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Conditions That Shape the Learning Curve: Factors That Increase the Ability and Opportunity to Learn

by E. Wiersma
Management Science ()


Prior studies examining factors that influence the learning curve mainly\nfocus on settings in which firms adopt new products or technologies or\nopen new plants or assembly lines. Less is known, however, about how\nmore mature firms learn, when they are further down the learning curve.\nTo gain insight into factors that enhance learning in this situation, I\nexamine factors that increase both the ability and the opportunity to\nlearn. I hypothesize that the ability to learn is enhanced by the\npresence of a moderate amount of temporary employees in the workforce\nand by providing employees with related variation in tasks, measured by\nproduct heterogeneity. In addition, I hypothesize that opportunities for\nlearning are created when there is some slack in resources and when\nthere are no problems in other important performance dimensions that\nconsume employee attention.\nThese hypotheses are examined using data of the Royal Dutch Mail, which\nhas 27 geographically dispersed regions. Although these 27 regions are\nhomogeneous with respect to their tasks, internal organization, type of\nproducts delivered, and technology used, their learning rates differ\nconsiderably. In the sample of 972 observations used for this analysis,\nI find that this variation in learning rates is explained by the\npercentage of temporary employees used, the level of excess capacity,\nthe degree of product heterogeneity, and the degree to which regions\nface problems in other important performance dimensions. These findings\nprovide insight into strategies that help managers in designing work\nprocesses to maintain a positive learning curve.

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