The Pitfalls of Learning from Others

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Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

Often in our daily work, we wonder if anybody else has had the same problems we face and how have they solved them. Then we might send a mail to a distribution list or even go a bit further and do a benchmark with some company to find out how they are dealing with the same challenge. It is good to learn from others but things are not always what they seem to be.

In their book, The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor criticize the often blind copying of formulas for success that have worked for some companies. If one company has had a great success by diversifying its operations, there will be a management book that tells how everybody should diversify and become successful. Then another company has a great success by focusing on its core activities, and another management book comes out that tells how everybody should focus on core activities to become successful. Which method do you believe?

Christensen and Raynor claim that people often look at the wrong things when thinking about whether some recipe will work for them or not. For example, they may categorize the companies by size, industry, revenue, and level of globalization, deducing that their company is similar to other companies when looking at those attributes, and so the same recipes that worked for the other companies must work for them as well. However, such easy generalizations may not be the case. Company executives should look at the circumstances in which the companies operate and how they operate to determine the actual causes and effects for success instead of looking just for correlations on some attributes.

How does this relate to our world? Most of us are not the CEOs of major companies trying to compete in a global marketplace. On a smaller scale, the same holds true in many of our attempts to learn from others, either inside our companies, from other groups, or comparing experiences with other companies. What works for one company might not work for you.

For example, if one company has succeeded when outsourcing its documentation, it does not necessarily mean that the same would work for you. You have to look at things like what is the company aiming at with outsourcing (lower costs, flexibility in resources, higher quality, utilizing new technologies, or something else). How do they handle the outsourcing relationship? What work is done in-house and what does the vendor company do? What are the volumes? What types of products are being documented? How do the other departments work and support the vendor company. The answers to these and many other questions will affect the success of your outsourcing effort. Only when you can find out the causes and circumstances that make the effort successful can you judge whether you are in a similar situation and estimate whether a similar solution will work for you.

It doesn’t even have to be something really big that you are trying to copy. For example, there are many books on time management, and they tell you how to deal with your e-mail but naturally the usefulness of those instructions depend on how many e-mails you get and whether you have adopted some kind of a coding scheme in your company for categorizing the e-mails. If you only get 10 mails a day or every e-mail has good subject fields, which help you to automatically divert the mails to certain folders, you don’t have to use any other system to keep up with your mails.

There is nothing wrong in learning from others and making use of best practices but before you copy something, ask in-depth questions about the circumstances in which the practice is successful and note the assumptions and goals behind doing the activity to make sure that the practice is applicable to your situation.


This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.

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