Organizational improvisation and learning: A field study

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Citation: Anne S. Miner, Paula Bassoff, Christine Moorman (2001) Organizational improvisation and learning: A field study. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)

Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), learning (RSS), innovation (RSS), business (RSS), product development (RSS)


Miner, Bassoff and Moorman provide an inductive study around product development in two firms. They research began in organizations and did not work backward from an improvisation event. Instead, they simply conducted long term research within two firms and monitored improvisation as it happened. They collected observations directly and from transcripts from more 50 product development meetings at each firm as well as using detailed interviews and archival data. They worked inductively from this data collections and found that improvisational forms and factors play and an important role.

The paper's first struggle is simply with defining improvisation as distinct from existing conceptions that include adaptation, bricolage, compression, creativity, innovation, intuition, and learning. Using data on behavioral productions (i.e., a new way of doing something or an improvised process) and artifactual productions (i.e., new physical structures like mock-ups that did not have a prior design), and interpretive productions which were improvised interpretation of existing information or situations, the authors argue that improvisations are distinct from each of these other concepts in that it is includes material convergence of design and execution, an implied temporal convergence as well, novelty, and deliberateness.

Using this same analysis, the authors suggest that improvisation can be seen as a special case of short term learning (see Levitt and March, 1988). In making this argument more strongly, they compare improvisation with experiential learning and with trial-and-error learning. They suggest that improvisation can either have no effect on long-term learning or that it can sometimes provide an element in long-term learning situations, and that it can also have negative effects. They detail each of these example using data from their field work.

The paper's more clear contribution is simply a more clear definition of organizational improvisation and a contextualization of this definition with the large organizational learning literature and a suggestion of how it can interact with longer term organizational learning.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Miner et al. have been cited more than 450 times in the literature on innovation and learning in organizations, but also some by the larger communities of practice literature.