Learning from our peers – Peer Academy training

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

How do you best transfer tacit knowledge – the understanding that comes from practice, experience and application in a real world environment – to other people?

This is an issue we often deal with when talking about innovation. Innovation is a big concept. One word, ‘innovation’, represents a large body of knowledge and practice. How do we best get people across it? It’s something that a lot of people learn about through experience – but how can we help cut that learning time down?

I believe this applies to a lot of other practices (e.g. behavioural insights, design thinking, horizon scanning) where there isn’t a strict recipe for how to apply a methodology, and where it can be hard to codify everything that is involved.

At the same time, agencies are keen to take advantage of the existing expertise within their organisations. How can we unlock that knowledge, as well as looking to external training providers or more formal learning and development programmes where appropriate?

Basically – how can we speed up the process of sharing knowledge and expertise within organisations?

Peer Learning

These questions led us to test the services of Peer Academy, a new start-up based in Melbourne applying a peer-to-peer model for learning.

What’s a peer-to-peer model for learning? Well, we are currently seeing the growth of the ‘sharing’ or collaborative economy. Platforms are providing a means to connect those with spare resources or capacity with those who have a need. The peer-to-peer learning approach is about connecting those with knowledge and skills with those who would like to learn more – and doing so on a collaborative basis.

So on Wednesday 27 May a group of interested public servants, many of whom are in the process of planning events for Innovation Month 2015, undertook a ‘How to Host a Deep Dive’ session facilitated by Kylie Long, one of the founders of Peer Academy to learn more.

The all-day session was about how to host a peer-learning event, one where you share your knowledge and expertise with your peers. As Kylie explained, the approach is about recognising that people are increasingly looking to learn from each other in a collaborative fashion as peers, rather than within the traditional context of a student/expert dynamic. Peer Academy is looking at how such an approach can be made scalable and how to connect those wanting to learn with those willing to share their tacit knowledge.

Kylie took us through a fast-paced day with a lot of design thinking elements. We rapidly developed ideas around putting together an event, prototyped event ideas, worked on identifying our target audience(s), and learnt about facilitation and structuring an event to reinforce and emphasise key points. We also worked on identifying what we were trying to achieve as event hosts, and encouraged reflection to help improve our events in the future and to ensure that we learn from holding events, as well as helping others learn from us and from doing.


I personally found it a great day and I learnt a lot (more) about putting together events that are relevant and useful. I also learnt a lot about the skills involved with facilitation and aiding people in connecting their ‘head, heart and hands’ (knowledge, passion and skills) and using the diversity of a group to get better discussions.

I also found it very interesting to think about how such a model might apply more broadly within the public service.

One of the challenges that I think might hinder such an approach in the public service is that we, as public servants, can often take shelter behind our professionalism. It can be uncomfortable to take off the ‘expert’ hat, and be willing to put forward knowledge as a peer and as something that is incomplete/not perfect. But then, as Kylie noted, we need to collaborate, and collaboration is often messy.

As ‘recipients’ of training or learning and development, I also think many of us tend to put a lot on the trainer – we expect to evaluate them and what they have taught us, without necessarily really thinking about our role and our commitment to learning. In a peer learning context it is a different dynamic.

To borrow one of the examples used on the day – event hosting is a bit like hosting a dinner party. The host has a lot of responsibilities – but so do the guests. It is different to going to a restaurant, where you are the customer and you can rate the restaurant. I suspect that change in dynamic will take a bit of getting used to for many of us.

In terms of what peer learning might offer in the public service, I definitely think that peer learning has a lot of potential, as well as fitting with the general direction that we’re heading in in terms of how things are done. I think that peer learning models can offer a lot in terms of scale, speed and effectiveness for sharing knowledge and skills throughout an organisation and/or across networks.

Of course, just as with any other emerging practice or innovation, this is a practice that is still evolving. It will be interesting to see how peer learning might develop as a component of the wider ‘sharing’ economy, and how we apply such thinking within the Australian Public Service.

(Please note that this training was undertaken as a commercial arrangement with Peer Academy and that this post should not be taken as an official endorsement or otherwise of their services.)