Organizational learning

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Citation: Barbara Levitt, James G. March (1988) Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1146/
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1146/
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1146/
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Organizational learning
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Organization Theory (RSS), Organizational Learning (RSS), Strategy (RSS)


Levitt and March describe organizational learning as "routine-based, history-dependent, and target-oriented." In particular, they explain that organizationals learns by encoding the outcome of experience into routines within the organization that, in the future, provide a guide to behavior. The article describes how organizations can learn from direct experience (i.e., "learning by doing") but how these can lead to what the authors call "competency traps" where an organization can develop maladaptive specialization.

The authors go into depth on how organizations interpret events and experience through stories, paradigms and frames, how they have difficulty doing so because of the "ambiguity of success" and how misspecified connections between outcomes and actions can lead to "superstitious learning."

The next major portion of the article is on organizational memory and the way that organizations encode or record their experience in terms of routines and the way (and the degree) to which this process is a lossy one. The authors also touch on literature on the way that experience can be conserved or passed on through internal socialization processes within an organization and how it can be "retrieved."

In the next major section, Levitt and March build on the institutional literature to discuss a variety of different mechanisms through diffusions or means for organizations to learn from each other. In particular, the literature cites DiMaggio and Powell (1983) and the neo-institutional perspective on isomorphic pressures and to the sociological literature on diffusion of practices.

The review moves on to a discussion of "ecologies of learning" which talks about ecological approaches to the transmission of knowledge and the process of "learning to learn" which presages the coming literature on dynamic capabilities.

The article ends with a discussion of learning as a form of intelligence and the more strategic implications of a focus on organizational learning. In particular, the review concludes that slow rather than fast adaptation, imprecise rather than precise reactions, and abrupt rather than incremental changes may be the foundation of improved organizational learning.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This review article remains the key citation on organizational learning in a general sense and even twenty years later remains the "go to" citation on the subject. It has been cited more than 3,000 times in a wide variety of other literatures and by essentially every subsequent article seeking to build or contribute to the literature on learning.

In some ways, this literature also helped create the field as a field. The vast majority of the citations did not frame their own work in terms of organizational learning. The paper makes a major theoretical contribution by re-framing a large subset of the broader literature on organizations in terms of organizational learning in ways that provide a synthetic foundation for further work and coordination between formerly disparate literatures.