Social learning beats innovation to business success

Business Dilemma: You can build your business by either:

  1. Copying your competitors or
  2. Striking out to develop new Blue Ocean markets.

Which is likely to be more successful?

A fascinating new study carried out by Kevin Laland of the Universtity of St Andrews (covered in The New Scientist – 1 May 2010) suggests that the former copy-cat appoach is likely to lead to greater chance of success and survival.

This is at odds with much of the wider thinking on the importance of innovation and original thought in business today.

Laland carried out an online gaming tournament (a sort of SIM City) in which gamers from across the world controlled agents. They started with 100 agents each and the challenge was to see who could develop the strongest “fittest” species of agent to dominate the virtual world. Players could choose from a variety of behaviours ranging from “innovation” to “observation” to “exploitation” at each stage of the game.

Social learning held the key to success in the game. For example, the fittest agents spent more time watching and observing other agents whilst the less successful focused more on innovating. However, there’s more to it than simply sitting and watching; the successful agents were careful in allocating the amount of time they spent observing (“between a tenth and a fifth of their time seemed to be the optimal range”) and also managing the recency of the information observed and digested.

In other words, the top performing agents observed the best and most recent traits of success on offer then were quick to implement these skills for themselves.

Building from this was the importance of ongoing learning – it was not front-loaded in the sense of: watch and learn then put into practise these new skills for the whole of the rest of the game. Rather it was more a case of watch and learn then put into practise for a bit; test results; watch and learn some more; discard out-of-date knowledge and put into practise latest learning; test results; and on and on. This brings into notion the fundamental flaws in our current system of: spend the first 16 – 21 years of life in education and then into the workforce (with all learning behind you) for the remainder..?

The corollary to this is that you still need innovators too. If there are only social learners then they will watch, observe and copy one another infinitum until the knowledge becomes so outdated that they all perish. Instead, an innovator will break the mould and successful social learners will jump on the bandwagon in “parasitic” fashion as played out in the game.

It is fascinating that so many entrepreneurs seem to think that they need to have that great idea (which incidentally rarely lands) whilst all around us are successful entrepreneurs who have built their fortunes on tried and tested business models originally developed by others.

Overall, the winner of the experiment demonstrated a canny ability to watch and learn (the right innovators) then take and apply that knowledge and behaviour. But more than this, the success  also lay in keeping a watchful eye on the ever changing environment to identify when it was time to go back to the drawing-board and find new and updated skills to copy. Then to get back out there and do it again and again and again…