In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organizational Ambidexterity

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Papers
  • Reviews and Special Issues
  • Major Theories
  • Settings for Ambidexterity Research
  • Organizational Ambidexterity and Performance
  • Temporal Accounts of Ambidexterity

Management Organizational Ambidexterity
Susan Hill
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0214


“Organizational ambidexterity” refers to the ability of an organization, or a subsystem of an organization, to perform two tasks with equal skill. The terminology “ambidexterity” is metaphorical: it is the application of a human attribute (that of being equally skilled with both hands) to organizations. While early work varied in respect of the duality ambidexterity was applied to, scholars have now largely coalesced around organizational ambidexterity as referring to exploration and exploitation. These terms were introduced by James G. March, a leading figure in the Behavioral Theory of the Firm tradition, in a seminal 1991 article (March 1991, cited under Foundational Papers). The normative challenge that broadly characterizes organizational ambidexterity research is the following: How do organizations manage to effectively explore and exploit, when these likely jointly influence long-run performance but can compete for scarce resources and crowd each other out? In contrast to some schools of thought in management, such as population ecology, that see organizational adaptation as an impossible (or near impossible) feat, scholars of organizational ambidexterity assume that organizations can adapt. Moreover, organizations can, while it might present extreme management challenges, find ways to successfully explore and exploit—and to do so more or less at the same time. Scholarly literature on organizational ambidexterity started out as a trickle of articles in the 1990s, was catapulted into mainstream management scholarship in the mid- to late 2000s, and now constitutes a sizeable corpus of research, which continues to grow and mature. This bibliography provides a selective representation of works from this corpus, drawing principally on works published in the core journals within management and organization studies. It is organized into eight major sections. First, key Foundational Papers are introduced. Second, influential Reviews and Special Issues are presented. Third, Major Theories drawn on in ambidexterity research are identified. Fourth, the common Settings for Ambidexterity Research are highlighted. Fifth, as a topic that gathered a great deal of attention in the early growth phase of organizational ambidexterity research, studies addressing whether and, if so, when, ambidexterity delivers performance benefits to companies are outlined (see Organizational Ambidexterity and Performance). Sixth, under Forms of Organizational Ambidexterity, writings on the major forms through which organizations effect ambidexterity are identified. Seventh, under Individuals and Teams, research into ambidexterity focusing on human actors is overviewed. Finally, an emerging conversation on Temporal Accounts of Ambidexterity is presented.

Foundational Papers

The first application of the metaphor of ambidexterity to organizations is credited to Duncan 1976, a conceptual work adopting a contingency perspective to organization design, which focused on the design dilemmas encountered by organizations in managing innovation projects. This article posits that two major temporal phases of innovation projects (namely, initiation and implementation) present competing organizational design demands. Managing what are viewed as competing organizational demands represents the essential theme in organizational ambidexterity research. The simulation-based article, March 1991, by James March, a leading figure within the Behavioral Theory of the Firm tradition (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Behavioral Theory of the Firm”), has been seminal to organizational ambidexterity research. Despite not employing the language of ambidexterity, it has played a defining role in articulating the theoretical objects around which much of ambidexterity literature has coalesced: that is, exploration and exploitation as modes of organizational adaptation. Trade-offs between the two and their dual importance for organizational adaptation have formed key orienting assumptions within the domain too. Early foundational work, which varied in its emphasis accorded to the March 1991 exploitation-exploration dichotomy, focused on how organizations might manage central competing demands. Two pieces geared principally toward managerial audiences, Tushman and O’Reilly 1996 and O’Reilly and Tushman 2004, develop what has come to be regarded as “structural ambidexterity,” and Gibson and Birkinshaw 2004 posits, as an alternative, “contextual ambidexterity.” In brief, structural ambidexterity involves the structural separation of organizational units undertaking exploration from those engaging in exploitation, accompanied by targeted senior team integration. In contrast, contextual ambidexterity advocates a dual focus on exploration and exploitation within an organization unit, facilitated by a supportive “behavior-framing” context. The arguments within Gibson and Birkinshaw 2004 resonate with the emphasis in Adler, et al. 1999 on mechanisms through which employees might simultaneously perform routine and nonroutine tasks, supported by a conducive organizational context. Literature on structural and contextual approaches to ambidexterity is overviewed in the section Forms of Organizational Ambidexterity.

