In aiming to understand why firms differ in their ability to adapt to new contexts, Lawrence explores the extent to which prior experience with a previous practice impacts the ability to properly execute a new organisational practice. Lawrence generates predictions by integrating the traditional organisational learning and path dependency literatures.
To test the hypotheses, Lawrence uses internal data from 294 stores of a large retail chain that implemented a new restocking process in its stores. Initial findings show that, on average, stores dramatically improve execution performance over time, and worker experience with the prior practice matters a great deal. Stores where employees have greater exposure, either directly or indirectly, to the old organistional practice perform significantly worse than other stores at the outset – consistent with the notion of ‘competency traps’.
However, these stores also learn more quickly, which Lawrence suggests may be the result of increased efficiency in their communications when learning the new process. These findings suggest that scholars in organisational learning should take attributes of an organisation’s experience history into account when assessing variations in new practice performance and learning.