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Peer-to-Peer (New Social Networks) Leadership Training/Learning

I snagged this article from HBR Breakthrough Ideas for 2006

Peer-to-Peer Leadership development

"In 1995, two young U.S. Army officers who had been friends at West Point found themselves living down the street from each other at a base near Honolulu. Nate Allen and Tony Burgess were both in their first stints as company commanders, each responsible for three platoons, or about 120 soldiers. At the end of the day, after their kids were in bed, the two would get together on the lanai and talk through the challenges they faced in their new assignments.

Out of those back-porch bull sessions grew a venture called CompanyCommand, an internal Army Web site where junior officers facing professional challenges can seek advice from others who have been in similar situations. Launched as a low-budget Internet discussion group financed largely by its two founders, CompanyCommand was ultimately brought behind the Army firewall and, to encourage participation, provided with funding, technological support, and greater structure. Just as communities of practice help employees develop greater technical competence through the exchange of ideas among peers, so CompanyCommand is designed to help individuals improve their leadership skills through the sharing of experiences and advice. The program offers a new model for leadership development within an organization,one that has some advantages over both informal social networks (which often are formed by chance and function based on participants’ geographic or organizational proximity) and structured company training programs."

I think the social network Ms. Dixon refers is of the water cooler type and that the one  she calles "peer-to-peer" is the new social network systems, what we offer in Ideascape.

"Peer-to-peer leadership development challenges some traditional assumptions about the training of future leaders. Instead of drawing on the wisdom of anointed experts, CompanyCommand provides young officers with knowledge based on the daily struggles of frontline professionals like themselves. Why the emphasis on peers? Knowledge accumulated by experts over the years may no longer be relevant in a rapidly changing battle environment like Iraq. People have greater trust in, and therefore are more receptive to, advice from someone in their situation. Furthermore, peer conversations can provide emotional as well as practical support. When fellow officers respond to your query about handling the combat death of a soldier who was a galvanizing force in your unit, you don’t just get useful tips—a sample letter of condolence written by another officer in a similar situation, for example, or suggestions on helping your unit members deal with the blow. You also get the reassurance that others have been through this before and that they care enough about you to respond.

Peer-to-peer leadership development challenges some traditional assumptions about the training of future leaders.

Another difference from conventional leadership-development training is the focus on context-specific rather than broadly applicable advice. People go to CompanyCommand for help with a particular issue and draw on knowledge that has grown out of another individual’s unique experience. Because users seek information to solve particular problems, the information must be available immediately—just in time, not just in case. When that soldier from your unit is lost in combat, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for the next training course in personnel management, which wouldn’t be tailored to the specifics of your situation anyway.

Finally, CompanyCommand replaces the one-way flow of information typical of training programs—the pour-and-snore approach—with fluid online conversations. This format means that questions can be refined, issues can be reframed, and a solution can be woven from several people’s advice. Frequently, the conversation about a given topic—say, a changing security environment in Afghanistan’s Shai’kot Valley—is taken off-line and expanded to include other participants, through conversations around a Humvee or, more formally, at occasional gatherings of CompanyCommand participants. In this off-line setting, CompanyCommand bears similarities to CEO roundtables and similar forums in which business leaders from different companies get together in person to learn from their experiences.

In adopting this kind of peer-to-peer approach, an organization gives up considerable control. Despite the Army’s oversight of CompanyCommand, junior officers run the show, facilitating conversations and setting the agenda. Many organizations wouldn’t feel comfortable placing this kind of trust in their people (who in turn would find it hard to develop the trust in the organization needed for candid conversations to occur). Those enterprises would begin to wonder if the program is worth it, both in money and in employee time. And, it must be said, a program like CompanyCommand is designed to meet individual development needs rather than institutional objectives. But by creating a place where soldiers can freely and in their own way develop leadership skills, the Army is enhancing the quality of today’s and tomorrow’s leaders—certainly a primary goal of any organization."

Nancy M. Dixon (nancydixon@commonknowledge.org) is the president of Common Knowledge Associates in Dallas and the coauthor of CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession (Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning, 2005).

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