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THE APPLICATION OF ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING THEORY TO JAPANESE AND AMERICAN MANAGEMENT Jeremiah J. Sullivan* University of Washington and Ikujiro Nonaka** Hitosubashi University Abstract. Karl Weick, in The Social Psychology of Organizing, theorized in effect that organizational learning must be governed by a theory of action. Such a theory can be described interms of variety amplification by senior managers and variety reduction by junior managers. In a study of senior American and Japanese executives, the Japanese showed a stronger commitment to this theory of action than the Americans did. Implications for strategysetting behavior in both cultures are discussed. The dramatic growth of the Japanese economy during the 1960s and 1970s has beenattributed to government subsidization of industry at the expense of customers, to cost-effective manufacturing techniques brought about in response to a number of factors common to the Japanese environment (e.g., high land costs forcing severely limited space for inventory), and to a unique adaptation of cultural values to managerial practices. It is this last that has caused so much comment in recentyears, what with a number of influential books that claim or imply that Japanese management practices are somehow better than American (Ouchi 1981; Pascale and Athos 1981). After having first met with uncritical acceptance, these claims have now come into question (Sullivan 1983; Sethi, et al 1984). However, before any talk of better than, equal to, or worse than can be carried on in an intelligentfashion, a question first ought to be asked: just how different is Japanese management from American *Jeremiah Sullivanis Associate Professorof BusinessCommunications the J. in He Universityof WashingtonGraduateSchool of BusinessAdministration. has published articles in the Academy of Management Journal, the Academy of Management Review, Management International Review, and others. He is theauthorof Pacific Basin Enterprise and the Changing Law of the Sea and Foreign
Investment in the U.S. Fishing Industry.
**Ikujiro Nonaka is Professor of Managementat HitotsubashiUniversityin Japan. He is the authorof severalbooks. The most recentis Strategic vs. Evolutionary Management: A U.S. - Japan Comparison of Strategy and Organization. His publicationshave appearedin suchjournalsas the...