The first systematic and complex study on peer learning initiatives brings hour-glass model and provokes further questions

Matt Andrews and Nick Manning led a study on peer learning initiatives in public sector reforms in development[1] in the new and crowded field of peer learning. Its major novelty is a model of hour-glass, proposing sequence from organizational arrangements to individual level gains in knowledge, and back to the large scale impacts at the sectoral or national level.

hour_glass_cropThe hour-glass is the first model, which links individual peer learning with its organizational origins and its ultimate impact. Before peer learning approaches either focused entirely on the organizational level or discussed peer learning in isolation from the mechanisms that enabled it. Analyses show that facilitators often focus on peer entities (countries, organizations, cities) but peer learning is primarily about transfers between people. At the top of the hour-glass large scale organized facilitation of peer engagement occurs. These approaches are a prelude to an individual level interaction (individual level gains in knowledge) and then return to the large scale with an impact on the national level. It is clear that individuals are the direct learners in learning at an organizational level. Knowing this, it is extremely important which individuals compose peers.

Challenge with identifying peers

Identifying peers to engage with, involve them in the process, ensure they are effectively matched through events, and manage differences among them are big challenges when leading peer learning process. Usually the selection of people is done based on their job title and position. The study results show that peers are matched purely on the basis of position and facilitators must depend on luck to ensure that matches exist on the other criteria important to individual learners. The study also shows that effective relationship building between peers could be achieved only after being at the position for long enough. Staff turnover undermines relationship building and frustrates the peer learning process.

Challenge with getting peers to engage fully in the process

The research shows that the most memorable peer learning experiences last for one year or more and involve multiple interactions. Where the individual cases reflect on more effective peer learning experiences, the research indicates that interactions happen over time with various types of engagement and tools.

Focus more on knowledge generation than sharing and exchange

Facilitated initiatives in this study focused on engagement and facilitating interaction and knowledge generation, and employing fewer tools to foster the reflection, applications and diffusion considerations necessary to achieve practical learning results. Authors explain that more than two thirds of the peer learner survey respondents identified such activities as an important part of the peer learning process, but only one third of the facilitated initiatives include these activities (which foster sustained individual contacts and sharing of new knowledge).

Provocative questions arise

The authors are aware that their study is not normative[2] and is not even theoretical. They see it as a way of integrating their hypotheses and exposing them to some empirical daylight. So, they hope this study will provoke additional activities that will be more detailed and could offer actionable lessons about how to do peer learning in development. They help “successors” with the following provocative questions.

  1. There is considerable investment of effort and optimism about the potential of peer learning. The question is: does this have “magic bullet” overtone or is it another generic solution for solving problems in the public sector?
  2. Managing the logistical challenges of organizing meetings and maintaining peer engagement often exceeds the focus on the larger objective of using peer learning to achieve reform results at scale. So, the question is: how to achieve the larger objective without undue management burden?
  3. From the perspective of a political economy, the question is: to which degree learning can assist in developing negotiating and coalition-building skills necessary to accompany the technical reform proposals?

What would be your answers?



[1] Andrews, M., Manning, N., 2015. Mapping peer leraning initiatives in public sector reforms in development, CID Working paper No. 298. Working papers, Center for International Development at Harvard University.

[2] Evidence from the 52 peer facilitation initiatives, 84 individual survey respondents and from the range of case studies were examined. The full sample includes facilitated initiatives covering many different areas in the public sector reform.



About Maja Tomšič

Maja likes working with people and her favorite part of the learning process is the implementation of face-to-face meetings. Flexibility and creativity help her smoothly facilitate the program. As learning outcomes depend also on interaction before and after face-to-face, she explores tools and strategies for motivating people to be active during the whole learning process.

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