Having Capable People is Simply Not Enough
As an example, consider the development of a newly graduated engineer. If they joined a team in which the most senior person only had three months' experience, the chances are that they would advance to the level at which they judged themselves to be proficient. That is, much sooner than they would if they worked alongside a team of experts, for example, that put a man on the moon!
In retrospect, my very first professional job demonstrated the point. I started as a junior programmer and shortly after I joined, a competitor that was rapidly expanding raided the organization. Because the competitor was offering more money, many of the more experienced staff members were lured away. The net result was that a year after completing basic training, the other trainees and I were not far off from being the most experienced in the department.
Despite the team's sincerest efforts, the results were predictable. Much of the work we produced had problems. I remember one particularly grim week in which six of the seven pieces of work we released into the production system had to be deactivated immediately after release because they were disrupting business operations.
Following that incident, the manager responsible for the department recognized the problem and arranged for some experienced staff from another department to shore up our capabilities. In part because the door to the beginner's mind had already started to shut, the newly assigned technical leader had significant difficulty convincing some that different practices needed to be adopted in order to avoid future problems. Although you can't relive history, I suspect that had strong role models been present throughout the formative periods, the problems we had would have been greatly reduced.
Many organizations may feel that such problems don't apply to them because they already have role models in place. Certainly most organizations do have people who are doing commendable work that could be used as a reference point. The problem is that simply having capable people is not enough. Role models only contribute to social learning when the role model's work products and decisions are clearly visible. The key to social learning lies in the fact that the learner directly observes the behaviors of the role model and sees the outcome of those behaviors. If you have a capable person but no one ever sees the direct outcome of their work, they are unlikely to be of value as a role model.