Linda Argote, the David M. Kirr and Barbara A. Kirr Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory and director of the Center of Organizational Learning, Innovation and Performance, has been named the 2012 Distinguished Scholar of the Organization and Management Theory (OMT) division of the Academy of Management. The award is presented to scholars whose contributions have been central to the intellectual development of the field of organization studies.
We asked Linda her thoughts about receiving this award, her work in the field of OMT and why some organizations outperform others.
Q: What is your perspective on joining such an acclaimed group of academic pioneers as recipient of this year's OMT distinguished scholar award?
A: I am thrilled and honored, especially so because it includes Dick Cyert and Jim March. Dick and Jim wrote a book, “A Behavioral Theory of the Firm,” when they were on the faculty at GSIA that continues to influence research today. I feel fortunate to have gotten to know both of them -- Dick from being on the faculty at CMU and Jim through a year I spent at Stanford as a visiting faculty member.
More generally, Tepper/GSIA is very well represented in the group of OMT Distinguished Scholars. Other scholars on the list with Tepper connections include: Dan Levinthal who was a faculty member at Tepper, Bill Starbuck who received his Ph.D. from Tepper and Jeff Pfeffer who received his undergraduate and MSIA degrees from Tepper. Tepper researchers have had a major impact on the field of Organization Theory.
Q: What has been your greatest successes in terms of research?
A: Other people might be the better judge of that! I like to think that I've been successful in enriching our understanding of organizational learning. Dick Cyert and Jim March introduced the idea of organizational learning: not only do individuals learn from their experience, organizations can also learn from their experience. Other CMU researchers, including Leonard Rapping and Ferd Levy, have also worked on organizational learning. My colleagues and I have sought to advance understanding of learning curves in organizations. As an organization gains experience, the unit cost of production typically decreases at a decreasing rate and quality typically improves at a decreasing rate. We've conducted empirical studies in different industries in both the manufacturing and service sector and found significant variation in the rate at which organizations learn: some organizations improve their performance very quickly as they gain experience while other organizations evidence little learning. We also found evidence that knowledge acquired through learning depreciates--which one manager in an organization we studied referred to as "industrial amnesia."
We also found evidence of knowledge transfer; one unit of an organization can benefit from knowledge acquired from another, especially when the units share a superordinate social identity.
Perhaps I can take the liberty of mentioning a couple of objective indicators of the impact of work my colleagues and I have done on organizational learning. A paper that Eric Darr, Dennis Epple and I published in Management Science was chosen as one of the most influential papers published in Management Science during its first 50 years. My book, “Organizational Learning: Creating, Retaining and Transferring Knowledge,” was one of four finalists for the Terry Book Award of the Academy of Management in 2000. I have just completed a second edition that will be published later this year by Springer.
Q: Are you able to integrate your research into the classes you teach?
A: Bringing cutting edge research into the classroom is something in which we take pride at Tepper. I've been able to do this in both my MBA and Ph.D. teaching. My MBA course on Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management presents research findings from a variety of disciplines about how organizations create, retain and transfer knowledge. It has been very gratifying to hear from our graduates that they find the ideas in the course very useful in managing their firms. I also teach a course on organizational learning for Ph.D. students and will be teaching a course on the topic next year for undergraduates.
Q: How has your research/teaching contributed to or benefited from collaboration with other faculty members in other disciplines at Carnegie Mellon University?
A: I've been fortunate to collaborate with scholars in other disciplines at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. For example, I've collaborated with several colleagues in Information System (IS): Ramaya Krishnan, the Dean of the Heinz College, and Tridas Mukhopadyay and Param Singh in Tepper's Information Systems group. My collaborations with colleagues in IS have focused on enriching understanding of information systems as both knowledge repositories and transfer mechanisms. I've also collaborated with colleagues in Computer Science: Kathleen Carley, Jim Herbsleb and Laura Dabbish. We've worked on the concept of transactive memory or knowledge of who knows what -- both how to build transactive memories in groups and organizations and their effects on performance.
I'm also working with colleagues in engineering, Erica Fuchs and Carolyn Denomme, on knowledge transfer. Because knowledge transfer can occur through tools and processes, the engineering perspective enriches our understanding of knowledge transfer. In addition, I've collaborated with John Levine and Dick Moreland, psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh, who contribute their expertise in social processes to advance understanding of transactive memory and knowledge transfer.
Finally, my most enduring collaboration has been with Dennis Epple, an economist at Tepper who is also my husband. Dennis and I discovered that we were both interested in issues of knowledge transfer: how one person or organization learns from another. We found that understanding this question benefited from combining insights and approaches from economics as well as organizational behavior. A common theme through all these collaborations is that important real-world problems do not fall neatly into one discipline so understanding them requires cross disciplinary collaboration.
Q: What led you professionally/academically to the field of organizational studies?
I started college as a math major and then took an amazing psychology course from Gordon Gallup at Tulane University, where I was an undergraduate. The course used mathematics to develop models and analyze data about research questions that I found fascinating. So I switched majors to psychology. As an undergraduate, I did student teaching and volunteer work in schools and a center for autistic children. I was struck at how organizations performing the same tasks had very different cultures and different performance outcomes. This led me to the field of organizational psychology. I became interested in understanding why some organizations performed better than others.
Q: What are your thoughts on the "evolution" of the field of organizational studies and what is next (or current) in your research plans?
The field of organizational studies evolves both in response to external changes that are occurring in organizations and in response to pressures that are internal to the field. Some of the big external changes that have occurred in organizations during my time in the field include: increased diversity, globalization, work being geographically distributed and new information technologies. Researchers aim to understand how these developments affect organizations. For example, a current project of mine with Elina Hwang and Param Singh examines knowledge transfer in an online knowledge forum. Other research is stimulated by puzzles in the literature or gaps that researchers identify.
For example, research on organizational learning has focused mainly on how cognitive factors affect learning. Colleagues from Aarhus University in Denmark, Duke University and I are now studying how emotion affects and is affected by learning. Thus, we aim to develop a more complete picture of organizational learning.