Going beyond training and handbooks: Vicarious learning (Part I)

Air medical transport teams have to learn from each other’s experiences, to know how to transport a wide range of critically ill patients. Research shows that a large chunk of that learning happens in one specific space: near the helipad door. This 10×15 ft. area is the unofficial, mutually-agreed-upon learning space, as it’s a frequent stop during every shift. Team members are willing to share and learn, simply by choosing to be there.

This is an example of ‘vicarious learning’ or learning by observation, a go-to method of learning the tips and tricks of a role. It’s a largely unstructured format – one organizations don’t invest in. Instead, they invest in manuals, trainings, etc. These formal systems might help communicate the best practices (the what), but they often don’t explain how one should apply them to their own work.

However, watching and learning by imitation isn’t completely effective. Employees need the space to practice too. Enter: co-active vicarious learning that facilitates effective, engaging, knowledge and skill sharing.

Prof. Christopher Myers, John Hopkins University, defines co-active learning as “the person learning and the person sharing knowledge working together to construct an experience, which better equips the learner to apply it in their own work.” He believes people effectively learn through collaborative, two-way interactions. Ofcourse, we can’t force people to interact. So, how can we facilitate vicarious learning?

Myers says leaders need to remove obstacles that discourage people from learning vicariously. They can create a structure that allows these interactions to take place organically by focusing on three steps:

  1. Create designated learning spaces. It’s not about conference rooms. Sitting inside cubicles or behind desks doesn’t lend itself to sharing. It’s not about open spaces either. Researchers suggest observing employees to understand where their informal interactions happen, and then amplifying them. For example, when Google realized their people connected most over food, they increased the number of kitchenettes. The idea is to create a casual/ comfortable feel, where people don’t feel watched.
  2. Endorse informal learning. Start by encouraging questions. How is curiosity received? What hinders people from asking questions, or encourages them? These cultural nuances spur learning further. Siemens is known to reward casual learning, by sending out appreciation e-mails, and having a system of paying it forward, where a person who has gained some information today, commits to teaching later.
  3. Plant starter seeds of vicarious learning. Here, leaders have a big role to play by modeling behavior. A part of it is by sharing experiences with team members and setting aside time at the beginning of meetings for people to discuss challenges and problem solve together. Another aspect of this is by facilitating training or experiential learning, along with informal learning.

With the amount of information access and experience companies have in-house, harnessing them would mean revolutionizing their entire business. This requires creating conditions that enable co-active vicarious learning. You’d be surprised at the potential you’ll uncover. Are you game?

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