Wednesday 9 September 2015 4:59 am

Why practice doesn’t make perfect: Rote learning has limited uses in the world of business

From times tables to French verbs, we are told by our teachers that practice is the key to success. This old bromide was given scientific endorsement in 1993, when psychologist Anders Ericsson produced a study claiming that success owes more to toil than talent.
But research by Princeton last year put paid to the theory that “deliberate practice” – exercises which aim to develop performance in a certain activity – helps when it comes to strategising and solving business problems.
Performing meta-analysis of 88 studies of deliberate practice across fields including music, sport, education and games like Scrabble and chess, the study found that practice accounted for 12 per cent of individual differences in performance overall, but less than one per cent when it came to performance in professions.
So in business, does practice really give you a good return on investment?


In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that 10,000 hours practice is sufficient to make anyone an expert. Gladwell cites The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples – the former having played live in Hamburg for more than 10,000 hours in total, the latter having spent roughly the same time programming a high-school computer. 
But business is a very different animal. After all, “skills” is a broad label. Games like chess, reactive though they may be, do not simulate the kind of unforeseeable shocks which affect businesses, even on a daily basis.
Shifts in the political arena can lead to higher taxes and stricter regulation, and market movements can lead to fluctuations in the costs of capital. 
“The 10,000 hours practice rule only works in a field like tennis where the rules don’t change,” Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, told Wired. “If the mobile phone sector worked like tennis, Nokia would have been on top for a long time because of its expertise and economies of scale.” 
As apps rose to prominence, Nokia refocused on producing cheaper units on a greater scale. “Nokia wasn’t stupid, it just thought it knew the answer,” said Johansson. “But in an unpredictable world it didn’t.” 


One argument is that deliberate practice is just a form of rote learning. And memorising the principles of a business strategy is very different from knowing when and how to apply it in multiple contexts. 
The ability to recall management principles has its place. But criticism has been levelled at theoretical learning across the education spectrum, from the “No Child Left Behind” initiative in the US, to the course content of MBAs for their emphasis on theory, and not applied knowledge.
A 2013 report by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) urged a more practical approach to management education. “We have seen that a lot of business schools are focused on corporate, blue chip businesses in terms of case studies and so on,” said Petra Wilson, director of policy and research at CMI. Even studying practical management techniques that may be of use in such organisations will not be much help in a different context.


Games may be the way forward. Not Scrabble and the like, where practice boosts performance by an average of 26 per cent, according to the Princeton study. But a raft of business simulation games, such as Your Strategy Needs a Strategy, which was developed in part by Boston Consulting Group, have emerged. These promise to help players apply their understanding of how to get a business off the ground and then manage it successfully. 
Another is People Express, based on the rise and fall of People Express Airlines, which launched in 1981 and became the US’s fifth largest airline. With a annual turnover of $1bn, its management model had been lauded. But by 1986, it was almost bankrupt, and the game challenges players to do a better job, making strategic and operational calls, from hiring to advertising and price-setting, while receiving feedback on past decisions.
MIT professor John Sterman told the Harvard Business Review that he uses People Express to educate his business students, because it simulates the real world’s “messy complexity, time pressures, and irreversible consequences”.