A system’s ability to learn

Learning is not strictly an individual human’s job. It is also the job of the system in which they work. There’s examples of computer algorithms that learn from experience, some with more success then others. My favorite algorithm is the auto-correct on my iPhone, that allows my thumbs to flail about with wild abandon and still get the word right 80% of the time. “Yje” changes to “The” and “Tenecka” changes to “Rebecka”. It learns from you, from the way you correct words, and from the other words your phone has access to.

A learning system is more impressive when it is not just one computer or one person, but when it is a group of people working with a good system. Part of a company’s culture is the collective knowledge of their domain, the ability to access the people and information that will help solve hard problems. In fact, every group of people learns over time, simply by working on similar problems and talking about it with one another. But there are some that are fantastically better than others.

Take, for example, Xerox Parc, that legendary research center that developed the computer mouse, ethernet, object-oreinted programming, laser printers, and a host of other things. They did this at one campus, over a period of approximately 10 years. How? Was it simply that they hired superstars, put them down in an office, and asked them to think? It was more, as Malcom Gladwell argues, that they were creative people who were asked to work in a creative environment. And creative environments are learning environments, environments where people can see and talk about and think of other disciplines. They’re environments where heated debate is encouraged, and intelligence and book learning are as sexy as a new truck or a trophy buck.

But Xerox Parc is not a long-ago fantasy that cannot be replicated. No, learning and creativity and energy can be created in any system, provided you give it room. Take a single step in that direction in your company, and start to write down small lessons that you learn and email them to everyone. Perhaps it’s an interesting conversation with a customer, perhaps its a new idea of how to put something together, perhaps its a productivity tip you leaned from Twitter. You can eventually take it a step further and use a knowledge repository of some kind, or get software that does the heavy lifting for you. But it is irresponsible of you to believe that nobody would be interested in what you know, and it is critical to the health of your company that the systems you live in and create and work with can learn and improve.

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