Carnegie Mellon Series

42: Carnegie Mellon Series #5 – Organizational Learning

James March

Welcome to Season 5! In this episode, we discuss Barbara Levitt and James G. March’s article “Organizational Learning,” published in the 1988 edition of the Annual Review of Sociology. Although the authors hailed from Stanford University in California, we have included this episode in our Carnegie-Mellon Series because of James March’s involvement and perspectives on organization that clearly influenced the article.

This work was a literature review across various streams in organizational learning up through the 1980s. Topics include learning from experience, organizational memory, ecologies of learning, and organizational intelligence. Of particular interest is how organizational learning was defined as not an outcome but a process of translating the cumulative experiences of individuals and codifying them as routines within the organization. From this, the authors applied the brain metaphor – such as memory and intelligence – to explain the phenomenon (listen to Episode 41 on Morgan’s Images of Organization for more on this metaphor). Did all the podcasters agree with the use of the metaphor? How well has the construct of organizational learning, as described by the authors, held up over the past three decades?

Do you agree with the idea that organizational learning is a process, and not an outcome? In other words, do organizations really learn? Listen as the podcasters tackle these and many other questions as they review this insightful article.

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Levitt, Barbara, and James G. March. Organizational learning.” Annual review of sociology 14.1 (1988): 319-338.

Also see:

Episode 41 on Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization regarding Levitt & March’s use of the brain metaphor.

39: Carnegie Mellon Series #4 – Organizational Choice

The podcasters discuss a fascinating article, “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly back in 1972 by Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen. This is another episode from the Carnegie-Mellon University tradition, alongside Episode 4 on Organizational Routines and Episode 19 on Organizational Learning. This third installment addresses organizational decision making and choice and, like the others in this series, it changed the way people think about organizations and organizational behavior.

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Michael Cohen

This episode is the fourth in our series on the Carnegie Mellon School. The first was way back in Episode 4, in which we discussed the works of James March, Herbert Simon, and Richard Cyert regarding organization routines. The second was Episode 19, with organizational learning as the topic as we explored James March’s work on exploration and exploitation, and the third was Episode 29, where we spoke to Denise Rousseau about Herb Simon’s problematization of business education. Now we move to another important work from this School regarding organizational choice, which contributes to our present understanding of decision making in organizations.

Scholars at the time viewed decision making from a very rational perspective—a problem arises, the organization mobilizes, a solution emerges, and everyone moves on. This flew in the face of the author’s experiences, showing that matching solutions to problems was considerably messier in practice. Instead, the decision making processes appeared to be anarchic. At the time this idea of organized anarchy was quite radical. Although present organizational scholarship has grown to accept anarchy as part of the workplace… addressing organized anarchy as a serious research theme was potentially radical back in the early 1970s, especially in light of the previous work of these very authors!

The purpose of the article is to lay the foundational for a behavioral theory of organized anarchy. Using what they refer to as the garbage can model, organizations are described as “a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work” (p. 2). ‘Garbage can’ represented a useful, if unsettling, metaphor as it described organizational behavior where problems, choices, and decisions were merely tossed about into and recycled. At the center of the article is a model, presented as an iterative mathematical program, that demonstrates these behaviors in practice. Although clearly not an empirical study, the exploratory model did an excellent job of displaying some surprising behaviors as the podcasters discuss. They also showed a practical use of the model to demonstrate how various types of colleges and universities might exercise different paradigms, resulting in radically different organizational behaviors.

Join us as we discuss the garbage can model and its implications for our contemporary understanding of organizations and their management! Also available is a sidecast by Tom inspired by this episode.


You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Appendix (Text version here)

Read with us:

Cohen, M.D., March, J.G. and Olsen, J.P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative science quarterly 17(1), 1-25.

To know more:

Lomi, A. and Harrison, J.R. (2012). The Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice: Looking Forward at Forty. Research in the Sociology of Organizations 36, 3-17.



29: Carnegie Mellon Series #3 – Designing Business Schools, by Herb Simon

Herb Simon (1916-2001)

For this episode we were joined by the wonderful Denise M. Rousseau to discuss Herbert Simon’s article “The Business School: A Problem in Organizational Design,” published in 1967. This was written at a time when the business school enterprise was facing difficulties and wrestling over its identity. The paper framed these challenges as a design problem relating to a business school’s purpose, what the business school should teach to its students, and what type of faculty would be needed to fulfil the purpose. Simon laid out the foundation for a what has become a long-standing discourse in education — the synthesis of practice relevance against academic rigour, which he embodied as a struggle between what is scientifically relevant versus what is practically useful.

The mission of the business school, according to Herbert Simon, is to offer managers a science-based education they can readily apply. This education should provide a basis for continued professional learning over the course of a manager’s career. To do so, the business school would be fully immersed in both science and practice, a feat necessitating a lowering of the barriers between them. Lowered barriers translate into three things: (1) business school faculty who deeply understand the problems managers face and incorporate problem solving (e.g., client-based consulting projects, product design) into the school’s educational experiences; (2) significant faculty research that generates scientific knowledge to improve the world and guide managerial problem solving; and (3) actionable knowledge students acquire that is grounded in both science and the business context. The responsibility for making these accomplishments possible lies with the business school’s senior faculty and deans. Simon foresaw that many business schools would fail at this, but a few well-led and appropriately designed schools might realize his vision.