  • Duncan, Robert B. “The Ambidextrous Organization: Designing Dual Structures for Innovation.” In The Management of Organization Design: Strategies and Implementation. Edited by Ralph H. Kilmann, Louis R. Pondy, and Dennis Patrick Slevin, 167–188. New York: North Holland, 1976.

    Adopting a contingency perspective, this work by Duncan is widely credited with introducing the descriptor “ambidextrous” to organizations. It proposes a prescriptive model to manage two broad innovation phases (initiation and implementation) that place significantly different demands upon organizations. It advocates “dual structures” whereby organizations shift or switch between structures of low versus high complexity, formalization, and centralization, either within or across organizational units, to manage these innovation phases.

  • March, James G. “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning.” Organization Science 2.1 (1991): 71–87.

    DOI: 10.1287/orsc.2.1.71

    The conceptual arguments in this work have been foundational to ambidexterity research, even if its simulation models have garnered less attention therein. Crucially, in this work, March distinguishes exploration from exploitation, associating distinctive risk and return profiles therewith, and identifying exploration as being more vulnerable in organizations. The call in this work for organizations to balance exploration and exploitation has been taken up as a central tenet in ambidexterity literature.

  • Tushman, Michael L., and Charles A. O’Reilly III. “Ambidextrous Organizations: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change.” California Management Review 38.4 (1996): 8–30.

    DOI: 10.2307/41165852

    In this article, geared principally toward a managerial audience, Tushman and O’Reilly set out the case, drawing on theories of punctuated equilibrium and technology cycles, for companies to successfully manage periods of both incremental (evolutionary) and radical (revolutionary or discontinuous) change. Organizations and managers that possess the ability to do so are identified as “ambidextrous,” with a few structural, cultural, and personal attributes briefly being proposed as common across these.

  • Adler, Paul S., Barbara Goldoftas, and David I. Levine. “Flexibility versus Efficiency? A Case Study of Model Changeovers in the Toyota Production System.” Organization Science 10.1 (1999): 43–68.

    DOI: 10.1287/orsc.10.1.43

    Informed by a case study on the NUMMI auto plant in California, the authors argue that a set of mechanisms enabling employees to simultaneously engage in routine and nonroutine tasks facilitated the plant’s ability to “shift the efficiency-flexibility trade-off.” These mechanisms comprise meta-routines, job enrichment, switching, and partitioning. NUMMI’s success with these mechanisms is attributed to the broader organizational context, which embodied high levels of training and trust.

  • Gibson, Cristina B., and Julian Birkinshaw. “The Antecedents, Consequences, and Mediating Role of Organizational Ambidexterity.” Academy of Management Journal 47.2 (2004): 209–226.

    DOI: 10.2307/20159573

    This highly influential empirical work by Gibson and Birkinshaw introduced a “contextual” model of ambidexterity. They argue, and demonstrate using survey data, that the capacity for organizational ambidexterity (alignment and adaptability) can reside within business units. Unit members are argued to make choices between aligned and adaptive behaviors, facilitated by a behavior-framing organization context (combining stretch, discipline, support, and trust). Ambidexterity mediated relationships between supportive organization contexts and unit performance.

  • O’Reilly, Charles A., III, and Michael L. Tushman. “The Ambidextrous Organization.” Harvard Business Review 82.4 (2004): 74–81.

    This work is typically cited as first proposing the “structural” model of ambidextrous organization, whereby exploratory units are structurally separated (into distinctive organizational units) from their more exploitative counterparts. A tightly integrated senior team is deemed essential by the authors to counterbalance the differentiation occurring within the organizational structure. Multi-case research is used to argue for the superiority, relative to other designs, of ambidextrous organizations for effecting breakthrough innovation.

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