What do Amazon’s Business Model and a COVID-19 Rapid Learning Engine have in common?

Amazon Virtuous Cycle. Adapted from the Jeff Wilke You Tube talk (see below)

This is not as tenuous as it sounds. Have a glance at the image above and ponder on this. It was originally drawn in the early 2000’s by Jeff Bezos, on a paper napkin. Described as the ‘virtuous cycle’ its been at the heart of Amazon’s approach, and part of them becoming one of the biggest companies in the world (in less than 20 years). You might not like some of what Amazon does, but there has to be ‘something’ in this ‘virtuous cycle’.

You might now be asking, “what has this got to do with learning and COVID-19?”. More specifically, what has it got to do with a Rapid Learning Engine? Let me try and explain.

Never waste a good idea (even if it’s someone else’s). A few years back, over a beer, I was explaining the Amazon virtuous cycle to my friend Clover. We were in a relatively posh pub (Y Mochyn Du), with paper napkins, so I was busily scribbling away. Clover loves that sort of thing, and might have even kept the napkin. What I was pitching to Clover was along the lines of “we could adapt this Amazon approach to share good practice across Wales”. Well, that idea never got beyond the pub front doors, but I am persistent. I never like to waste a good idea – even if it is someone else’s.

So what is the Amazon Virtuous Cycle? If you want a detailed explanation you can read ‘Amazon’s Virtuous Cycle in a Nutshell from FourWeekMBA.Com. Alternatively have look at the video below from Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Customer.

The ‘paper napkin’ sketch I copied at the start of the post, is fairly self explanatory. This ‘simplicity’ is claimed to be one of the great benefits of the approach. Something that can be sketched on a napkin, easily understood and shared. Here’s my explanation:

  1. Start with Customers and give them a great experience.
  2. This will ‘bring them back’ and hopefully people they talk to.
  3. More customers (more traffic) will attract more sellers.
  4. More sellers, equals a bigger selection of things to buy, which helps improve customer experience.
  5. Repeat the cycle.

This creates a ‘virtuous circle’ that continues to rotate with growth at the center of rapidly spinning ‘flywheel’. A consequence of growth is reduced costs of ‘running’ the flywheel, which can be passed on to further improve the customer experience. Other consequences have been the development of The Kindle and Amazon Web Services. It’s that simple!

Jeff Wilke, CEO Amazon Worldwide Consumer 2012.

So how could this apply to COVID-19 learning? Being able to clearly explain an approach always helps to get an idea off the ground. The Rapid Learning Engine hexagon below has emerged since this post, ‘is anyone deploying ‘Innovation and Learning’ people alongside COVID-19 Response Teams?’ There are a few assumptions that underpin this as a model of rapid learning.

  1. Useful knowledge exists in the world.
  2. This knowledge isn’t evenly distributed. Some people can’t access it because they are too busy, don’t know where to look, its too hard to get – lots of good reasons.
  3. Many people would find it useful to have access to this knowledge.
  4. Something that gathers together the ‘good stuff’ and provides some insight would ‘add value’.
  5. Provide this sort of knowledge and people will come back for more (they will also tell their friends about it).
  6. If people are engaging, you can also ask them to share what they know. This adds to the ‘knowledge store’.
  7. A bigger (and better) knowledge store attracts more people to engage and share.
  8. It’s as simple as that.
The Rapid Learning Engine

Thanks to Toby Lowe the approach has been given a name, Rapid Learning Engine. You can see explaining how it developed on this Northumbria University webinar about Human Learning Systems organised by Toby and Andy Brogan from Easier Inc.

Easy to Say, Hard to Do. Inevitably I’m going to quote Dave Snowden here – it wouldn’t feel like a proper Whats the PONT blog post if I didn’t. In this post on Rendering Knowledge (The 7 Principles of Knowledge Management) the first rule is: “Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted.”

Basically you cannot ‘squeeze’ knowledge out of people’s heads. They have to be willing to share what they know. You probably aren’t going to get a great deal of useful material if they don’t like or trust you.

This can be a bit of a problem if you are trying to gather information to fuel your Rapid Learning Engine. In a low trust, low sharing environment the engine it isn’t going to ‘spin’ very effectively.

Building trust and an open approach to sharing knowledge is a core requirement. Knowledge transfer is a social process, its a contact sport.

Beware of Silver Bullet Syndrome. I’ve been a bit twitchy about writing a post on the Amazon Virtuous Cycle and the Rapid Learning Engine. Firstly, not everyone loves Amazon and secondly, Silver Bullet Syndrome.

One of the things I’ve gone on about at length is the activity of picking up something that has been used elsewhere and applying it to your own situation, with the hope of similar success. You can have a read about it here in The Life Cycle of a Silver Bullet.

On the other hand, I might just be practicing a bit of exaptation. Taking something that was developed for one purpose (selling things online) and using it for a completely different purpose (rapid learning). I’d like to think I’m in the world of exaptation, others might think differently.

