Inside the Learning Curve: Opening the Black Box of the Learning Curve

25 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2010

See all articles by Michael A. Lapre

Michael A. Lapre

Vanderbilt University - Operations Management

Date Written: August 20, 2009


The traditional learning curve asserts that organizational performance improves as a function of operating experience. The typical example is unit cost decreasing as a function of cumulative production volume. As an organization produces more it somehow “learns” to reduce unit cost. The disappointing managerial implication is that the only way to accelerate improvement in organizational performance is to produce more. This may not be feasible or desirable. I review the literature that extends the traditional learning curve in two ways. First, experience is not the only source for learning. Organizations can engage in deliberate learning activities such as quality improvement projects. Furthermore, not all experiences are equally effective at enhancing organizational performance. Second, the learning curve is not just some black box. There is a process inside the learning curve. Experience and deliberate activities can foster learning. Learning can yield better organizational knowledge. Better organizational knowledge can persuade organizational members to modify behavior. Changed behavior, in turn, can improve organizational performance. None of these steps are trivial. Scholars have merely scratched the surface in terms of studying these steps. No single study has incorporated all steps. I review the literature and identify opportunities for future research that should provide insights for organizations to better manage learning curves.

Keywords: Learning Curve, Experience, Deliberate Learning Activities, Organizational Learning

JEL Classification: M10

Suggested Citation

Lapre, Michael A., Inside the Learning Curve: Opening the Black Box of the Learning Curve (August 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Michael A. Lapre (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Operations Management ( email )

401 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203
United States
615-322-2389 (Phone)
615-343-7177 (Fax)


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