Ambidexterity is not a really intuitive concept (definitely not for a non-native English speaker), ambiwhat?
Originally, it refers to “an individual’s capacity to be equally skillful with both hands” but as an academic construction (in management) it refers to an organisation’s capacity to do two things equally well. Not just any two things, but dualities like exploration vs exploitation, efficiency vs flexibility, differentiation vs cost leadership, etc.
Birkinshaw and Gupta illustrate the evolution of ambidexterity as a management concept going through three (classic) stages: Definition (1995-2005), Growth (2005-2009), and Consolidation (2009-2013). Currently there are between 35 and 40 academic papers on ambidexterity published per year (hot topic!)
And yet, practicing managers don’t use the term. Frankly, I don’t mind that the term is not used. However, what is meant by ambidexterity is central to much of what we try to do in business. As Birkinshaw and Gupta indicate: “a central part of what firms do is manage the tensions that exist between competing objectives; that is, they seek to achieve some form of ambidexterity.”
Ambidexterity is achieved through managerial capability, but we need to keep in mind that it is very hard to achieve. And although we can organisationally separate the competing objectives (a common approach) it does not really “solve” the challenge because ultimately in the end the duality, for example exploration vs exploitation, needs to be resolved by someone. As such, it cascades through the organisation and everybody faces the issue. For example: Should I develop new skills for the benefit of the organisation or should I focus on the best use of my existing skills?
As an organisation we have three types of choices when it comes to becoming ambidextrous (see figure):
- Question 1: Do we reach the (efficiency) frontier? (For most companies the first challenge is to match the performance of others)
- Question 2: Where do we position ourselves on the (efficiency) frontier? (Moving along the frontier are there superior locations?)
- Question 3: Can we push the (efficiency) frontier out? (Can we innovate in such a way as to move the frontier outward creating higher ambidexterity?)
Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s research on culture highlights the concept of dilemmas (e.g. Individualism vs. collectivism). Their solution is to “crack the axis” of the continuum, which is – I believe – is similar to the conceptualisation of ambidexterity.
Birkinshaw and Gupta, however, emphasise that it is crucial to measure the ends of the continuum of – for example – exploration and exploitation separately (so NOT as poles of a continuum) because otherwise you automatically end of on the diagonal (dotted) line.
Still a bit abstract? But definitely food for thought….