Organizational Ambidexterity

Organizational Ambidexterity

In the iconic film ‘The Princess Bride’, a memorable scene features two swordsmen dueling left-handed, only for Inigo Montoya to reveal his true right-handed prowess, prompting both to switch hands. Inspired by this, I embarked on learning ambidextrous fencing, a venture that, admittedly, hasn’t quite reached cinematic standards.

Exploring and Exploiting with Ambidexterity


The Challenge of Organizational Ambidexterity

True ambidexterity is also a challenge faced by organizations. Traditionally, tasks requiring distinct skill sets were segregated. The concept of organisational ambidexterity hinges on two distinct abilities: exploration, which involves innovating and discovering new solutions and products, and exploitation, which focuses on standardising these innovations for scalable replication and profit generation.

Research increasingly shows that successful companies are those that are ambidextrous, finding an equilibrium between exploration and exploitation. The rise of AI and technologies to accelerate automation adds new possibilities for companies to achieve this balance.

The Role of AI in Ambidexterity

In a discussion with Julian Birkinshaw, Vice Dean and Professor at London Business School and a prolific author of 14 management books, he pointed out a critical shortfall in the evolution of AI. Despite advancements, AI has yet to revolutionize organizational design, including key aspects like task allocation. As it stands, AI is primarily enhancing the efficiency of existing processes, not pioneering new ways to approach tasks. Birkinshaw reminds us of Henry Ford, who in designing a motorcar rather than a faster horse, epitomized ambidextrous thinking not just by commercializing the automobile but by revolutionizing its production on a massive scale. Such groundbreaking changes in organizational design, akin to those seen in past industrial revolutions, are still beyond AI’s current contributions.

The organizational structure is crucial for fostering ambidexterity. The adoption of AI and similar technologies can fast-track this by automating tasks generally linked with exploitation. This frees humans to focus more on creative tasks (exploration), elevating their roles beyond glorified robots. Exploitation involves making innovations uniform for widespread replication, a process which essentially leads to the creation of new procedures. Once established, these processes are ripe for automation, executable by machines or AI.

The Importance of Human Judgement

Birkinshaw, who is a leading expert on organizational ambidexterity, doesn’t agree with my somewhat oversimplified take on AI as a tool mostly used in exploitation.

“AI has its place in both exploration and exploitation. Many aspects of the innovation process can be standardized, making them ideal for AI. While it’s accurate that exploitation revolves around processes, making AI potentially better suited for this, judgement is essential in both scenarios – and that’s where AI struggles.”

I have previously written about skills that are uniquely human and skills (that can be) fulfilled by machines. One of the unique human skills is that of judgement. There might come a time when AI outperforms humans in making judgements, but as Birkinshaw points out – AI can give recommendations, but “ChatGPT loses the courage to make judgements.”

This human skill of judgement plays a crucial role in Birkinshaw’s definition of ‘contextual ambidexterity‘ – the ability for the same teams to engage in activities such as innovating and selling (essentially, exploring and exploiting simultaneously). We discussed how various management tools, from agile to holacracy, aim to tackle the challenges of ambidexterity. Yet, as Birkinshaw highlights “at the end of the day, what companies really need are solid management practices that empower their staff to judge the right moments for innovation and exploration versus production and exploitation. AI is an invaluable tool, but humans have a unique grasp of context that AI simply can’t match — which means they know when it’s time to override what AI suggests.”

Towards True Ambidexterity: Balancing AI and Human Skills

Organizations that encourage an ambidextrous environment are likely to be better equipped to manage the ongoing automation advancements brought by AI. While AI can play a role in new discoveries, skills such as judgement which are essential for exploration and innovation, are distinctly human. Only by allowing these skills to flourish through better organisational design, will companies stay competitive.

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