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The Ambiguities of Experience

The Ambiguities of Experience

James G. March
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 168
  • Book Info
    The Ambiguities of Experience
    Book Description:

    "The first component of intelligence involves effective adaptation to an environment. In order to adapt effectively, organizations require resources, capabilities at using them, knowledge about the worlds in which they exist, good fortune, and good decisions. They typically face competition for resources and uncertainties about the future. Many, but possibly not all, of the factors determining their fates are outside their control. Populations of organizations and individual organizations survive, in part, presumably because they possess adaptive intelligence; but survival is by no means assured. The second component of intelligence involves the elegance of interpretations of the experiences of life. Such interpretations encompass both theories of history and philosophies of meaning, but they go beyond such things to comprehend the grubby details of daily existence. Interpretations decorate human existence. They make a claim to significance that is independent of their contribution to effective action. Such intelligence glories in the contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation of life, not just the control of it."-from The Ambiguities of Experience

    In The Ambiguities of Experience, James G. March asks a deceptively simple question: What is, or should be, the role of experience in creating intelligence, particularly in organizations? Folk wisdom both trumpets the significance of experience and warns of its inadequacies. On one hand, experience is described as the best teacher. On the other hand, experience is described as the teacher of fools, of those unable or unwilling to learn from accumulated knowledge or the teaching of experts. The disagreement between those folk aphorisms reflects profound questions about the human pursuit of intelligence through learning from experience that have long confronted philosophers and social scientists. This book considers the unexpected problems organizations (and the individuals in them) face when they rely on experience to adapt, improve, and survive.

    While acknowledging the power of learning from experience and the extensive use of experience as a basis for adaptation and for constructing stories and models of history, this book examines the problems with such learning. March argues that although individuals and organizations are eager to derive intelligence from experience, the inferences stemming from that eagerness are often misguided. The problems lie partly in errors in how people think, but even more so in properties of experience that confound learning from it. "Experience," March concludes, "may possibly be the best teacher, but it is not a particularly good teacher."

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5901-6
    Subjects: Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    James G. March
    (pp. 1-13)

    Organizations pursue intelligence. It is not a trivial goal. Its realization is imperfect, and the pursuit is endless. Every day there are failures to temper any successes. Nevertheless, the pursuit is often exhilarating. It exalts the subtle textures of life and elevates coping with ordinary tasks to the artistry of history. The present book considers one aspect of the pursuit of intelligence—the effort to extract lessons from the unfolding episodes of life. Organizations and the individuals in them try to improve by contemplating and reacting to their experiences.

    Folk wisdom both trumpets the significance of experience and warns of...

    (pp. 14-41)

    Extracting lessons from natural experience presumes a learning cycle that begins with observing associations between actions and outcomes, the rudiments of finding order in history. Learning takes place when the observation of associations produces changes in actions or rules for actions. Learning serves intelligence when those changes improve the actions or the rules. Changes from learning occur often and relatively easily, but their contribution to intelligence is more problematic. Experiential learning makes many mistakes.

    It is useful to distinguish two different modes of achieving intelligence through experience. The two modes reflect different kinds of processes and encounter different kinds of...

    (pp. 42-73)

    Organizations pursue intelligence through the low-intellect adaptive processes discussed in chapter 2. They also use high-intellect processes, which are the focus of this chapter. Low-intellect processes operate by replicating actions associated with experienced success. High-intellect processes operate by devising explicit understandings that fit the events of experience into a causal explanation through a natural language narrative, an analytical model, or a theory. High-intellect stories and models are bases both for refined understanding and appreciation of history and for differentiating among humans with respect to their knowledge.

    Narratives of experience fill many studies of organizations, biographies and autobiographies of managers, journalist...

    (pp. 74-98)

    Although there are numerous unresolved problems, theories of adaptation deal reasonably well with the efficiencies and surprises associated with the processes by which existing ideas, practices, forms, or products survive and reproduce (Cyert and March 1963; March 1988, chap. 8; 1994; 1999a, chap. 15; Nelson and Winter 1982; Hannan and Freeman 1989; Cohen and Sproull 1996; March, Schulz, and Zhou 2000; Hodgkinson and Starbuck 2008). Theories of adaptation typically deal less well with the exploratory processes by which new ideas, forms, products, or practices are created, made available, and protected from premature elimination (Becker, Knudsen, and March 2006). These latter...

    (pp. 99-120)

    Learning from experience in organizations is both an important phenomenon and a large industry. Business schools, publishers, publications, and consultants offer advice to business firms in parallel with an overlapping collection of schools, publishers, publications, and consultants specializing in public-sector organizations. To some extent, the groups flourish by equating improvement with learning, thus making the proposition that learning is a good thing into a tautology, but they provide ideas about how to achieve a “learning organization,” by which they mean an organization that uses mechanisms of learning to improve the return from actions. Some of the ideas come from research,...

    (pp. 121-144)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 145-152)