Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study

By Miner, Anne S.; Bassoff, Paula et al. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study


Miner, Anne S., Bassoff, Paula, Moorman, Christine, Administrative Science Quarterly


An inductive study of improvisation in new product development activities in two firms uncovered a variety of improvisational forms and the factors that shaped them. Embedded in the observations were two important linkages between organizational improvisation and learning. First, site observations led us to refine prior definitions of improvisation and view it as a distinct type of real-time, short-term learning. Second, observation revealed links between improvisation and long-term organizational learning. Improvisation interfered with some learning processes; it also sometimes played a role in long-term trial-and-error learning, and the firms displayed improvisational competencies. Our findings extend prior research on organizational improvisation and learning and provide a lens for research on entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and the fusion of unplanned change and order. [*]

Organizational theory reveals a growing interest in extemporaneous organizational action and its potential value to organizations. Outside the organizational context, scholars have observed improvisation in fields as diverse as theater and music (e.g., Spolin, 1963; Bastien and Hostager, 1992; Weick, 1993b; Berliner, 1994), education (e.g., Borko and Livingston, 1989; Irby, 1992), and psychiatry (e.g., Embrey et al., 1996). Researchers have analyzed improvisation by organizations in especially fast-moving competitive settings, such as new product development (Eisenhardt and Tabrizi, 1995; Moorman and Miner, 1998a, 1998b), a changed political context (Alinsky, 1969), and during emergencies such as a strike (Preston, 1991), a failed navigational system (Hutchins, 1991), and a firestorm (Weick, 1993a). Others have focused on the aesthetic virtues of improvised action (Weick, 1993c; Hatch, 1997b). Work to date thus provides ample evidence that the construct of improvisation can generate lively discussion and that instances of improvisation are found in organizations.

One recurring theme of both research and lay observations is that stored knowledge and skills shape improvisation in important ways. Weick (1993a) noted that experience played a role in successful and unsuccessful improvisation by firefighters. Moorman and Miner (1998a) found that organizational memory moderates the impact of improvisation on new product outcomes (see also Moorman and Miner, 1998b, for related theory). Brown and Eisenhardt (1995) theorized that learned routines shape improvisation in new product development (see also Eisenhardt and Tabrizi, 1995). Hatch (1998) observed that skilled improvisers often recombine existing routines (parts of memory) to create novel action, much as a musician reassembles previously performed bundles of notes into a novel melody.

At the core of prior work is the argument that the result of prior learning, organizational memory, shapes the skillful and fruitful improvisation of novel performances. Research is less clear, however, about whether and how improvisation affects learning, focusing instead on the outcomes of improvisation itself, such as saved firefighters or firms. We wondered whether improvisation would result in a different set of behaviors or insights relative to what firms would have experienced under normal planning and execution. Because improvised activities often occur outside organized routines or formal plans, we also questioned whether they could be accepted and incorporated into future organizational activities. At an even higher level of organizational learning, it is not clear whether an organization can learn to plan such an unplanned event as an improvisation.

In examining these issues, we considered two sets of ideas. First, we focused on the extemporaneous quality of improvisation, drawing on a large body of prior work across disciplines (e.g., Pressing, 1988; Borko and Livingston, 1989; Preston, 1991; Bastien and Hostager, 1992; Weick, 1993a, 1993b). Specifically, we build on the view of improvisation as the degree to which composition and execution converge in time (Moorman and Miner, 1998b: 698). …

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