Who Learns What? A Conceptual Description of Capability and Learning in Technological Systems

Cantley MF & Sahal D (1979). Who Learns What? A Conceptual Description of Capability and Learning in Technological Systems. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-79-110

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Abstract

The evolution of technological systems has structural similarities to the evolution of biological systems, in terms both of individual units and of groups or organizations. Bonner's description of biological development is used: the law of growth of the constructive processes, the internal and external constraints on this growth, the resulting changes of form, differentiation, specialization of function, and increased complexity, are all features common to developments in the biological and the technological fields. Examples of the latter are described, from several industries. The pursuit of economies of scale illustrates the parallelism with the biological development.

The evolution of technological capability is seen as a learning process, in which information is acquired, stored and transmitted. Information can be stored in people, paper (or equivalents), or embodied in physical plant. These specifically human capabilities differentiate learning in technological fields from biological evolution by natural selection, and open up more rapid and efficient means of information or technology transfer. However, all theoretical knowledge is of significance only when translated into practice, and learning itself originates in and depends on practice: there are limits to the effective "storability" of know-how, and similarly to its transmission. A distinction is drawn between "primary" (direct) and "secondary" (derivative, indirectly transmitted) learning.

The terms introduced underly the phenomenon known as cumulative experience, manifest in the "learning curve". Learning, however, is a multi-level process, and levels are described as a basis for distinguishing the type of learning or information transfer characteristic of each level; answering the Bela Gold question, "who learns what?" The intrinsically discrete nature of the learning process -- a step-function rather than a curve -- is illustrated by Waddington's data on aircraft-submarine attack performance. The capability possessed by an organization is described in terms of a network of capabilities. The final section discusses policy implications of the conceptual framework developed.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Working Paper)
Research Programs: Management and Technology Area (MMT)
Depositing User: IIASA Import
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 01:46
Last Modified: 17 Nov 2016 01:43
URI: http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/1073

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