Do you need ambidextrous employees to have an ambidextrous organisation? - The Oxford Review - OR Briefings

Do you need ambidextrous employees to have an ambidextrous organisation?

ambidextrous employees

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?



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The idea of the ambidextrous organisation

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.


ambidextrous employees


Ambidextrous employees?

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 employees?



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.”


Reference – available to members


Editor's Post-Script
Editor’s post-script: We have published quite a few briefings on the topic of organisational ambidexterity and this research helps to clarify things for organisations about how to develop that ambidexterity across the organisation. There are lessons here for the leadership, management, Human Resources and Organisational Development functions in organisations.


Editor's Post-Script
Overview: This study has found that, contrary to the beliefs of some, having ambidextrous employees – people who are equally comfortable with the exploitative and explorative aspects of an organisations operations (Sales marketing etc. v R&D/innovation) does not create an ambidextrous organisation. Rather having and developing people who are better in either the exploitative or the explorative side of the business makes for a more balanced organisation that can both exploit current advantages whilst preparing for the future.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page