Learning to Manage Breadth: Experience as Repetition and Adaptation
Organization Science, Forthcoming
41 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2018 Last revised: 6 May 2021
Date Written: April 22, 2021
We examine how experience-induced adaptations that affect the breadth of an ongoing activity affect performance. The research on organizational learning suggests that accumulating experience, both from repetition and adaptation at the activity level, improves outcomes. Yet, findings on the effects of increasing breadth—the number of different processes making up an activity—are mixed. Greater breadth exposes organizations to diverse activities. It also generates an additional need for coordination that may undermine performance. We examine the joint effect of experience and breadth on waste reduction for US manufacturing facilities managing their toxic waste from 1991 to 2014. These facilities manage toxic waste on a chemical-by-chemical basis. We find a detrimental effect of breadth on performance that is highest for facilities with low experience; however, this effect is moderated by experience with the waste management activity. Because most facilities manage toxic waste from several chemicals, we also see spillovers—in terms of both learning benefits and the costs of increasing breadth. When a facility expands waste management breadth anywhere, performance decreases for the focal chemical. Yet, this spillover effect of breadth decreases for activities where the facility has accrued more experience. Our research clarifies when facilities should consider adding breadth to a routine activity and why performance in the proximate period may falter as the organization learns and improves in the longer term.
Keywords: organizational learning, breadth, experience, operational performance, organizational practices
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