When to learn from experience, when to learn from others

Learning from your own experience is a preferred option only when the cost of those experiences is low.

Anyone can learn from experience. Even my dog learns from experience.

Three times she has tangled with an electric fence (once even managing to clip herself to the fence with the clip on her lead – which led to a hectic time for all concerned) and now she has learned, the hard way, that electric fences are to be avoided.

Its easy to learn the hard way, and lessons stick with you when you learn from your own mistakes, but this only makes sense if the results are non-lethal or nor too damaging.

If the cost of failure is high, we’d rather not learn the hard way by making our own mistakes. We don’t want to learn from our own experience that you should not pet a rattlesnake, or stick a knife in a toaster, or eat soap. We don’t want our electricians to learn from their own experience how avoid wiring a house so that it catches fire, nor our airline pilots to learn from their own experience about how to avoid crash-landing a 747 in a crosswind.

It’s a lot more challenging, but makes a lot more sense when the cost of failure is non-negligible, , to learn from the experiences of others.

Where the results of experience are harmful, the right way to learn from experience is to learn from the experience of others. That’s how our Knowledge Management systems should be designed – to allow us to learn from shared experience, so we don’t have to learn things the hard way ourselves. As Clay Shirky said

” Learning from (your own) experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

However learning from the experience of others requires a framework whereby

  • experiences are discussed and analysed
  • the learnings from those experiences are shared
  • the emotional impact of those lessons are retained
  • that shared experience is sought, reviewed and acted upon

Learning things the hard way is certainly effective, but it only makes sense when the cost of failure is low. As soon as the cost of failure becomes important, it’s better to learn from shared experience. Let someone else pet the rattlesnake, or clip themselves to the electric fence.

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Shared by: Nick Milton