Join the conversation as our guest for this episode, Professor Denise Rousseau, walks us through Simon’s thinking on what business schools ought to be and recounts some anecdotes about Herbert Simon as an individual person, from when they worked together at Carnegie Mellon!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Read with us:

Simon, H. A. (1967), The Business School: A Problem in Organizational Design. Journal of Management Studies, 4: 1–1

Rousseau, D. M. (2012), Designing a Better Business School: Channelling Herbert Simon, Addressing the Critics, and Developing Actionable Knowledge for Professionalizing Managers. Journal of Management Studies, 49: 600–618.

Khurana, R. and Spender, J. C. (2012), Herbert A. Simon on What Ails Business Schools: More than ‘A Problem in Organizational Design’. Journal of Management Studies, 49: 619–639.


19: Carnegie Mellon Series #2 – Exploration and Exploitation of Knowledge

James March

In this episode, we read the widely cited article, “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” published in 1991 in the journal Organization Science. In the paper, March considered the relationships between exploration of new ways of doing things and the exploitation of accepted, standard practices for organizational learning.

James G. March is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University in management, sociology, political science, and education at Stanford University. He has been on the faculty since 1970. He is known for his contributions to organization and management theory. Together with his “Carnegie School” colleagues Richard Cyert and Herbert A. Simon, March developed a theory of the firm that incorporated aspects of sociology, psychology, and economics as an alternative to neoclassical theories. The focus of the research was on organizational behavior and the application of decision analysis, management science, and psychology in addition to theories such as bounded rationality to the understanding of organizations.

March created two basic models of organizational learning in order to consider the challenges managers face while allotting resources between exploration and exploitation: distribution of costs and benefits across time and space, and the effects of ecological interaction among members of the organization. The first model examines the case of mutual learning between members of an organization and an organizational code (also known as organizational memory) within a particular organization. The second case examined learning and competitive advantage in competition among firms for primacy. As noted in the abstract, “the paper develops an argument that adaptive processes, by refining exploitation more rapidly than exploration, are likely to become effective in the short run but self-destructive in the long run.”

March attempted to show that learning in organizations is still possible even in the presence of causal ambiguity. While the paper has been criticized for its very simplistic model of organizational learning and lack of empirical data, a strong point of the paper may be the general insight in provides about collective learning under ambiguous conditions.

What are the tradeoffs and challenges associated with balancing exploitation and exploration? What does it mean for organizational learning? Read the paper and listen to your intrepid podcasters, as we grapple with March’s ideas.

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Read with us:

March, J. (1991). Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational LearningOrganization Science, 2(1), pp. 71-87

To Learn More:

Levitt, B. and J. G. March. (1988). Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14: 319-340

Gupta, A.K., Smith, K.G. and Shalley, C.E., (2006). The interplay between exploration and exploitation. Academy of Management Journal, 49(4), 693-706.

4: Carnegie Mellon Series #1 – Organizational Routines

With Special Guest Katharina Dittrich

Richard Cyert, Herb Simon, and James March

The Carnegie Mellon School refers to a group of scholars that have worked/studied/were associated with the Graduate School of Administration (GSIA) of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in the of 1950’s and 1960’s. Its main exponents (but not the only ones!) are James March (‘the’ star in organization theory still alive); Herbert Simon (Nobel laureate for the work on decision making / boundary rationality); and Richard Cyert (not only a great academic but also the Dean and person behind the transformation of Carnegie from a technical school to a major university as it is today).

The work of these authors is clearly important to organization and management issues but it goes beyond disciplinary boundaries having had an impact in economics, public policy, computer science, psychology and others. As a matter of fact, the school was founded on the idea that “to explain organizations, it was necessary to have an integrative understanding of how psychology, economics, sociology, and political science all shape organizational decisions and outcomes”.

The three main works associated with this school are the books: A Behavioral Theory of the Firm, Organizations and Administrative Behavior. There are of course numerous important papers and other publications – by way of example the famous paper on the “Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice”. These three books are the ones which we plan to cover during our series (in this episode only the first two will covered).

In the history of organization and management thought, the Carnegie school can be considered as the moment in which the foundations of the modern development of organization (and management) scholarship were set. As a matter of fact, before this moment we could not actually refer to a proper separate field of organization studies since works dealing with firms and management could only be placed within a pure economic framework, with the typical assumptions of profit maximization and perfect rationality. In this sense the school highlights a shift to a non-normative lens in organization and management research, marking the way for what has become the current spirit in the field. Also, while previous authors – such as Taylor or Fayol – wrote mostly from a practitioner position, we are now observing the rise of professional academics, Simon, March and Cyert, whose work is primarily committed to scholarship and based on science, mathematics, quantitative modeling and simulations.

Join us for Episode 4 as we discuss organizational routines with the assistance of our very first special guest Dr. Katharina Dittrich, who is an expert on the subject and will help guide us through these readings in our much loved, and by now familiar, discussion format!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Read with us:

March, J. & Simon, H. (1958). Organizations. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

              Chapter 1 (Organizational Behavior) and Chapter 6 (section on Performance Programs)

Cyert, R. & March, J. (1963). A behavioral theory of the firm. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine.

Preface Second Edition, Chapter 1 (Introduction), Chapter 2 (Antecedents of a behavioral theory of the firm), Chapter 5 (Section on Standard Operating Procedures), Chapter 7 (A summary of concepts)