Anti Social Learning: Why We Don't Learn from Others

Watching college football this weekend, it occurred to me how great instant replay is in professional tennis. In college football and the NFL, instant replay can take so long it makes you want to change the channel. What is even worse about instant replay in the NFL is that most of the calls are still debatable. Confirming or overturning the call is subjective, based on the best judgment of the referee. But in tennis it is different. In tennis, we look at a digital video of the ball hitting the ground on the line or outside of the line. It is objective, accurate and it takes just a few seconds.

Anti Social Learning: Why We Don’t Learn from OthersTennis gets it right. So why doesn’t the NCAA or the NFL do instant replay like they do in tennis?

I am sure there are plenty of reasons, and I am certainly not on the inside. However, if they can put a digital image of a yellow first down marker on the field, they can certainly do a digital video showing whether a player had both feet down in-bounds. If the USTA can show that a ball, traveling at over 100 mph, hits the line in-bounds, the NFL can show whether a player running a 10 mph has two feet in-bounds.

It begs the question, why are people so slow to learn from others? Why is it so hard for football to learn from tennis? Why is it so hard for a cable company to learn from a shoe retailer? It can be done. It is done. GE makes extensive efforts to get jet engine makers to learn from the toaster business. It is called boundrylessness.

So why don’t we learn very well from things outside of our immediate domain? There are two reasons:

1. Our organization/business/sport is different. It is hard to imagine GM trying to learn something from the computer business. Dell does not make a PC until you order it. Why doesn’t GM wait to make a car until a customer orders it? Yes, I am sure there are lots of reasons that GM could list. But do all cars really have to be built, shipped and then sit on a lot with options people might not want for six months to be sold? Really? But we hear it all the time, "but we're different. You can't translate what they do to what we do. Our circumstance is unique." That is the very attitude that holds some people and organizations back from learning from others and innovating.

2. That’s not the way we do it. This is an infamous (tragic) line spoken in organizations everyday to the dismay of many. Yet we put up with it. Of course we do. People are set in their ways. Organizations are set in their ways. Behavioral economists have studies that indicate we over value things that we currently have (our used car, home for sale, closet full of stuff we never use) and undervalue things we don’t have (someone else’s used car or home for sale). So it makes sense that we over value the way we do our work. “We don’t need to learn something new from how someone else does it? We are doing just fine.”

How can we break free of this urge to not need to learn something new from others? How do we create a mind-set that allows us to be open to learn something new? Please comment. What have you done to learn something new from outside of your domain to improve what you do?

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Bill Cushard, Chief Learning Officer at The Knowland Group, is a learning leader with more than 12 years experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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