Learning debt

Selecting easier tasks with less cognitive effort leads to decrease in long-term capability

Task selection

With the relative freedom to organize the execution and when supervision is somewhat complacent, knowledge workers have task discretion i.e. the ability to select their next task. They may choose to work on what they like rather on what their skills would be best used. They waste their time on tasks below their capabilities and sometimes are overpaid for the routine tasks they chose to work on[1] ronically the ignored tasks are assigned to somebody who struggles and executes in an inefficient way, leading to delays and mistakes, multiplying the waste. In such cases, organizations have failed to utilize their human potential because the able people went for the easier or more comfortable way.

Easy tasks can be completed in a shorter amount of time and require less cognitive effort.

Knowledge workers are more likely to select easy tasks when their workload increases. As individuals experience more load, they choose to work faster in the short term. Interestingly, that means performance may improve as workload increases.

Knowledge workers may take on easier tasks when they get tired.

In the immediate short term such an approach has positive effects. First, a person picking easier tasks is associated with a higher throughput and shorter service times. That is because easier tasks are completed quicker than more difficult ones. Second, it leads to reducing overall service time variation. That is because easy tasks are usually quick to deliver and as such similar in length. Third, it makes people feel good to complete a task, even if the task is easy. This behavior is labeled as task completion preference (TCP)[1].

If we just consider the number of tasks completed, then TCP improves the throughput volume. However, when we adjust throughput volume for complexity, a negative learning effect arises from completing easier tasks. By choosing the harder task (exploration), one creates an opportunity to learn. On the other hand, by selecting the easier task (exploitation), one delays the learning[2]. That is called "learning debt".

Learning is compromised when knowledge workers select easy tasks.

Moreover, when examined performance over time, it is found that one's long-term capability may be compromised. Completing more difficult tasks is related to learning improvement (in service time reductions and throughput increases) compared with completing easy tasks. In the long run, continued selection of easy tasks can limit the knowledge worker's ability to learn from difficult tasks, thereby lowering overall baseline capability. Because people tend to break complicated tasks into more manageable parts, and because losses are most distressing when segregated they consistently pay off small debts first, even though the larger debts have higher interest rates[3]. Over time, cumulative experience with difficult tasks will improve service time more than cumulative experience with easier tasks.

In such cases, organizations have failed to utilize their human potential because the able people went for the easier or more comfortable way.

All that has important implications for the design and organization of knowledge work and for managing and evaluating worker capability. In particular, restricting knowledge workers' ability to completely pay off small debts, and focusing their attention on the amount of interest each debt has accumulated, helps them reduce overall learning debt more quickly[3].

Works Cited

1. Kc, D. S., Staats, B. R., Kouchaki, M., & Gino, F. (2020). Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Performance. Management Science, 66(10), 4397–4416. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2019.3419

2. March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71-87.

3. Amar M, Ariely D, Ayal S, Cryder CE, Rick SI (2011) Winning the battle but losing the war: The psychology of debt management. J. Marketing Res. 48(SPL):S38-S50.

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