On (the meaning of) organizational exploration: why it’s not necessarily innovation and how the analogy with territorial exploration might help us to better grasp it

Some of the sessions devoted to exploitation and exploration of last week’s EURAM conference led me to further think about exploration (in other entries I already discussed issues of measurement and organizational implementation). In the organizational learning literature, exploration is associated with experimentation, trying new things, with going beyond the boundaries of the actor’s current knowledge (March, 1991). Exploration is also often equated with innovation. However, I believe this association is incorrect. Innovation means to create new things but they are often the combination of existing elements, elements which the innovating actor already knows (Schumpeter, 1942). Instead, as mentioned, exploration entails venturing in a domain which the venturing actor doesn’t know, in which s/he has no experience.

Let’s think about territorial exploration or, in other words, the role of explorers and how it might relate to organizational exploration. By definition, an explorer ventures into new territory, into a space in which s/he has not been before, usually with the goal to arrive to an envisioned or desired destination, or to make a particular discovery. Explorers can set their exploratory path according to existing charts or without any guide. Existing charts are usually written by prior explorers who already arrived at (or got close to) the destination. However, these charts can be correct or erroneous.

Further, explorers can vary in their degree of experience and success in exploring. Experienced and successful explorers (like any expert) are likely to have developed tools and practices to explore, which might be applicable to and help in new exploratory ventures.

In organizations, explorers are individuals who venture beyond their current knowledge boundaries, who decide to learn about new domains. A systematic, rational learner will try to obtain as many charts of the new knowledge domain, in order to learn about it as fast as possible, within the given time and financial constraints.

Moreover, a lower frequency of exploration might make difficult to learn about the exploration task, to reflect and develop tools about how to successfully engage in exploration. That said, in my dissertation (Castañer, 2002), on corporate learning in the US telecom industry in the 1979-2000 period, I found that prior experience in corporate exploration does not improve the results from current corporate exploration on corporate performance (measured in terms of ROA). But the same applied to corporate exploitation experience (pages 238 and 250).

Castañer, X. 2002. Diversification as learning. Unpublished dissertation, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

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