Learning in Community: The Potential of Coactive Vicarious Learning

As the parent of a child with a developmental disability, I continue to experience the importance of “coactive vicarious learning”. I can explain things repeatedly, make detailed lists for how to do something, and even demonstrate whatever the task(s) may be. In the end, my daughter usually teaches me that what works best is to observe, ask questions, try it out, get feedback and then try again. Over time, she makes sense in her own way of what needs to be done and how she can best do it.

And that makes perfect sense! She is a different person than I am with different talents, challenges and ways of navigating the world. If I want her to really understand and “own” whatever I am trying to teach her, I need to acknowledge that my way is not the only way and to support her in bringing her skills, approaches and interests to the task.

It seems that what my daughter is slowly but surely teaching me could also be of some value to businesses and other organizations. In his recent synopsis of on-going research by Christopher Myers, Michael Blanding notes:

“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.”

Myers suggests this approach both ignores the critical importance of tacit knowledge and assumes “that the person undertaking the learning wants to duplicate exactly what the other person is doing—despite the fact that they may be perpetuating mistakes made by a predecessor or simply following procedures that may be a bad fit for a person of a different personality and skillset.” 

In what I suspect is not a revelation to Dialogue Education practitioners, Myers goes on to suggest that instead of seeking a more effective one-way transfer of pre-formed knowledge packets, we should be “talking about co-creation and building it together.”  What we need is coactive vicarious learning where “both the learner and the sharer of knowledge bring things to the table and together create something new.”

[Photo: "What is the best way to carve a turkey?" Coactive vicarious learning in the kitchen at a Paterson family gathering!]

Sounds great, but what might that look like in practice within organizational settings?

Myers observes that some of the best learning among co-workers occurs in more discursive settings in which colleagues are able to “dig in with each other” and ask “‘Why did you do it this way, and not that way?’” Managers can be more intentional about creating times, places and a culture that supports not just the sharing of stories, but also asking questions and creating shared meaning together through dialogue.

This is not the first time someone has suggested that more discursive forms of interaction can promote better learning and improved performance within organizations.  (For example, check this out.)  So why then do we continue to have organizations “stuck” in their traditional approaches to training, knowledge transfer and performance improvement? How can we shift our focus to creating supportive environments for these forms of interactions not just in workshops and “training settings,” but also in the day-to-day interactions of organizations and communities?

Myers points to one possible strategy for making progress in this area:

“Managers don’t have to redesign a building to engineer these encounters. Just by observing where employees naturally congregate and then tacitly condoning those conversations or actively participating in them can go a long way toward normalizing the kind of office culture that encourages employee interaction.”

I would really appreciate the opportunity to gather around the water cooler or in the lunchroom to share stories and learn with my colleagues. However, like a growing number of organizations I exist in a network that is spread across a wide geography. And as we have come to see more and more within the world of community change, the dialogue and learning that wants to happen is often between peers who are literally hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Our “water cooler” has become the internet and websites set up as places for virtual shared learning.

So how can we incorporate principles and practices of dialogue education more effectively into these virtual settings and processes?

I am looking forward to exploring these and related questions at Global Learning Partners’ upcoming Learning Design Retreat later this month. But for now, I need to go learn more from and with my daughter! 

What do you think?  How does this resonate with your experiences?


Chris Paterson is a Co-Founder and Senior Fellow with Community Initiatives. He has over 20 years of experience working with groups of leaders to develop effective collaborative planning efforts, use information-based tools as catalysts for shared learning, and engaging in local and national peer learning networks and events. Through his efforts, Chris seeks to create environments that foster dialogue, promote learning and bring a bit of joy to work that serves the well-being of all community members. To learn more about Chris and his work, please visit http://communityinitiatives.com