Peer interactions give a huge boost to training outcomes
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Peer interactions give a huge boost to training outcomes

It’s well known that a lot of learning happens through peer interaction. An experienced worker shows a newbie the ropes. An employee bounces an idea off a colleague. People get together after a training session to talk about how they can apply what they’ve learned.

It turns out that these free-flowing, often spontaneous exchanges are one of the most powerful elements in a learning culture.

In fact, new research suggests that creating opportunities for regular, positive face-to-face interactions among coworkers can greatly improve training outcomes and increase job performance and productivity by up to 30%.

The research
A study published by the International Mind, Brain and Education Society looked at peer interactions in two telemarketing centers. (Researchers selected call centers on the assumption that sales performance depends heavily on the success of the training program.)

Both call centers provided the same service and had similar organizational structures. Yet sales in one call center were 30% higher than at the other.

Why the big discrepancy?

Researchers found that the key difference between the two was collective activity – that is, the amount of positive social interaction among employees.

This activity was also 30% higher at the high-performing call center. No other factor – not even employee skill levels – had such a powerful impact on results.

Next, the researchers looked to see whether increasing the opportunities for interaction would improve results at the underperforming center.

They instituted a mandatory break for a randomly selected group of employees, and encouraged these workers to interact during the break.

After just a week of these communal breaks, the sales performance of this group increased 13%.

More evidence
This study was done in Japan, where one might expect cultural norms around collective activity to be different than in North America. But research conducted in the United States by MIT echoes these results.

In that study, researchers revised a call center’s break schedule so that team members all took their breaks at the same time – which gave people more opportunities to interact with their colleagues.

The increase in performance was so significant that the company being studied decided to implement the practice across all of their locations. The company anticipated a $15 million boost in annual sales as a result.

Quantity and quality matter
The MIT study also examined the quality of these interactions. The researchers found that three specific elements – energy, engagement and exploration – were critical to high performance and development.

Based on these three characteristics, the study offered several suggestions on how to structure peer communication to produce the best results:

  1. Co-workers should listen and contribute equally. No single person should dominate the conversation, and all team members are expected to respond and contribute.
  2. They should regularly connect with each other and not just with the trainer or manager.
  3. Interactions should continue beyond the break. Side conversations within the organization or team should be encouraged.
  4. From time to time, individuals should explore conversations with people outside their department and bring new information back to the group.

Implications
It’s easy to see how social interactions could make teams work better. What’s especially interesting about the call center examples is that telemarketing is generally regarded as a personal skill independent of teamwork.

The research demonstrates that coworker interactions and peer-to-peer learning can dramatically affect performance on individual as well as team tasks – making these techniques useful for many kinds of training.

The broader implication is that peer-to-peer interactions are a powerful accelerator of training. If you want to get better performance out of your people, create more opportunities for them to put their heads together – both as part of formal training programs and in more informal settings.

Training is, after all, a social act. When employees regularly communicate, they create learning opportunities and social bonds that aid transfer and lead to behavior change.

Sources
Yano, K. (2013). The science of human interaction and teaching. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(1), 19-29.
Pentland, A. (2012). The new science of building great teams. Harvard Business Review, 90(4), 60-69. 2 Vol.

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