“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” This is the question that Steven Pinker asked 164 scientists and intellectuals who are part of the Edge Foundation network. The resulting virtual forum is rich with scientific, linguistic, and social concepts that offer a fascinating and thought-provoking array of very useful ideas.
One of these concepts is “experimentation”. This answer is offered by Roger Schank, CEO of Socratic Arts and Distinguished Career Professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and Chief Educational Officer of Carnegie Mellon West. He explains that we are exposed to the notion of experimentation in boring high school science classes which turns us off from using experimentation in everyday life. He writes:
Every aspect of life is an experiment that can be better understood if it is perceived in that way. But because we don't recognize this we fail to understand that we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, and that we need to carefully consider the conditions under which our experiments have been conducted, and that we need to decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results.
In other words, the scientific activity that surrounds experimentation is about thinking clearly in the face of evidence obtained as the result of an experiment. But people who don't see their actions as experiments, and those who don't know how to reason carefully from data, will continue to learn less well from their own experiences than those who do.
To me, experimentation is an essential aspect of organizational learning. It’s action learning. Instead of thinking about new programs and initiatives in terms of success and failure, we would learn more if we considered them experiments. Then we would systematically gather data about these interventions and use that information to help the organization become more effective. For example, let’s say a company installs a database of best-practices, as well as books, articles and other learning resources for use by managers to improve their performance. One approach the company might take is to be hands-off; that is, to assume that some people will use the database and some won’t but not doing anything more than make the database available. On the other hand, if the database is thought of as an experiment, the response would be quite different. The company would collect data about who is using the database and who isn’t and it would find out from the users what impact it is having on their performance and what could be done to enhance the usefulness of the database. With the first approach there is no organizational learning. With the second approach the organizational learning could be substantial and point the way for enhancing the impact of future programs.