Developing organisational ambidexterity – the implications for HR, L&D and OD

By David Wilkinson

Doing the two main organisational tasks change brings about

A problem that has dogged many organisations is how to continue to exploit its existing capabilities whilst at the same time developing and exploring new ones. One of the most famous failures in this respect must be Kodak who invented the digital camera and yet this technology was the very thing that brought Kodak down.

Organisational ambidexterity refers to the ability to be able to do both things successfully at the same time, continue to successfully exploit and develop its existing productsand capabilities whilst at the same time changing, adapting to new market conditions and developing new products and capabilities some of which may take the organisation in a completely new direction.

Over the last 15 to 20 years there has been a growingbody of research, thinking and literature on how to create successful ambidexterity. In a paper just published in the journal Human Resource Management, a team of researchers has carried out a very useful review of the research and literature to date. The interesting thing about this paper is that it focuses on the contribution and role that human resources and organisational development functions has to play in the creation and maintenance of organisational ambidexterity.

41 research studies

The paper reviews 41 empirical studies which relate specifically to this subject and the role that human resources and organisational development functions such as learning and development for example should be playing in the development and maintenance of the organisational ambidexterity. The paper is both wide- ranging and detailed. If you’re interested in this topic you can find a link to the full 28 page article in the references section.

In particular the paper focuses on the following areas in the organisational ambidexterity literature:

  • Employee characteristics
  • Leader characteristics
  • Organisational structure
  • Culture
  • Social relationships and
  • Organisational environment

and makes recommendations specifically for human resources and organisational development functions.

Employee characteristics

The first area of focus is how employee characteristics influence organisational ambidexterity.

The first finding was that employees with backgrounds in topics like finance and accounting are less willing, generally, then employees working in areas such as marketing and human resources to adapt to change.

Another study discovered that employees who had spent less time in the organisation and the industry and had less senior positions tended to have outputs that were more in-line with the outcomes of ambidexterity than people who were more time served and more senior. However studies have also shown that experience in a specific task, as opposed to general time served did help with ambidextrous outcomes.

It has also been found, some might think counter-intuitively, that employees who have a preference for an ‘away from’ orientation to the current situation within the organisation tended to have the biggest positive effect on the development of organisational ambidexterity.

Not only that but, employees who make critical comparisons of situations and states within the organisation, and have an ‘away from’ orientation have an even greater positive effect all organisational ambidexterity.

One of the biggest employee characteristics, what is known as ‘learning goal orientation’, which is the willingness to acquire new thinking, new abilities and the capability to adjust rapidly to new situations is also strongly correlated with ambidextrous positive attributes.

The problem with high performance individuals

You may be amazed to discover that it has been found that employees who are oriented toward high- performance often engage in activities that are counter- productive when promoting organisational ambidexterity. The explanation for this is that these individuals tend to avoid new and challenging tasks in order to avoid potential failure and disruption of their productive and high performance stream.

Additionally, employees who identify strongly with their team or enjoy the application of rules and procedures and following routines, or who favour the status quo also tend to have outcomes that are counter-productive for ambidexterity outcomes.

Further, role stress, role conflict and role ambiguity is also strongly associated with a reduction in ambidexterity. This strongly suggests that individuals and teams who are more intolerant to uncertainty tend to reduce the level of ambidexterity of the organisation.

The authors also comment about the positive role of employee emotional resilience on the development and maintenance of organisational ambidexterity.

Clearly, the development of employees in the areas of:

  • learning orientation,
  • tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty,
  • the development of critical thinking,
  • the ability to deal positively with mistakes and failure
  • being able to disambiguate role stress and conflict, and,
  • the development of emotional resilience / emotion regulation

are central human resource, and learning and development issues that can contribute greatly to the development of organisational ambidexterity.

Leadership characteristics

A raft of academic studies have shown that leadership is critical to the development and maintenance of organisational ambidexterity. Leaders who are not focused on developing and maintaining ambidexterity within their organisation tend to reduce the organisation’s ambidexterity.

The authors also found that when leaders have similar backgrounds, experiences and orientation the organisation tends to focus more on exploitation of the existing capabilities to the detriment of the development of new directions and capabilities. On the other hand leadership teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences tend to focus on exploring new directions and capabilities. It has been found that leadership teams that have a mix of a founding team with common company affiliations and leaders from a diverse mix of backgrounds tend to do better at developing organisational ambidexterity.

Additionally it has been found that leaders who have extended experience in a functional area tended to be less likely to be oriented towards developing ambidexterity.

Tolerance for uncertainty

Remembering that ambidexterity refers to both developing new capabilities and exploiting existing capabilities at the same time, it has been discovered that leaders with greater adaptability and tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity tend to have better outcomes in terms of ambidexterity.

One study from 2009 discovered the transformational leaders tend to focus on the development of ambidexterity and consequently have better outcomes in this arena.

Additionally it has been found that leaders who promote a knowledge sharing culture and innovation also tend to promote ambidexterity. Further leaders who can hold paradoxes tend also to have better outcomes in this area.

In essence, leaders who are good at evaluating risk in complex situations and are tolerant to uncertainty, failure, tension and who are adaptable and agile tend to have better outcomes in terms of the development and maintenance of the organisational ambidexterity.

Leadership development

Again the development of leaders in these areas is crucial in helping organisations develop and maintain ambidexterity. Additionally recruiting and selecting leaders who have a range of backgrounds and preferably broad educational experiences and work backgrounds and have the characteristics mentioned above will have a significant impact on an organisation’s level of ambidexterity. It is also worth considering what attributes an organisation’s performance review and reward structures promote. For example, the authors highlight the development of emotional intelligence and resilience.

HR practices

The paper goes on to examine the role of HR practices and systems and how they impact on the development of organisational ambidexterity. Things like aligning senior team incentives, such as bonuses and profit-sharing to overall organisational success has a positive effect on organisational ambidexterity. Additionally, measuring and rewarding creativity and innovation is also positively correlated with ambidexterity as is employee perceptions of fairness within the organisation.

One study found that direct training does have a positive impact. In particular training on topics like intellectual property rights for example also has a positive impact.

A number of studies have pointed to the focus of the HR function in creating and maintaining ambidexterity as a particular success factor in the development of organisational ambidexterity. This means that the concept of ambidexterity needs to be part of the general HR strategy.

Organisational structure

A significant number of research studies have shown that separating out the current operational capability of the organisation from the explorative research and development functions that are required to develop new directions, products and capabilities is essential for organisational ambidexterity.

Trying to integrate the functions or give the operational functions responsibility for new capability development tends not to work and reduces overall organisational ambidexterity.

Other issues reported in this paper, which is worth reading, include the fact that employee empowerment to solve problems, set goals and change policies and procedures is closely correlated with both employee and management contributions towards ambidexterity.

Culture

Organisational culture is seen as a critical issue in the development of organisational ambidexterity. Cultural factors which enhance levels of ambidexterity include things like:

  1. Having a shared vision
  2. Promoting creativity
  3. Encouraging tolerance of uncertainty and interpersonal differences
  4. Organisational diversity
  5. Cultural cohesiveness
  6. The development of a learning culture and orientation
  7. Openness
  8. Participative decision- making and
  9. Openness to challenge

for example all contribute to the development of organisational ambidexterity.

 

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.