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 Don’t overlook the importance of vicarious learning for sharing critical knowledge at work.

By Christopher G. Myers


People today have access to more information than at any point in human history. A 2014 report estimated the size of the internet at 1 billion unique websites, and by the end of 2016, global internet traffic is expected to reach 1.1 zettabytes. That is 1.1 trillion gigabytes of information moving around online – enough, by my rough estimate, to fill 8.59 billion iPhones (the 128GB maxed-out iPhone 6S, to be specific). It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most common ways we seek out and learn new things is online, embodying the 21st-century learning mantra “I don’t know. … I’ll Google it.”

However, because of this volume of readily available information and knowledge, we risk forgetting one of the most important ways people learn, particularly at work – namely, by learning from the experiences of others, or what’s known as vicarious learning. Though we have long recognized the benefits of not repeating others’ mistakes or not “reinventing the wheel,” the emphasis of many modern organizations on self-directed learning and more autonomous, independent work means that employees are often turning to Google for answers, rather than learning vicariously from a colleague’s knowledge and experience. This is a costly trend. In 2004, HR Magazine estimated that this failure to share knowledge internally (resulting in wasted time searching for known answers and reinventing wheels) cost the companies in the Fortune 500 a total of at least $31.5 billion per year.

… What is often critical for success is mastery of the tacit knowledge of the organization — the complex, often subtle interpretive knowledge that is difficult to capture or write down.

Failing to learn from others’ experiences at work is a challenge for several reasons.

Despite the plethora of hits returned on any given Google search, not all information is available online. The knowledge needed to succeed in many organizations relies on unique or sometimes proprietary information (such as patented designs or procedures). In addition, differences in the ways knowledge is captured and retained can make it difficult to find certain pieces of information through online searches, even within an organization’s own digital archives. For instance, differences in terminology or document “tagging” practices can impede individuals’ efforts to search their companies’ online knowledge databases, leaving them unable to find important information simply because they searched the wrong keyword.

Most importantly, though, much of the knowledge needed for employees to learn and thrive at work is not the kind of formal, codified information that is typically documented in online repositories or knowledge-management systems. Instead, what is often critical for success is mastery of the tacit knowledge of the organization – the complex, often subtle interpretive knowledge that is difficult to capture or write down.

For example, in some of my research with air medical transport teams – teams that travel via helicopter or airplane to pick up patients from small hospitals or accident scenes and transport them to large tertiary-care centers – I examined how flight nurses learned what they needed to succeed in this dynamic, knowledge-intensive environment. I found that the nurses engaged in a great deal of informal conversation and storytelling to learn from each other’s differing experiences, with a specific emphasis on the nonclinical aspects of medical transportation, such as the interpersonal intricacies of taking over patient care from staff at another hospital. Clinical knowledge (i.e., codifiable knowledge of how to treat particular injuries or illnesses) was certainly important, but without an understanding of these more tacit elements of the work, team members would be unable to put their clinical knowledge to use most effectively during a transport.

This need to learn vicariously from others’ tacit knowledge and experience pervades most organizations, particularly as the world of work continues to become more adaptive, complex, and knowledge based. We will have to continue to ask ourselves how we can harness the power of technology to support, rather than replace, these key interpersonal learning interactions. How can we use technology, for instance, to enable greater vicarious learning between members of geographically dispersed teams? How might the availability of information online be used to provide a “foundation” of codified knowledge that can be expanded by learning from stories of others’ experiences? And what role could social media play in facilitating the sharing of more tacit knowledge across teams, organizations, or even industries?

Hang on, I’ll try Googling it.

Christopher G. Myers is an assistant professor on the faculty of the Carey Business School and the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality. His research and teaching focus on individual learning, development, and innovation in knowledge-intensive organizations.

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