The Long and the Short of Learning

Organisational learning can benefit from a long-term approach, just like children can. 

Children and Learning

Cast your mind back to your very first memories, and recall how you learned about the world around you. How do we learn, really learn, as small children? If we do something and the result is favourable, we will do more of it. If the outcome is unfavourable, we will do less of it. This immediate feedback, associating consequence and cause, is crucial in building our understanding of the physical and social world around us. It allows us to build a mental model that allows us to survive and prosper.
It is the result of what we do that teaches us which actions, which choices, which judgements and decisions are the ones that help us, and which are the ones that harm us. But this process, interestingly, is not black-and-white. One good experience doesn’t tell us to always do what led to it, and a single bad outcome doesn’t mean we will avoid the action that produced it forever more.
There is a good reason for this: learning really happens through the accumulation of experiences. Of course, really bad experiences, which cause us immediate harm or pain, will not be repeated. After putting a finger into the flame of a candle once, we are unlikely to do it again. (The scar on my index finger has long since disappeared, yet the memory remains!)
But if an action is just unpleasant and not quite near-catastrophic, we may well attempt it again. And the same applies to experiences with a positive payoff. We repeat actions, perhaps in a subtly different way, and every time we check the result. We don’t take a sample of a single experience as the final word.
It is thanks to this repetition that learning really happens. It allows us to experience that an outcome may be due to chance: we discover that perhaps we were lucky once or twice, but most of the other times the result was rather less good. Or we may learn that a choice with a short-term positive payoff, has a longer-term cumulative negative effect. If we’re cold, we could go out and collect some firewood, or we could just set fire to a chair. The former means a lot of effort, while the latter will provide you with heat without any hassle – until we run out of chairs.

Short-term vs Long-term

If we take a short-term view, looking only at the immediate result of a course of action, we may well be burning a lot of our furniture. Yet that is often what happens in organizations where being results-oriented our outcome-focused is the name of the game. Most attention goes to achievements, and a lot less to the judgement that was applied and the decisions that were made.
This distorts the learning process. It also creates the temptation to deliver the desired results, no matter what. If the only thing that matters is producing heat, then burning the furniture actually is an attractive option. (It becomes even more appealing if there’s a chance that we won’t even be around when the last chair is incinerated.)
Long-term success and learning go together. As individuals, we survive and prosper thanks to the intelligent decision-making we learned through repetition over time. We don’t rely on the immediate consequences of a choice. And organizations could do better still. They can learn over time in the same way, and by evaluating the decision-making process of multiple people at the same time. Organizational activity can serve as a huge natural experiment.
But that means reducing the focus on distorting short-term performance measurements. A robust decision can lead to a lousy outcome, and a timely dose of good luck can turn around the result of a poor decision. It is easy to try and assess the quality of a decision by the consequence. It is also easy to burn up the chairs to be warm.
For our long-term success, we sometimes need to go out and collect firewood, or spend a bit more effort to evaluate and improve people’s judgement and the decision-making processes of the organization. That is not easy, but didn’t we learn as a child that the easy way out is rarely the best?
See also: Craftsmanship through Repetition

2 thoughts on “The Long and the Short of Learning”

  1. Since most estimates are that today’s jobs take 6-12 months to get fully skilled at, it is indeed paramount to take the long view.
    At the same time companies are understandably looking for faster and faster ways to accelerate learning. No company wants an employee who will not be at full productivity for over a year.

  2. That is a good point, which illustrates from where the pressure comes that sometimes leads to sacrificing longer term learning in return for short term quick results. Intelligent managers would seek to make a well-founded trade-off, but they would of course have needed an opportunity to learn how to do this…

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