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4. Improvisation and Organizational Learning

Updated: Nov 28

By Anne Miner, UW Madison


Prerecorded Session

Live Session


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Required preparation

Reprieve!! Streamlined request for how to prepare for the Learning and Improvisation Session.


Dear Colleagues:


Please replace all prior requests for exercises (in video) and long term questions (on syllabus) with the attached request to prepare for zoom session. i reviewed your material this week and concluded the original questions/exercises are far too complex for this setting where you have so much material from different people.


To prepare for our actual zoom session, please do the following.


A, Please read: Miner, A., Bassoff, P., & Moorman, C. 2001.

Organizational improvisation and learning: A field study. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(2): 304-337. paying attention, especially to the examples given of improvisation. (This is now the one required reading for the zoom session. It was listed as the first optional reading in the syllabus.)


B. Think of a situation where you have observed or read about some form of organizational improvisation

(Could be something major as when an organization improvised a whole new product design, or new important process when faced with an unexpected threat, or could be a small improvisation to deal with operational surprise. Could be something you saw in a newspaper, novel or movie.)


Describe briefly. Be ready to give a two-minute summary of this example at our zoom session.


B. Answer the following queries about the example you have flagged. Make notes for use in small group discussions.


1. What was the trigger for the improvisational activity?

2. Did the improvisational activity resolve the original focus for the improvisation?

3. Did the organization later ever go back and repeat the same activity again?

4. As far as you can tell, why did the organization repeat or not repeat the improvised novel action?

5. If you think of this as a form of trial and error learning, what difference did it make that the original novel action was improvised (if any)?

6. Were there any long-term consequences of the improvised activity, and if so what were they?


Zoom Session

We will break into small groups to work with your examples and reflections, and their implications about how improvisation theory can inform organizational learning theory and vice versa.


If you have already made headway on the exercises discussed in the video above, or on the questions in the syllabus, keep any notes! We can use them during discussion, and longer term I will be very interested to hear about

your reflection on issues raised there.


I really look forward to our session!


Discussion Questions

Reminder of prior questions for long-term reflection, if you have an interest. Not required for zoom session.


1. One of the most important core implications of organizational improvisation research is that unskilled improvisation has the potential not only to have little value but to do great harm. Evidence suggests that some organizations or parts of organizations have developed effective organizational improvisational capabilities. while others have not. However, their major gap in the literature regarding theory and evidence about the developmental process through which a focal organization acquires, or fails to acquire, an organizational level competency in improvisation. (Recent studies have tackled individual improvisation skill development, and correlates of organizational capabilities, but not the organizational-level improvisation capability development process). How would you go about theorizing about the process(es) through which an organization develops or fails to develop the capability to improvise collectively i.e. learns to improvise effectively? How would you test such theories? (Note that this capability is not the same as innovation more broadly, which does not require creating novel activity while executing it.)


2. Many studies indicate that organizations sometimes observe the outcomes of a high improvisation action stream and repeat novel actions that seemed effective, which can be seen as a form of unplanned trial and error learning. However, Ciuchta et al. argue that there is an important gap in understanding of how the design of the first part of a given high improvisational action stream is actually created. Where does the design of the first part of an organizational (not just individual) improvisational action stream come from? Can it involve imagining new to the world's actions? Does this affect whether improvised innovations are just like all other innovations in terms of their likely value for long-term organizational learning? If so, why? If not, how do they differ in their potential impact? Does prior organization learning research inform us about processes that might be relevant here and if so, how? ? How would you study this question?

3. Some suspect that improvisation may be revealed as a very, very, very fast enactment of known processes of organizational learning. They speculate that going so fast can actually change outcomes and key learning processes. However, others argue that the irreversibility of improvisationally created designs changes how learning can work. Identify one organizational learning process you know about and/or find important, say learning process A. This could be anything including but not limited to organizational performance feedback, search, trial and error learning, memory creation, memory deployment or capability development.


Answer either "a" or "b" below:


a. What difference would it make, if any, if learning process A must be executed spectacularly fast, meaning far, far, far, far faster than ordinarily occurs in relevant settings? Imagine going to the limit of human ability to enact the learning steps at all. What difference might that make in terms of A's micro-learning processes? What difference would it make to boundaries of how A works, outcomes A produces, or advantages/dangers of engaging in learning process A?


b. What difference would it make, if any, if during the learning process A learners could not reverse features of the novel production as they went along? (Think of an improvised melody where the note has already been played. In that case, musicians when improvising cannot restart the design of the novel melody to exclude that 'bad' note. In practice, they often repeat the mistakenly played note to make it sound like part of a new pattern and might even generate new patterns in which it plays a role, changing its meaning in context.) What difference might such irreversibility of actions make in terms of A's micro-learning processes? What difference would it make to boundaries of how A works, outcomes A produces, or advantages/dangers of engaging in learning process A.”


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