Human Capital Dilemmas: Imagining Possibilities Through the Prism of Ambidexterity
Just as a prism can refract and change the way we view the light that comes through it, our synthesis suggests that human capital professionals should be able to act and react similarly, reshaping, redirecting and colouring human capital dilemmas.
In the previous article in this series, we talked about the paradigm of ‘being and doing’ and how that paradigm can contribute to ‘big picture thinking.’ In this article, we share the concept of ambidexterity as a capability needed for human capital leaders to translate the ‘big picture’ into actions in a resourceful way.
Organisational ambidexterity: "the ability to simultaneously pursue both incremental and discontinuous innovation...from hosting multiple contradictory structures, processes, and cultures within the same firm"
– Tushman, Michael & O’Reilly, 1996
The concept of ambidexterity originates from innovation literature dating from 1976  and is very much relevant to HR dilemmas today - especially in the context of Asia’s stage of human capital development. It embraces big picture thinking and syncs well with the ’being and doing‘ culture of Asia. More importantly, it offers possibilities for striking a more efficient balance between current and new human capital approaches.
Dilemmas are inherent in human capital management.
Our synthesis shows that there are four types of narrative at play.
Narrative 1: Contradictory Approaches
In this narrative, achieving A means needing to do the opposite of A.
Example: To go fast, go slow.
Narrative 2: Conflicting Solutions
In this narrative, doing A means destroying the value of B. Doing B means destroying the value of A.
Example: Standardisation vs Customisation
Narrative 3: Competing Demands
In this narrative, both A and B are important, but we can only do either A or B because of their mutual exclusivity. Only one option is achievable at a given time. We cannot do both because we do not have enough resources to do so.
Example: Short-term vs long-term
Narrative 4: The grass is greener on the other side of the fence
In this narrative, let’s forget A and do B because B looks like it could be better.
Example: HR needs to be strategic, not functional
Many approaches to addressing human capital dilemmas have been offered. For example, there are various tools available which come under the rubrics of paradox management and polarity thinking. But while paradox tools often take a managing approach and polarity tools often take a thinking approach, ambidexterity focuses on continuous learning to achieve both incremental and discontinuous innovation. Ambidexterity also reframes critical questions by capturing the real, core issue: so rather than debating the merits and demerits of say, short- versus long-term thinking, ambidexterity posits the view – the “big picture” - that business sustainability is what we should be concentrating on. The ability to adopt this prism - or view - is what we mean by ambidexterity – accommodating the dilemma and offering a fresh approach.
We do not intend to add yet one more new term to the human capital lexicon, but our synthesis indicates that what is needed most by human capital professionals is an enabler that stands between an organisation’s realities and its desired organisational practices. The prism of ambidexterity offers up the possibility of new ways to tackle human capital dilemmas while also having the potential to revolutionise thinking about the nature of human capital itself.
^ Tushman, Michael L. and O’Reilly, Charles A. (1996). The ambidextrous organization: managing evolutionary and revolutionary change. California Management Review, 38: 1-23
^ Duncan, Robert B. (1976). The ambidextrous organization: Designing dual structures for innovation. In R. H. Kilmann, L.R. Pondy and D. Slevin (eds.), The management of organization design: Strategies and implementation. New York: North-Holland: 167-188.