Organizations of all sizes lament the lack of cooperation across functional lines and they search for ways to encourage innovation, but how can one build a culture that encourages innovation and information sharing?
Turning to history, we discovered a model of peer-to-peer learning in the 20th century activist, Jane Addams. This Nobel Prize winner was a social reformer, the “Mother of Social Work," and co-founder of Hull House, America’s most famous settlement house. Hull House, situated in an impoverished area of Chicago, was surrounded by a community made up of recent European immigrants. To provide social and educational opportunities to these working class people, Addams set up classes in literature, history, art and domestic activities, such as sewing and weaving, as well as daycare and public playgrounds for families to congregate.
Hull House became enormously successful, and its classes were overflowing—providing education to grateful people who would have otherwise gone without—but Addams wanted even more. “Many of the difficulties in philanthropy come from an unconscious division of the world into the philanthropists and those to be helped,” she said in an 1899 Atlantic Monthly article. “It is an assumption of two classes, and against this class assumption our democratic training revolts as soon as we begin to act upon it.” In short: everyone has something valuable to offer.
Hull House’s model of education became circular—rather than top-down—with educators coming in to offer lectures and classes in their areas of expertise, and in return, learning about the crafts and trades practiced by the immigrants. When asked to describe this process, Addams said:
Imagine the business man teaching the immigrant his much needed English and arithmetic, and receiving in return lessons in the handling of tools and materials so that they should assume in his mind a totally different significance from what the factory gives them. And, one should see Italian women learning English in the kitchen while they teach their instructors how to cook the delicious macaroni, such a different thing from the semi-elastic product which Americans honor with that name
But, does Addams’s leadership approach apply to today’s business world? Yes, says global professional services giant Accenture. “To stay competitive, enterprises must focus on developing a culture of continuous learning. Peer-to-peer learning is a key component of an enterprise’s journey toward becoming a more agile and collaborative organization.”
Addams believed that everyone had knowledge to share, and designed the educational structure of Hull House to facilitate this end. Today’s business world, with its complex and diverse workforce, includes the largest range of generations working at the same time. Creating opportunities for our employees to share information and learn from one another isn’t just a good idea—it’s good business!
"America's future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live." - Jane Addams
Are you wondering how to create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning within your organization? Let us help! Our unique approach to leadership training harnesses the power of experiential learning to teach time-proven leadership methods that get results. Let us share more leadership lessons from historic role models for your next workshop or staff retreat.
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Jane Addams understood that everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to learn. How have you encouraged those you lead to learn from each other? What are some ideas you’d like to try? Please share your ideas and comments, below.