How to Enable Mimetic Learning in Organisations?

While we have a tendency to over-estimate the learning value of formal learning activities (e.g. teaching a class), we tend to underestimate some other activities. Throughout human history, people have learnt trades, professions and skills through a much less rigorous approach, learning by imitation. This type of learning by “copying” others also occurs on much wider scale. For instance, learning how to deal with different cultures or social settings may often happen through imitation. But could there be value in enabling mimetic learning in modern organisations? Let’s explore.

What’s mimetic learning?

For definitions’ sake, let’s quickly define the term “mimetic learning”. To avoid misconceptions, mimetic learning shouldn’t be seen as to only consist of copying and imitation. Rather, we should view it as the act of relating to other persons, situations or “worlds” in a way that in turn leads us to improve our own views, actions and behaviours. In simple terms that would mean not just mindless copying, but first imitating and then critically implementing relevant behaviours.

Potential Value-add Cases in Organisational L&D

To understand how to facilitate this type of learning, we first have to understand what it may be good for. Here are a few ideas:

  • Learning practical or trade skills. For instance, novice engineers developing their technical skills could vastly benefit from being able to imitate and follow more seasoned experts. The better the knowledge transfer, the better the results.
  • Developing soft skills. For instance, new frontline employees in customer service roles could benefit from being exposed through mimetic learning opportunities to how senior employees approach and resolve conflicts and communicate in difficult situations.
  • Understanding culture. Each culture, whether an organisational one or something else, has its own artefacts, social rules and common behaviours. What a better way to learn about these kind of unique traits than through observation and learning by imitation?

How to facilitate mimetic learning in organisations?

Facilitating learning through imitation should be about providing opportunities for it and connecting “novices” to “experts”. There’s obviously a whole lot that can be done via traditional means. However, we’d like to focus on a few ideas involving the use of digital:

  • Digital communities of practice. Let novices follow experts via digital channels, while the experts showcase their techniques, methods and secrets through videos, writings, etc. Focus on practical applications. These digital communities of practice can have similar technical functionalities to social media platforms.
  • Enable curated sharing on organisational level. What if an employee thinks that they have a better, novel way of doing a particular task? What if you let them share it across the organisation to make more people aware of it? Don’t want to spread false practices? You can always curate and moderate what employees share.
  • Provide opportunities to practice. Encourage employees to take up new things and practice on their jobs. Have the experts chime in and watch over the process if possible. Perhaps even some digitally enabled coaching could be possible.
  • Enable wide exposure. Share things with your employees. A lot of the mimetic learning is reported by employees to happen thanks to “just being there”. Hence, expose your employees to different lines of business, problems and challenges as much as possible.

Final thoughts

Often, organisations fail to pay attention to a lot of the “natural” processes of learning, while focusing on a very narrow subset of formal, instructor-led techniques. Mimetic learning represents one of these highly natural ways of learning. While it’s hardly the solution for every learning need, it could help to solve some of the common organisational problems related to knowledge transfer and upskilling people on their jobs. The great thing is, that just like community-based learning or user-generated content strategies, facilitating people learning by “just being there” can be quite a low investment-high impact initiative. If you’d like to do that, or enable other methods of informal learning, feel free to contact us. Let’s try and solve your problem together.