Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Insight into Knowledge Transfer

I came across an interesting insight a few weeks back.  It was one of those things you stop to write down in a couple of sentences to make sure you don't lose it. I wrote it down on a large sticky note which I then proceeded to misplace.  It doesn't matter.  The process of writing it down was apparently sufficient to put it in memory.

How do we learn from other's experience?  If we learned only from our own experience, we'd be wasting lots of opportunities to benefit from the experience of others. Yet we also know that the best teacher is experience.  Does our ability to empathise or feel what someone else is feeling help us learn from others' experience?  If so, what's the exact mechanism? My hypothesis is that when we hear about someone else's experience, the learning effect is mostly indirect:  it affects how we interpret our own experiences moving forward.  The strength of the effect is also likely to be related to how relevant that other person's experience is to our own and the extent to which we are able to interpret that experience.

If someone tells me about their experience with meditation, I will learn very little from it because I have no experience of my own with meditation.  What I learn from that conversation may be very superficial and barely raise my level of interest in the topic.  I simply don't have the background knowledge to make the most of what I am hearing.

If, however, someone tells me about their experience writing their first novel, I have the personal experience and my own set of insights to leverage as background in order to interpret what I am hearing. This is not really a new insight because we know that expertise is best transferred from novice to more experience professionals rather than from novice to expert (the gap in knowledge must not be too big).

The key insight for me was that when we learn from others, the learning might mostly come in the shape of new insights into how we interpret our own experiences rather than learning directly from the experience of others.