distinction conveyed better.

“Being a digital leader is not about mastering complex code,” he says. “It’s about embracing a strategic mindset that leverages digital technologies to propel your organisation forward, infusing your organisation’s strategy with a digital lens. This means selecting the right technologies to integrate, effectively conveying the advantages of these technologies to both employees and customers, and pinpointing areas that hold promise for growth while acknowledging challenges and avoiding disruption – or at least, gaining from disruption.”

O’Sullivan believes peer learning will continue to play a pivotal role as best managed companies recognise the value of shared experiences against a backdrop of change, complexity and digital connectivity.

“In-person interaction will remain essential for building networks that breed innovation,” he says. “As business continue to expand, peer learning will drive a culture of constant change and adaption. Building networks and expanding knowledge are not just strategies; they’re pathways to unlocking the full potential of your organisation.”

Ben Davern, research and insights, Irish Management Institute