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

Cantley MF & Sahal D (1980). Who Learns What? A Conceptual Description of Capability and Learning in Technological Systems. IIASA Research Report. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: RR-80-042

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Abstract

In terms both of individual units and of groups or organizations, the evolution of technological systems has structural similarities to the evolution of biological systems. This paper thus makes use of Bonner's description of biological development: 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 technological fields. Examples from several industries illustrate technological developments. The pursuit of economies of scale exemplifies the parallelism with 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, stored on paper (or its equivalent), 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; in fact, the shift is from Darwinian to Lamarckian evolution. However, theoretical knowledge is important 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 underlie the phenomenon known as cumulative experience, manifest in the "learning curve." Learning, however, is a multilevel process, and levels are described as a basis for distinguishing the type of learning or information transfer characteristic of each level, answering the 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. An organization's capability is described in terms of a network of capabilities.

The final section discusses policy implications of the conceptual framework developed in the report.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Research Report)
Research Programs: Management and Technology Area (MMT)
Depositing User: IIASA Import
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 01:47
Last Modified: 02 Nov 2016 11:37
URI: http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/1231

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