Adapted from “Transferring Negotiation Knowledge,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
After attending intensive executive education courses, managers typically return to the office with a sense of excitement about applying their new knowledge—only to find 200 e-mails and 25 voicemail messages waiting for them. Amid the chaos, the lessons of the past few days are forgotten. The unmet challenge of executive education is the transfer of knowledge from the classroom to the real world.
Back in the 1940s, social psychologist Kurt Lewin argued that for lasting change to occur, people must (1) “unfreeze” existing processes, (2) understand the content necessary for change, and (3) create conditions to “refreeze” new processes into a standard repertoire. More recently, psychologists Leigh Thompson, Jeffrey Loewenstein, and Dedre Gentner have found that managers’ ability to access stored knowledge depends on how they learned it. In a number of studies, learning through analogical reasoning—the process of drawing inferences from multiple cases—proved far more effective than learning one case at a time. When people analyze just one case, they focus too narrowly on its unique, surface-level characteristics. But when they think about similarities between two related cases, they’re more likely to diagnose underlying abstract features relevant to many other problems.
In one study, Thompson, Loewenstein, and Gentner compared the performance of “advice givers” who guided participants in a negotiation task either by discussing two cases separately (Advice Condition) or by presenting a general principle about both cases (Analogy Condition). The advice givers in the Analogy Condition group were three times more likely to apply the principle effectively later than were those in the Advice Condition group. The lesson? Abstract reasoning creates knowledge that lasts.