The concept of organizational ambidexterity – or why we shouldn’t use this term in the way it’s now

Ambidexterity refers to the ability to perform the same task equally well with both hands. So, for instance, one is ambidextrous if one can write equally well with either hand. I believe the concept is ill-used for organizations when authors refer to their ability to engage in both exploitation and exploration (March, 1991).  An ambidextrous organization would be one in which two different units (divisions or teams) could perform the same task equally well. For instance, two R&D units could be equally good at developing products. However, exploitation and exploration are two different activities. The latter, according to March (1991), refers to exploring into new knowledge domains through experimentation and entails risk-taking. The former refers to refining existing knowledge through the development of routines. Hence, this is why I believe we should not use the concept of organizational ambidexterity to refer to organizations’ ability to simultaneously engage in exploitation and exploration. Furthermore, one thing is to engage in these two learning activities and another thing is to actually be proficient or successful at doing so, which is what the performance dimension of the concept of ambidexterity refers to. Thus,  I believe ambidexterity is not a good term for being successful at combining both exploitation and exploration. This is a common problem in metaphorical thinking where the target domain does not really fit the source domain (Lackoff, 1980).

However, the problem or managerial challenge to successfully combine exploitation and exploration is a real one. In the activity domain, exploiting existing activities while exploring new activity domains has been long discussed since at least Penrose (1959) for whom exploration mainly takes place through acquisitions, or organically through internal ventures’ divisions (see Burgelman, 1985).

March, J. 1991. Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2: 71-87.

Penrose ET. 1959. The Theory of Growth of the Firm. London: Basil Blackwell.

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