Peer to Peer Learning for Small Business Owners in a Virtual World

The real challenge is to join entrepreneurs in their world - stimulating demand, helping identify priorities for learning and giving the entrepreneur ownership of their own learning opportunities. Crucially, entrepreneurs must be responsible for making their own choices and decisions - the starting point must be for the entrepreneur to choose a partner they trust to help identify the priorities and challenges (Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership, 2002, p. 1)

Setting the Scene

Over the last ten years or so, there have been several calls for demand-led enterprise learning and skills provision for the owner-managers of small businesses. But what does this mean? At its simplest, we can define demand-led learning and training as ‘programmes that respond to demand (i.e. the needs of the business) as opposed to trying to plan supply (i.e. the needs of the provider or funder)’. A more specific definition is provided by Wong et al. (2007) who suggest that demand-learning involves providing resources to learners which they need when they need them and through a seamless process from induction to any assessment of learning.

Drawing upon the available definitions, key characteristics of demand-led enterprise learning and skills provision for small businesses would include:

It is underpinned by, and responds to insights from, the life-world of the small business owner-manager

It is co-created between small businesses and VET providers so that there are shared objectives in design, development and delivery.

It can be consumed flexibly (e.g. the use of mini-learning resources)

The assessment of learning generates usable insights for both the business and the provider.

There is also agreement that a key characteristic of demand-led enterprise learning and skills provision is an opportunity for participants to exchange experiences and learn from each other, i.e. peer to peer learning. Within the context of small businesses learning from other small businesses, peer to peer learning can take several forms. These include:

One to one or group enterprise mentoring

Action learning sets

Learning management systems (e.g. experience exchange and idea banks)

Self-help groups (e.g. owner-manager networks)

Study groups.

Understanding and supporting peer to peer learning

There has been a growth in these different forms of peer to peer learning within the business and enterprise support landscape over the last 10 to 15 years (Institute of Directors, 2018). This growth reflects a number of factors, including:

The role of peer to peer learning in supporting the development of management and leadership skills in a business setting

The benefits of peer to peer learning in spreading good management practices and knowledge and experiences in accessing appropriate learning opportunities

The opportunity for other businesses to ‘give back’ by being involved in peer to peer learning programmes.

However, a review of the academic and professional literature identifies a number of key areas of ‘need to know’ in effectively supporting peer to peer learning between small business owner-managers. One of these areas of ‘need to know’ relates to the facilitation of peer to peer learning in a virtual environment. This is particularly important in light of the impact of Covid-19 in accelerating the transfer of education and training online but also evidence highlighting the challenges that small business face in accessing online learning (Giles, 2020).

There is a degree of agreement that there are a number of challenges in facilitating peer to peer learning in a virtual environment. These relate to:

Developing trust: The key elements of trust (e.g. participants keeping both implicit and explicit commitments and communicating openly and honestly with others) can be more difficult to foster within a virtual environment. In part this is rooted in the challenges in interpreting body language when online but also willingness of certain groups of participants to be visible when taking part in online sessions

Developing commitment: There is evidence that it is more challenging to review, and maintain, the two key elements of commitment (desire and intention) within a virtual environment. This is because it can be difficult for participants to understand and assist others with their reviewing needs and recognise the contribution that others make and the skills that they have used in making that contribution

Supporting engagement and focus – A number of studies have highlighted that peer to peer learning in a virtual environment places a greater emphasis on the self-management skills of the learner. This includes the learner being able to manage the impact of other distractions (e.g. within the home or work environment whilst online) and the skills of the facilitator in building in different reflective activities at different stages in the peer to peer learning process which provide an indication of the extent to which learners are engaged and focused. The latter can sometimes be difficult within the budgets and timescales of publicly-funded programmes

Developing networks and relationships – There are a number of challenges in creating the naturalistic opportunities for learners to develop networks and relationships when in a virtual environment. For example, it can be difficult to recreate those moments at the end of an action learning set where participants informally transfer know-who as a way of addressing needs and requirements which have emerged during the learning experience

Catering for different learning styles: Like other groups of learners, small business owners learn, absorb and process information in different ways. For some, learning within a virtual environment has positively impacted upon their ability to make the most out of education and training. For others, it has reinforced fears about using online technologies to learn and concerns about how others will perceive their abilities and skills to manage a business if they struggle to learn within an online environment.

Whilst some of these challenges are not new, they do require a different mindset, approach and skills from the facilitator to ensure that the peer to peer learning experience adds value. These can include:

A recognition that facilitating peer to peer learning within a virtual learning environment is different and that there are likely to be different levels of commitment, engagement and interactivity when compared to a physical, face to face learning environment (Jones et al, 2014). Therefore, the indicators used to measure effectiveness may need to be different

Using a range of different learning approaches and tools to develop trust between participants and commitment to the process (e.g. informal learning contracts, Whats App accountability groups) and to support engagement with the learning process (e.g. trial collaborations)

Providing access to a learning platform or structure to support engagement, experience exchange between participants between sessions and sharing of resources

Providing opportunities for participants to develop ownership of the process (e.g. businesses within action learning sets hosting specific meetings and providing virtual tours of their business)

Recognising learning in different ways as there is an opportunity to not only recognise learning related to content (e.g. business development processes and practices) but also the learning process (e.g. recognising learning of the participants in leading action learning sets).

Peer Networks

SFEDI will be working through some these challenges and opportunities over the next five months on a UK government-funded programme in Leicestershire. SFEDI has recently been commissioned by Business Gateway Leicestershire to develop and deliver Peer Networks for businesses within the retail and tourism sectors as well as for businesses with growth potential across Leicestershire. The Peer Networks will involve a combination of facilitated action learning sets for up to 11 businesses complemented with up to three hours one to one advice and guidance, to support the transfer of learning from the action learning sets into the development of the business.

Further information on Peer Networks can be accessed at you would like to know more about the Peer Network programme and how to get involved with our work in Leicestershire, please do email Leigh Sear at