Tuesday 12 May 2015

In a contest between copying and innovation, which would win?

The question of whether innovation or copying is a more effective social learning strategy was tested a few years ago in an online tournament. The result may surprise you. 

Day 187
Originally uploaded by pasukaru76
In 2010, New Scientist magazine published an article entitled "You are what you copy", with the tag line "Forget free thinking, a talent for imitation is what really makes us smart".

This describes an experiment (actually an online tournament) to test out various social learning strategies. It tested variables such as the choice between copying and innovation, whether to copy the expert vs following the crowd, or whether to rely on what you know. The contest looked for "agents" who's chosen learning strategy gave them the greatest survival rate.

You can read the online summary for yourself, but here are some quotes from the magazine article.

"It seems a successful strategy rests primarily on the amount of social learning involved, with the most successful agents spending almost all their learning time observing rather than innovating"

"Avoiding spending too much time learning either socially or individually was
just as important. Between a tenth and a fifth of their life seemed to be the
optimal range. If they did more learning than that it seemed that life was just
passing them by."

"Successful strategies were also good at spacing out learning throughout the agents' lives. The winning strategy, Discount Machine, submitted by PhD students Daniel Cownden and Timothy Lillicrap from Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, stood out because it did just this. It seems packing all your learning into the early part of your life is not a great idea - we need to keep updating our knowledge as we go along".

"You don't need any clever copying rules. You can just copy anyone at random. Other individuals are doing the filtering for you. They will have tried out a number of behaviours and they will tend to perform the ones which are reaping the highest rewards."

"To become the winner of the tournament you .... have to weigh up the relative costs and benefits of sticking with the behaviour that you have, versus inventing a new behaviour, versus copying others. That requires assessing how quickly the environment is changing, as this gives you an idea of how quickly information will become outdated".

"In variable environments (the winner) placed a higher value on more recently
acquired information and discounted older information more readily".

"Another attribute of the most successful strategies is that they are parasitic. This is the essence of social learning - somebody has to do the hard graft to find out how to do things before other people can copy them, so it only pays to learn socially when there are some innovators around. Indeed, in contests where (the winning) agents were able to invade the entire population, they actually ended up with a lower average pay-off than they did in contests where the conditions allowed some agents with more innovative strategies to survive, so providing new behaviours to copy".

For the knowledge manager, this is really useful and interesting experimental input. Given the emphasis on innovation you often see, it is good to be reminded of the value of copying as an effective competitive strategy. I remember a senior engineering guy telling me that his principle was "No Versions 1.0". He never wanted to be the guinea pig for new technology - innovation is risky, and sometimes the best strategy is to let others take the risks, and copy the survivors.

The need to adjust strategy depending on the variability of the environment is also interesting, suggesting that the variability of the knowledge context can affect the strategy needed to deal with it.

The ideal learning percentage is an interesting statistic, also the fact that learning seems to be something that needs to happen constantly, rather than just at the start of your career.

The final learning point for me from all of this is that if we are looking at internal practices rather than competitive practices, then an organisation needs a knowledge management strategy that is strong on internal copying, leavened with a proportion of innovation. You need both - neither all copiers nor all innovators, but a blend of both (and the blend weighted towards the copiers). Also you need to ensure that the innovators capture or share enough knowledge that they can be copied!

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