Plant starter seeds of vicarious learning. Beyond creating the space and license for vicarious learning, leaders can encourage greater learning by jump-starting the process. This means leading by example: proactively sharing experiences with team members and setting aside time at the beginning of meetings for people to discuss challenges and problem solve together. Even one-off efforts, such as a team breakfast or “happy hour,” can plant the seed for vicarious learning that can then grow into a more consistent practice.
Vicarious learning interactions are not a panacea for an organization’s learning challenges. But it is an effective piece of the workplace learning portfolio, alongside formal efforts like training programs, feedback sessions, and knowledge management systems, and informal practices like mentoring and “trial-and-error” exercises. All of these approaches reinforce each other and promote greater learning. In fact, sequencing vicarious learning and experiential learning strategies together has been shown to improve performance compared to experiential learning alone, across a range of different tasks.
Whatever the sequence or strategy, this type of learning is critical for many organizations, and leaders play an important role in making it more systematic, frequent, and easier to deploy. Companies are sitting on far more knowledge and expertise than they realize. Creating the conditions that enable coactive vicarious learning is a central way to bring out the best a team or organization has to offer. As Lew Platt, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HP) famously lamented, “if only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”