The secret of our success (with online learning)

In The Secret of Our Success anthropologist Joseph Henrich outlines his hot take on why humans rose to become the ecologically dominant species: our ability to learn from each other. For many of us steeped in cognitive science, this position is surprising. We would expect the reason to be that human beings are just plain smarter. After all, humans seem to be considerably better at cognitive tasks, such as learning and processing large amounts of information. Prominent thinkers such as Steven Pinker have advanced this view, holding that human brains have been well adapted to be versatile.

However, there is interesting evidence that humans are not particularly smarter than our closest genetic relatives. In a series of studies by Esther Hermann and her team, who compared the intelligence of apes and two year old humans, it was demonstrated that infants do not fare better than chimpanzees at most cognitive tasks (e.g. quantities, causality) nor at spatial reasoning (e.g. object permanence). However, infant humans demonstrated considerably better social cognition. Adult chimps did not fare better than juvenile chimps at these tasks, but adult humans excel at them. It follows that an infant’s capacity for social learning is a major factor in their ability to learn new things, such as how to perform at cognitive tests. Henrich argues that this phenomenon also explains the history of European castaways, whose survival rates were not best determined by their years of provisions and time to learn how to survive, but whether they were able to befriend and learn from local Indigenous communities.

If we accept Henrich’s argument, it follows that what makes humans so successful is their capacity for cultural learning. Humans excel at learning passively by picking up on subtle cues through established social connections, or through the cumulative lens and context of one’s society. Our societies shape us and allow us to transfer knowledge that would have been impossible to accumulate on one’s own across a lifetime. Philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and John McDowell had a similar way of describing this phenomenon as bildung or cultural learning and argued that it was through a process of lifelong learning and education that knowledge was possible. Culture can also extend beyond a nation and permeate to subcultures or organizations.

I think that this view has consequences for the way we understand information technologies in organizations. When we implement a technology, we often consider factors such as its design, its usability, user training, and effective change management during its implementation. However, we don’t often consider the culture of an organization and the implications it has for learning new technologies.

Online learning during Covid-19 was an interesting case study in cultural learning with respect to information technology. In a study that we conducted at Dalhousie University during the pandemic, we conducted a survey of students’ experience to understand the factors that led to satisfactory online learning. Prior to the pandemic, our university had taught primarily in-person, and few people in our organization had experience either teaching or learning using online tools. We ultimately found that students’ perception of the difficulty of learning online was a strong predictor of dissatisfaction, and that this dissatisfaction is explained partially by whether someone perceived that they had the necessary technical skills.

This leads me to ask whether our collective experience through the pandemic would have been better if our organization had already developed a culture of learning online? Internal surveys later revealed that students at Dalhousie University were largely dissatisfied with emergency response though also that the Faculty of Management fared better than most. In hindsight, our elevated satisfaction was possibly explained by our faculty’s prior experience with online learning through its blended learning programs, as well as its focus on implementation of teaching technologies, such as ERPsim.

The culture of an organization thus plays an important part in supporting its stakeholders when they develop new skills or capabilities. Moving forward, we should ensure that we push to make technological innovation a key part of our identity, not just in branding. It is imperative that we create cultures where individuals have resources (including time) for innovation, where failure is tolerated, and where teams can be rewarded for taking risks. In doing so, we could create organizations that are better equipped for radical circumstances.

Leaders should focus on building the right culture. They should also heed Drucker’s wise words: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This adage extends well beyond online learning; culture might just be the most important factor in building a successful organization.