Organizational learning through experience has been found to be associated with enhanced firm performance. Organizational experiments are a method of experiential learning that enable organizations to learn from experience and gain context-specific knowledge of how and why to implement new knowledge. Pilot projects, a type of organizational experiment, involve making intentional, systematic efforts to gather and analyze feedback in order to accurately assess the action-outcome relationships of adopting new knowledge prior to embarking on full-scale implementation. Despite the popularity of pilot projects used to test products, programs, and services as well as reports on the outcomes of such experiments, there is a dearth of research focusing on how organizational learning occurs during organizational experiments, and on the processes and structural mechanisms of organizational experiments that contribute to organizational learning.
A qualitative, multiple-case study of eight pilot projects was carried out within nursing units across five acute health care organizations during Fall 2008. Interviews were conducted with 32 individuals, including pilot project leaders, nursing program managers and direct care nurses. An inductive approach to data analysis was applied and themes identified. Results were compared to 14 propositions that were developed based on the knowledge transfer, innovation diffusion, and organizational learning literature, and which were bracketed before data analysis to allow findings to emerge from the data.
The findings advance existing organizational learning, innovation diffusion, and knowledge transfer models by illuminating the complexity of organizational learning processes. Several processes and structural mechanisms of organizational experiments were found to facilitate single-loop organizational learning, leading to incremental changes to meet existing goals and objectives. Although double-loop organizational learning, which may result in fundamental changes in an organization‘s assumptions, norms, policies, goals and objectives was not observed, the study revealed a number of processes and structural mechanisms that have the potential to encourage this type of learning.
Studies of organizational experiments are rare. Future directions for research and theory development are suggested to build on the findings of this study. Practical implications are offered to organizations in any industry interested in realizing the potential that organizational experiments have for double-loop learning and enhanced organizational performance.