Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Gabriel Harp. Gabe leads the cross-functional Digital Products & Software Services team at the MIT Press and serves on the Society for Scholarly Publishing Board of Directors. Before joining the MIT Press he spent many years with Cell Press / Elsevier.

Many of us are surrounded – at least virtually – by an invaluable learning resource: our colleagues.

Industry organizations such as the Society for Scholarly Publishing, AUPresses, and the Council of Science Editors all prioritize professional development. Many companies in scholarly communications and beyond do as well, offering both in-house programs and external training opportunities. And some employers, including my own, have increased their investment in virtual-learning tools since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

overhead view on young business people around wooden desk

To complement these offerings I’d like to share here another model, one that is lightweight and versatile enough that just about any organization could adopt it. When we developed the concept at Cell Press during my time there, we called it “Master Classes.” The premise was simple: everybody at the company had a skill that they could share with others. The goal was equally simple: that every attendee would leave a session having learned at least one skill that they could put to use in their daily work. More broadly, the program aimed to increase the overall skill base of the organization.

Although these Master Classes tended to focus on technical skills – HTML, Excel, Outlook – they also included more conceptual topics such as the principles of image composition and using diplomacy in written communications.

Countless resources exist to cover these very topics, but there is something about learning from somebody you know, in a context that you know, that helps make the lessons stick. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of looking over somebody’s shoulder – physically or virtually – and saying, “Hey, how did you do that?!” Managers and teams often provide such moments of impromptu learning, but this model seeks to extend that effect across an entire organization. Moreover, with this approach we provide a low-pressure, informal setting that helps people become more comfortable with the skill of preparing and giving presentations.

At the MIT Press we’ve created a similar program, which we call the Skill Exchange. The basic approach looks like this:

  • We aim for 4-6 sessions/year
  • Each is 45 minutes, a combination of presenting and Q&A
  • We record the sessions and post the recordings, as well as any related materials, on our internal wiki
  • Sessions are informal, open to all, and entirely voluntary

This format (as well as the framing of an Exchange, rather than a Master Class) creates space for attendees to ask questions and make suggestions of their own; sometimes, the dialog in a session will give rise to a future session. In the 18 months since inception, colleagues have presented on running effective meetings, search engine optimization, Airtable (a personal favorite), and more. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we realized that we could use the Skill Exchange program to support one another, and we held a pandemic series on Slack, Zoom, and virtual-working best practices (which was the basis for my first Scholarly Kitchen piece).

My theory is that there is an element of local knowledge at work here. Despite the abundance of other resources, people enjoy learning about skills and tools in the context of their own working environments. A demonstration of Excel that uses data from an internal system is more relatable than one that uses a generic example. And yet, those other resources are invaluable too, especially given the diversity of learning styles that exist. That is why I view this model as complementary, and I encourage all of us to think about the many different ways in which we can foster learning and professional development within and across our organizations.

Another benefit is the minimal overhead associated with a program such as this. It should require no additional cost beyond the time of the individual or small group who steer the program (about 2-3 hours per month, depending on session frequency): to recruit presenters and solicit ideas, to schedule and host the sessions, and to gather feedback about how to improve the program. I have found that perhaps the biggest challenge is convincing colleagues that they do have something worth sharing, and then supporting them in overcoming any potential hesitance about presenting. And when they do so, we see colleagues from all departments coming together in a shared space to learn. This builds camaraderie, connection, and culture – which is all the more important as we transition toward a paradigm of distributed workforces.

Is your organization taking a similar approach? Please share!

On a final note, I would like to acknowledge former MIT Press colleague Scott DeLugan for first kicking off the idea of the Skill Exchange.

 

 

Gabe Harp

Gabe Harp leads the Digital Products & Software Services team at the MIT Press, where he is neck-deep in digital books, journals, open access, and exploring new ways of working. Before joining the MIT Press he spent many years with Cell Press / Elsevier. He will be joining the Society for Scholarly Publishing Board of Directors as of the 2020-2021 term.

Discussion

7 Thoughts on "Guest Post — A Model for Peer-to-Peer Workplace Learning"

Thanks, Gabe, excellent article and initiative, at JMIR Publications we also have something similar, we named it the JMIR Academy, it includes a regular lunch and learn series but also with a book-club style aspect, sharing interesting ideas and articles/posts, commenting on them. Dedicated Slack channels seem to work well.

I cannot help but to say that this is indeed a wonderful initiative! Very well done to those who initiated it because in a time like this many of us, including myself, are so uncertain about where we are and where we are going. So, thank you for opening a doorway for shared knowledge awaiting us.

Love this idea, Gabe! We’re currently planning for Year 2 of a similar program, though we do it as a single day of sessions with 4 tracks: technology hacks, industry dynamics, wellness, and people management. We occasionally bring in an outside presenter (which is now even easier in a virtual setting), but I agree that there’s something special about learning from a colleague.

This is a wonderful initiative, and so win-win. This fosters a sense of sharing and collaboration, and reminds us all that we have unique skillsets to share and that we can learn from each other. Thanks!

I worked with Gabe at Cell Press and really enjoyed the Master Class experience there, and this evolution of the idea is clever – framing it as more collaborative and less of a teacher/student relationship makes a lot of sense. It’s always fun to sit down with a somewhat random group of people and learn something that you didn’t know before. I also completely agree that getting people to think that they have something worth sharing is a big hurdle, but it’s empowering for everyone in an organization (from the bottom to the top) to be seen as an expert at something.

Gabe, how often do you have a topic that you want to discuss and then find someone to facilitate, and how often is it a situation where someone comes to you unprompted with an idea?

Hi Patrick, I love your point about empowerment, and thank you for highlighting another important element: fun. Thanks also for the great question! Ideally, the topic funnel becomes self-generating: the program reaches a point where colleagues readily nominate themselves or others to lead sessions, or simply identify topics that would be beneficial for the organization. Realistically, it can take some time to reach this point, and that is where the legwork of the program steward(s) is helpful.

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