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Corporate Learning’s Micro-foundations

Understanding the balance between experience and reflection in organizational learning


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“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” Confucius

Giada Di Stefano, a professor at HEC Paris, uses this quotation to introduce her award-winning research into the individual underpinnings of organizational learning. She and colleagues Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano and Bradley Staats argue that once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past.

Corporate performance, even the productivity of nations, depends on the knowledge and skills of individuals in the workforce. For this reason, answering questions about how humans learn and which sources of learning are most beneficial in improving future performance are fundamental to corporate competitiveness and should be of central strategic concern for any organization.

The findings from this research have important practical implications for executive learners and L&D professionals involved in corporate learning. While many organizations appreciate the strategic importance of learning and many see that experiential learning is key, Di Stefano suggests that there has been little effort to encourage individuals to take the time to reflect on their past experience. This reflection rather than doing more and more is a vital component of effective learning.

The core finding of this research is that individuals can perform better if they take the time to stop and think about their experience with a task. Since time began the ‘apprentice’ has learnt new skills and perfected old ones while on the job – experiential learning. While accruing, additional experience is clearly valuable, for the time pressed 21st Century worker or executive there has to be a balance between time spent on this and time spent on trying to articulate and codify the experience accumulated in the past.

The researchers quote the example of a cardiac surgeon. Every minute she spends reflecting on how to get better is costly in terms of lost practice time. Conversely, every minute spent practicing consumes time she could have spent reflecting on how to get better. What would be the optimal choice for her to maximize learning? In other words, which learning source provides the highest benefits in terms of future performance: the accumulation of additional experience or a deliberate attempt to learn from the experience accumulated in the past?

To answer this question the researcher ran a number of laboratory experiments and a field study with Wipro, a service provider company. The results are striking: in the field study, they found a 21% performance increase by substituting the last 15 minutes of work with 15 minutes of reflection on the activities carried out during the day.

The researchers were able to measure the extent to which people who set some time apart for reflecting on the experience accumulated with a task outperform those who spend the same amount of time practicing. In addition, their findings show that the beneficial effect of reflection endures over time, as they were still able to observe a significant effect on performance one month after the Wipro agents transitioned full-time into their customer service responsibilities.

Di Stefano and colleagues conclude their research paper (which won Best Paper Award in the domain of Behavioural Strategy from the Strategic Management Society) with a quotation from American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Access the research paper: Under a magnifying glass: Understanding the micro-foundations of organizational learning. Giada Di Stefano (HEC Paris), Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano (Harvard Business School), and Bradley Staats (University of North Carolina).

HEC Paris, a leading global institution

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