Learning Through Rare Events: Significant Interruptions at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum
The collapse of the roof of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum Roundhouse onto its collections during a snowstorm in 2003 provides a starting point for our exploration of the link between learning and rare events. The collapse occurred as the museum was preparing for another rare event: the Fair of the Iron Horse, an event planned to celebrate the 175th anniversary of American railroading. Our analysis of these rare events, grounded in data collected through interviews and archival materials, reveals that the issue is not so much what organizations learn “from” rare events but what they learn “through” rare events. Rare events are interruptions that trigger learning because they expose weaknesses and reveal unrealized behavioral potential. Moreover, we find that three organizing routines—interpreting, relating, and re-structuring—are strengthened and broadened across a series of interruptions. These organizing routines are critical to both learning and responding because they update understanding and reduce the ambiguity generated during a rare event. Ultimately, rare events provoke a reconsideration of organizational identity as the organization learns what it knows and who it is when it sees what it can do. In the case of the B&O Railroad Museum, we find that the roof collapse offered an opportunity for the organization to transform its identity from that of a museum to that of an attraction.