Startups Where “We Are All In This Together” Learn Faster

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

“The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
Arie P. de Geus in “Planning as Learning” in HBR March-April 1988

In “Planning as Learning” Arie P. de Geus offers an interesting contrast between two bird species–titmouse and robin–based on an article by Jeff S. Wyles, Joseph G. Kunkel, and Allan C. Wilson, “Birds, Behavior and Anatomical Evolution,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, July 1983.

Human beings aren’t the only ones whose learning ability is directly related to their ability to convey information. As a species, birds have great potential to learn, but there are important differences among them. Titmice, for example, move in flocks and mix freely, while robins live in well-defined parts of the garden and for the most part communicate antagonistically across the borders of their territories.

Virtually all the titmice in the U.K. quickly learned how to pierce the seals of milk bottles left at doorsteps. But robins as a group will never learn to do this (though individual birds may) because their capacity for institutional learning is low; one bird’s knowledge does not spread.

The same phenomenon occurs in management teams that work by mandate. The best learning takes place in teams that accept that the whole is larger than the sum of the parts, that there is a good that transcends the individual.

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