What's the Best Way to Transfer Knowledge? (You Can't Learn Surgery by Watching)

Research Covered in Forbes Article

While some lessons can be learned by watching—a parent’s reaction after touching a hot stove can be a good lesson for a youngster on dangers in the kitchen—other lessons are harder to learn through observation alone. No matter how many times you watch a surgeon perform open-heart surgery, chances are you won’t ever learn how to pull off a triple bypass.

And yet, in business, companies routinely expect employees to pick up new job knowledge through vicarious learning—through reading descriptions of tasks in knowledge-management databases or by observing colleagues from afar. “The predominant analogy for vicarious learning is the photocopier,” says Christopher G. Myers, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. The idea: Watch what other people do, make copies of the good things and dispose of the bad things, and we are good to go.

But good knowledge transfer doesn’t quite happen that way, and organizations that practice watch-and-learn vicarious learning run the risk of undertraining their key employees, says Myers.

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