Ambidexterity no easy balancing act for R&D firms: SFU Beedie study

Jul 11, 2011

Can ambidexterity, a trait that’s often associated with exceptional athletes, be applied to organizations — from biotech companies to government agencies — immersed in research and development? It’s a question recently put forth by researchers Ian McCarthy and Brian Gordon from the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

Their article, entitled “Achieving contextual ambidexterity in R&D organizations: a management control system approach,” was published in the journal R&D Management. It points out that these organizations tend to find themselves juggling two contradictory modes of learning: ‘exploration’, a long-term activity involving risk and experimentation, and ‘exploitation’, characterized by short-term time horizons and a focus on refinement and efficiency.

To this end, the paper by McCarthy and Gordon focuses on the problem of how to attain contextual ambidexterity within a single organizational unit – which could be used to encourage teams and individuals within R&D organizations to pursue both exploitation and exploration.

Their research points to some important takeaways for managers who are seeking a more effective balance between exploitation and exploration.

· First, measuring performance is important; but it is only one aspect of organizational evaluation. Thus, it is important to reflect on the different control systems at your disposal, and move beyond the obvious diagnostic-based measures and rewards.

· Second, strategic goals will determine the extent to which firms use different approaches to managing people and activities. The control of people, and their activities and outcomes should be led by a strategy.

· Third, an organization’s effective exploitation-exploration balance is likely to change over time. This is because an optimum mix of exploitation-exploration at one point in time is likely to become unsuitable as industry and organizational conditions change. Thus, McCarthy says, “the balancing of exploitation-exploration tensions is much like riding a bike – it requires a continuous and irregular shifting of control system use over time.”

McCarthy and Gordon hope that their research will motivate researchers to further examine the balancing act between different forms of knowledge production. “As knowledge increasingly redefines the wealth of nations, firms and individuals, the challenges and benefits of effective R&D control will continue to capture the attention of scholars and managers.”

Read the full paper online:

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