University of Southern California

Paul Adler
Title
Fascinated by Ambidexterity
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I grew up in Australia. My path to Marshall was circuitous, to say the least. I started my university education in Melbourne, Australia, but dropped out in my second year. They were turbulent times, and I was a pretty confused young man. After traveling and working for a few years, reading a lot on my own, and getting excited about economic affairs, I decided to head back to school, this time with a clearer goal — making documentary films about economic issues.

Armed with a French passport inherited from my father (who had emigrated to Australia after the Second World War), I went off to Europe looking for an education in either economics or documentary film-making. By chance, I found myself admitted directly into two Masters’ programs in Paris — one in Economics run by the French Ministry of Finances and another in Economic and social history at the famous École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. With only rudimentary French, and without an undergraduate foundation, it was an exciting challenge, to put it mildly. With those degrees under my belt, I took up a position in a government research center studying business strategies, operations, and performance. This was my first encounter with business as an object of study, and I found it absolutely fascinating. While working in this research center — in reality, as part of my work there — I earned a PhD in Economics and Management. My dissertation was on the strategic and organizational challenges of computerization in French banking. It was based on a combination of ethnographic research in a bank branch, interviews of people throughout one of the major French banks, and statistical analysis of the whole population of French banks’ operating and financial results.

I never did get to realize my documentary film-making ambition, but my fascination with the workings of business organizations has lasted 35 years now, and continues just as strong. Coming to the US in 1981, I continued work on innovation, strategy, and organization, first as a visiting scholar as Brookings Institution, then as a visiting assistant professor at Barnard College, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Business School, and an assistant professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering. I joined Marshall as an Associate professor in 1992.

Most of my research has focused on large, complex organizations, and how they can pursue simultaneously innovation and efficiency goals. Most of the available academic theories treat those two goals as mutually exclusive. That’s because most prior research has argued that you need very different types of organizations to pursue each of these goals — more bureaucratic if you want efficiency, and more ‘organic’ and ‘ad hoc’ if you want innovation. But today many organizations are under pressure to make progress simultaneously on both these dimensions of performance — they need to become in this sense ‘ambidextrous.’ I am fascinated by world-class organizations that manage to respond effectively to that challenge. I have published a series of studies on these themes, dividing deep into organizations such as Toyota, Computer Sciences Corporation, and Kaiser Permanente. None of these is perfect. No organization ever is, of course. But they have a lot to teach us about how organizations of the 21st century will need to be designed if they are to survive the challenges ahead.

This research serves as the foundation for my long-running MBA elective on “Designing high-performance organizations.” Alongside this course, I have taught PhD, MBA and Undergraduate courses on various topics over the years — Innovation, Strategic human resource management, Business and ethics, Business and Society, and, most recently, Environmental sustainability. Of this last course it has been wonderful to see a growing proportion of our students coming into Marshall with a passion for making the world a better place and looking to Marshall to help them develop the skills that will equip them for that mission. And it has been gratifying to get so much support from my department and the Dean in my efforts to respond to this demand.

Beyond Marshall, I serve on USC’s campus-wide Sustainability Committee. And beyond USC, I was recently elected to the leadership of the Academy of Management – an international scholarly association of nearly 20,000 management scholars. I can be reached at padler@usc.edu. My website is at http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~padler.