Alanis Morissette in her song “You Learn” sings about how everything we experience helps us to learn (even getting your heart trampled on!). You live, you learn…
Learning is good and essential for all, but the much-lauded learning-from-experience, unfortunately, can also kill the subject. How about learning from others’ experiences (i.e. vicarious learning)? How do we learn effectively? What are the different types of learning? Are there certain sequences in learning which are better than others? Research demonstrates that companies focussing on direct learning alone have a better short term performance, but a lower long term performance. Companies focussing on first indirect learning and after that on direct learning have a better long term performance.
Different types of learning: which ones do you use?
Learning is defined as “a regular shift in behaviour or knowledge informed by prior action” (so it applies to both behaviour and ideas). According to Bingham and Davis there are four Direct Learning Processes, which emphasise learning from your own experience.
- Experimental Learning: Learning through controlled situations to test causal propositions and create new knowledge. (+ knowledge generated may be generalisable - is costly);
- Trial-and-Error Learning: Learning through the consequences of a firm’s previous actions. (+ gradual and systematic learning - errors might have been avoidable through indirect learning);
- Improvisational Learning: Learning that occurs on the fly as design and action converge. (+ rapid response to emergent opportunities - situational knowledge, less generalisable);
- Deviance-Error Learning: Learning that occurs when firms break away from a successful action pattern. (+ knowledge generated about why actions worked - can be costly);
There are two Indirect Learning Processes, which emphasise learning from others’ experience.
- Vicarious Learning: Learning indirectly from other firms through observation but without contact. (+ expedites learning by avoiding direct trial and error – knowledge can be less useful because of lack of necessary details);
- Learning from External Advice: Learning from others instruction through direct contact. (+ expedites learning and improves vicarious learning – costs can be high).
However, are there certain sequences in learning, which are better than others? In their fascinating research project Bingham and Davis answered this question with a clear yes. They find two key learning sequences: a seeding learning sequence and a soloing learning sequence.
- Seeding Learning Sequences: learning sequences that begin with indirect learning and then continue with direct learning.
Bingham and David observed two types of seeding sequences: Vicarious learning followed by trial-and-error learning and Learning from external advice followed by trail-and-error learning
- Soloing Learning Sequences: Those learning sequences that begin with direct learning and then continuing with direct learning.
- Companies in the research set use seeding or soloing learning sequences.
- More executive experience at the time of first entry is more likely to lead to the use of a soloing sequence.
- Less executive experience at the time of first entry is more likely to lead to the use of a seeding sequence.
- Use of a soloing sequence leads to higher performance in the shorter term than use of a seeding sequence.
- Seeding learning sequences expand with use in later experience.
- Soloing learning sequences contract with use in later experience.
- Use of a soloing learning sequence leads to lower performance in the longer term than use of a seeding learning sequence.
Seeding learning sequences includes a social learning component and when striking the right balance between direct and indirect learning your learning will expand with experience (instead of contract) and as such will lead to longer term performance.