So. What’s the PONT?

  1. The paper napkin test is a useful measure. Is what you are trying to explain so clear and understandable that you can sketch it out on a paper napkin?
  2. Knowledge transfer is a social process built upon trust.
  3. The Rapid Learning Engine is built on trust. The greater the trust, the more rapidly we share knowledge.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

7 Responses

  1. > Thanks. This reminded me to share a message I sent to Qualifications Wales this evening. IMHO I think this will be our best shot at getting co-operative learning into the education system. Hope this finds you well, David >

    > Dear Heidi, > > Thank you for your recent email regarding the next phase of this Groups work. > > Last September and at the Cardiff QW/IWA public consultation I was optimistic that QW was up for constructive challenge. A Zoom meeting was offered by QW for the first week of June but without knowledge of how QW and the October Practitioner Group had evolved thinking over the past eight months. > > You state QW have “now determined a preferred model for the Advanced Skills Challenge Certificate, our next step is a public consultation on this qualification due to take place this September’ …and follow up engagement is now proposed ahead of an external consultation. > > The public have a right to understand how QW have taken account of wider considerations in how we prepare students for the uncertainties that lie ahead. With this in mind it would be helpful if QW could respond to the following questions: > > (1) Covid19 has given new perspectives on the experience of sudden change, uncertainty and loss of control, all of which might be expected as they deal with the consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss in years to come. Could QW share their perspective on the extent to which Covid19 has fundamentally challenged and changed how we might educate young people in a future beyond the end of lockdown to be better prepared for this changing world? > > In respect of Welsh Bacc ASCC > > (2) What assurance can be provided that the preferred model will be a) exciting and engaging for pupils/students and geared up to provide the skills they need to respond to the challenges ahead of them, b) integrate real world challenges from the community around them that need practical solutions, into all aspects of the curriculum? > > (3) Assure that proposed changes will redefine this aspect of our education system in a way that reconciles global ecology with personal values? > > (4) Provides pupils/students with a solid understanding how new models of business ownership, investment and purpose can reduce inequality and increase engagement with actions to improve their future workplace, community and future? > > Background > > The World Bank say “the world is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis that has spread with astonishing speed and will result in the largest shock the global economy has witnessed in more than seven decades. Millions of people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty” https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/06/08/business/bc-us-world-bank-global-forecast.html? The Bank of England observe https://www.ft.com/content/734e604b-93d9-43a6-a6ec-19e8b22dad3c and McKinsey comment on ‘Lowest-income regions face the biggest challenges’ https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-in-the-united-kingdom-assessing-jobs-at-risk-and-the-impact-on-people-and-places > > I have cc’d June and David. Also Fiona – our shared link with the WCVA Welsh Bacc sub group > > Yours sincerely, > > David > > David Smith > Representing the WCVA Welsh Bacc sub group > Anderley Lodge > 216 Stow Hill > Newport NP20 4HA > Wales, UK > 01633 266781 > 07923899441 > >>

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for insightful blog. I think I may be trying to create a Rapid Learning Engine, although it feels like I need lots more people willing to share that all important knowledge! Great read….

  3. Right then!! You were right to be worried, that napkin-epiphany lark, exists in most fairy tales of great (rich) people. It stinks of retrospective coherence: remembered #HITS v experienced #SHIT. Plus I’ve got a really bad itch developing about a fast learning engine. Firstly, it’s mechanical and learning is organic and Lastly, learning happens at the speed of reading and listening which is not fast. What you can accelerate is the rate of exposure to different people and ideas and experiences. Your 1st connection friends pretty much know the same things you do, whereas your 2nd and 3rd connections live in a slightly different word. It’s more like a Learning Garden Centre with a Cafe.

    That’s way to serious, so I’ll now switch to take a lesson from an old virtual friend of ours…

    Apparently one of Jeff’s longstanding colleagues in the early days of Cadabra/Relentless/Amazon was a software programmer from Llandudno, called Clem. He was a notorious short armed long pocketed tightarse, who banged on at Jeff to make everything as cheap and as easy as possible. One of the principle pre-release checks on many platforms is called the ‘Idiot Fiddler Test’, intended to try and break stuff. While fiddling Clem got really annoyed with all the sign in kerfuffle typical of websales at the time, so being as tight with his time as he was with his money, Clem created a back door so he could shop about and fill his virtual basket, to test the various subroutines without going through all the nonsense. By mistake the the backdoor went live and because people had invested time and effort in browsing and filling the basket already, doing the boring login details at payment was suddenly worth the effort. The traffic doubled overnight and the rest is history.

      1. I know exactly what you mean, even the slightest suggestion of relinquishing control sets them off in hives. I watched the video first, reminded me of Seddon’s equally unconvincing napkin. Great blog though, loads of food for thought, albeit that on first reading, I had the image of trying to help people learn to swim, by washing their hair. Haha.

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