Re: The Learning Curve LO1922
Tue, 4 Jul 1995 09:28:57 +1200

Replying to LO1869 --

I tried and abandoned as too long a comprehensive response to Michael
McMaster's last comprehensive post on this subject.

Suffice it to say that I find we are in general agreement as to the nature
of learning, the concept of multiple learning curves, and the nature of
the challenge confronting firms.

However I still suggest that FUNCTIONALLY it is extremely difficult (NOT
impossible) for enterprises to break out of the constrained options that
the cost focused notion of the learning curve imposes - and that is the
predominant experience that empirical observation reveals. The challenge
for those of us who believe that the model for breaking out of this can be
found in organisational learning theory is to express those models in ways
which are capable of practical implementation in the real world.

In most practice I believe we can discern a sort of inverse learning curve
- an 'unlearning curve'. If we find an enterprise which is operating with
a reasonable degree of success in a given environment we will most often
be looking at one which seeks to grow through volume increase and unit
cost reduction. As the environment changes unfavourably (as it always does
eventually) the initial response is to increase volume and reduce unit
costs MORE. This is a response to the bottom line, not the environment, so
such responses initiate an exponential curve of decline. In every such
curve there comes a crisis point where the enterprise has a last chance to
'find a new story' - that is to radically innovate - or else plummet into
oblivion. Crisis driven innovation remains its most common form.

Why is it that so few enterprises CONTINUALLY scan for 'new stories' -
even when things are going well? This being the fundamental descriptor of
a well-functioning 'learning organisation'. This is how I see Michael's
challenge. What can we do to create an environment and a culture in which
such an approach is the norm rather than the shining exception?

In the meantime I see my perception of the learning curve as being a
closer description of the empirical evidence than is Michael's.

Phillip Capper
Centre for Research on Work, Education and Business
PO Box 2855
New Zealand

Ph: 64+ 4 4998140 Fx: 64+ 4 4733087