A lot of research has gone into the explorative and exploitative states of an organisation at an organisational level. A new research study from the Netherlands has looked at whether employees need to be one or the other (explorative or exploitative) or actually ambidextrous in their own right in order for the organisation as a whole to be ambidextrous. Do organisations actually need ambidextrous employees?
- The idea of the ambidextrous organisation
- Ambidextrous employees?
- Editor’s Post-script
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Ambidexterity in organisation is quite a hot topic in recent research and of great organisational interest at the moment. An organisation or company that is described as ambidextrous has a judicious mix of innovation, research and development, whilst it is still able to exploit its existing products and services. Apple springs to mind as a good example of an ambidextrous company.
It is this ability to balance the explorative and exploitative strands of a business or service that allows it to remain profitable or efficient and still future focussed. Referring again to Apple, it has a multibillion dollar research and development organisation supported by the manufacturing, marketing and sales divisions that exploit its innovations. Apple is often the leader in a number of areas whilst still successfully exploiting its existing products and services.
The question this study looks at is whether an organisation needs to have ambidextrous employees in order to thrive.
The research focused on a Dutch defence company and surveyed 180 staff at different levels of the company.
The research found “a combination of high levels of exploration and exploitation is positively related to innovative work behaviour” and that “specialising in either explorative or exploitative behaviour is beneficial for innovative work behaviour”.
Importantly the researchers found, as other studies have, that organisational ambidexterity is dependent on the explorative and exploitative behaviours of individual employees, however organisations can still be ambidextrous when individual employees specialise in either exploration or exploitation, as long as both types of behaviour are present in the organisation and are managed appropriately.
Given that one key element in a workforce for innovation to happen is diversity, this research shows that having a diverse workforce in terms of exploitation and exploration (sales and innovation).
It is less important that individual employees have the capability to be able to apply themselves to both aspects. What is this paragraph trying to say, because it doesn’t say it.
Indeed, previous research has found that successfully ambidextrous organisations tend to separate the exploitative side of operations from the explorative or innovative aspects of the total operation.
Ambidextrous organisations it appears do not require many ambidextrous employees who can operate equally well in both the exploitative and the explorative aspects of the business.
There is the distinct possibility however that having a few ambidextrous individuals at a leadership level rather than the management or employee levels of the organisation is the best mix.
The paper concluded, “it might be a fruitful strategy for organisations to investigate personal preferences of employees and if these favour either exploration or exploitation it may be wise not to force employees to become more balanced. In contrast, if a preference exists, it may be beneficial to stimulate employees to (further) specialise in either exploration or exploitation.”
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