While some lessons can be learned by watching—a parent’s reaction after touching a hot stove can be a good lesson for a youngster on dangers in the kitchen—other lessons are harder to learn through observation alone. No matter how many times you watch a surgeon perform open-heart surgery, chances are you won’t ever learn how to pull off a triple bypass.
And yet, in business, companies routinely expect employees to pick up new job knowledge through vicarious learning—through reading descriptions of tasks in knowledge-management databases or by observing colleagues from afar. “The predominant analogy for vicarious learning is the photocopier,” says Christopher G. Myers, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. The idea: Watch what other people do, make copies of the good things and dispose of the bad things, and we are good to go.
But good knowledge transfer doesn’t quite happen that way, and organizations that practice watch-and-learn vicarious learning run the risk of undertraining their key employees, says Myers.
He challenges the theory in a new working paper, Coactive Vicarious Learning: Towards a Relational Theory of Vicarious Learning in Organizations, in which he argues that observation and imitation are rarely the best ways for employees to learn on the job.
“There are some realms of life where that is true, but for the most part, problems in business are more complicated,” says Myers.
“What that means practically is vicarious learning must be more interactive"
The limitations of traditional forms of knowledge management come from two sets of assumptions, he argues.
The first assumption is that the most important elements of a job function are observable, ignoring the crucial tacit knowledge that can influence how someone carries out his or her job. “I could watch a colleague challenge a student and I could think that’s the way I should teach, but what I miss is the backstory, about why he is doing it in that particular case.”
Perhaps even more crucial, those systems assume that the person undertaking the learning wants to duplicate exactly what the other person is doing—despite the fact that they may be perpetuating mistakes made by a predecessor or simply following procedures that may be a bad fit for a person of a different personality and skillset.
Instead, Myers envisions a model of coactive vicarious learning.
“The major shift theoretically is moving from a language of transfer, of taking fully formed knowledge and passing it from one person’s head to another, and instead talking about co-creation and building it together,” he says. “What that means practically is vicarious learning must be more interactive. Both the learner and the sharer of knowledge bring things to the table and together create something new.” Myers was inspired to study the topic based on his own experience as an outdoor wilderness instructor, an area in which the cost of failure is too high for people to learn only from their own experience. “Trial and error is not the way you want to learn rock climbing,” says Myers.
When acquiring knowledge is life or death
In his own research, he has spent hundreds of hours studying a similarly fraught industry—high-risk medical transport teams—to learn how they acquire knowledge that can literally mean the difference between life and death. He found that much of their vicarious learning occurred not through studying procedural manuals, but through informal storytelling in the downtime between missions, in which team members related past incidents. “They would dig in with each other and dissect prior cases a little bit, asking, ‘Why did you do it this way, and not that way?’ It’s happening in these more discursive kind of ways.”
By contrast, Myers argues that many companies employ knowledge management systems that favor more independent, rather than discursive, learning. “They say, ‘I am going to write everything down and everyone who wants to know anything about the industry can have that document at their fingertips,’” says Myers. Except this system often doesn’t get used.That fact was driven home to Myers while interviewing a tech manager. “He said, ‘I use the knowledge management system all the time—but I just scroll down to the bottom and see who wrote it, and then I call them.’”
By trying to prepare content that will suit everyone and cover every situation, the authors necessarily strip out the nuance of how things really work in a corporate context. “What we often get in a knowledge management system is the least common denominator,” says Myers. “It’s the bare minimum of what I am willing to share with the world, as I worry about what might get back to me.”
But if coactive learning is key, the difficulty is figuring out how to incorporate it into an organization. Myers makes a distinction between on-line learning, which occurs at the same time work is being performed, and off-line learning, which happens after the fact. Both, he says, can be either independent or coactive.
Watching surgery through the observation glass, for example, may be on-line learning, but it doesn’t give a doctor enough of an appreciation for how to perform a surgery. In order to be successful, says Myers, workers shadowing others must be able to ask questions and debrief in a way that allows them to synthesize information for their own approach and personality.
Off-line learning, meanwhile, doesn’t have to be done alone. The stories told by the medical transport teams—or for that matter, stories told at happy hour by employees at the bar around the corner from the office—can go a long way toward informally educating employees on how the company really works. Managers can help institutionalize this kind of learning in a number of ways. Instead of a knowledge management system consisting of dry reports on job duties, companies can create narrative simulations that are more interactive, allowing employees to debrief with managers about what they did right and wrong.
(Myers notes that Harvard Business School’s own faculty “onboarding” process includes experiences where junior faculty teach a mock class to a lecture hall full of their colleagues, who play the roles of students and mentors in providing feedback after the fact.)
Interactive learning through office norms
Less formally, however, managers can create more interactive vicarious learning through the way they structure the office and create cultural norms. Google built its New York City campus two years ago with the principle that employees should never be more than 150 feet from some form of free food—creating gathering places for workers to interact. “They wanted to engineer serendipity,” says Myers, “creating these kind of casual hallway and cafeteria conversations where the genesis of a lot of great ideas take place.”
Managers don’t have to redesign a building to engineer these encounters. Just by observing where employees naturally congregate and then tacitly condoning those conversations or actively participating in them can go a long way toward normalizing the kind of office culture that encourages employee interaction, says Myers.
Managers can take it to the next level by including a regular time for coactive vicarious learning during meetings, asking for stories about something employees figured out in the past week, and setting expectations for those kind of discussions.
Some senior employees in the high-tech industry set office hours in which they encourage colleagues to come to their office and ask questions. “A lot of this is clearing the brush,” says Myers. By subtly changing office culture to encourage employees to interact in both formal and informal ways, he argues, managers can move employees away from the kind of dry learning that stymies growth and creativity and toward the kind of co-created knowledge that allows employees to really make the job their own.
“Managers can’t say ‘Go sit down and have a good conversation about your past experiences,’ but they can set up structures to let his happen naturally,” says Myers. “And that becomes very critical.”