SMITH BRAIN TRUST – On the road to success, it can be helpful to be shown a speedier route or be warned of a traffic jam just ahead. But how do we do it? How do we learn from the experiences of others and how do we choose whom to learn from?
Using social comparison theory, Maryland Smith’s Christine Beckman and Smith PhD student Hyeun J. Lee review the literature on learning from others. They examine how we decide whom to compare ourselves to, based on various motivations, and they describe the challenges in predicting learning outcomes based on motives alone.
“Taken together, we call for more understanding of different cues and bases of social comparison, alongside consideration of motivation, to better understand from whom actors can learn, and what can be learned from them,” the researchers write.
The notion of learning from others is a construct that has been variously described by scholars as network learning, social performance feedback, vicarious learning, interorganizational learning, knowledge transfer, and population learning, the authors write. And it’s not always uniformly applied.
“This broad body of research makes it challenging to summarize what we know about (and to build on) learning from others,” the authors write.” Yet it is critically important because an actor’s own information is often limited or biased and our basic social nature suggests that actors (both individual and organizational) make regular and frequent social comparisons with others.”
The researchers pointed to some promising research, delving into instances in which organizations publicly name their social referents or ask about social referents through a survey, but they add that the instances in which organizations do so are still “few and far between.” They recommend that researchers be explicit about the choice of a social reference group and, when possible, the motivation for such a choice. The move would help future researchers better understand the social comparison process.
“Although all of this is certainly daunting, we encourage researchers to tackle these questions head on,” the authors write. “Our current assumptions about reference group selection are flawed and our understandings incomplete.”
Read more: Social Comparison and Learning from Others, by Christine Beckman and Maryland Smith PhD student Hyeun J. Lee, is published by the Oxford Handbook of Group and Organizational Learning. Oxford University Press.
Christine Beckman is is a professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is an Associate Editor at Administrative Science Quarterly and a past division chair of the Organization and Management Theory division of the Academy of Management.
Research interests: Organizational learning, interorganizational networks, and entrepreneurship, particularly on how collaborative relationships facilitate organizational change. Recent work examines how new forms of organizational control operate in a technology-enabled world where boundaries between the personal and the professional are blurred. Her research sites are varied and include Fortune 500 companies, Silicon Valley startups, mutual funds, the U.S. Navy, German football teams, American baseball teams, and urban charter schools.
Selected accomplishments: Associate Editor, Administrative Science Quarterly; Chancellor’s Fellow, University of California, Irvine; 2006 Ascendant Scholar, Western Academy of Management.
About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.
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