University of Southern California

Scholarship With Consequence
September 28, 2012 • by Paul Adler

When I visited a Toyota plant in Kentucky a while ago, I was astonished to see assembly line workers participating enthusiastically in efforts to improve the operational productivity and flexibility of their incredibly routine work. Most academic research tells us that when people do simple, standardized, repetitive work, the most you can expect from them is reluctant conformance. What was different about Toyota?

Not long after, I studied the software services giant Computer Sciences Corporation, where I witnessed something equally surprising at the opposite end of the spectrum, among people doing very creative work. Here software developers, famous for their cranky individualism, had become excited about using highly standardized procedures for developing even more creative code in a more productive way. Most academic research has a hard time imagining why these developers would give up their autonomy.

These companies were doing something very unusual, something usually considered downright impossible — combining sustained improvements in efficiency and control with equally sustained improvements in innovativeness and flexibility. In the management and strategy literature, the ability to do both these at once is called "ambidexterity." As researchers, we are still trying to understand how organizations achieve this ability. If we can crack that code, a lot of organizations would be eager to adopt it.

So far, I've reached two conclusions about achieving ambidexterity: First, this kind of work requires a strong bond of community within the organization. Second, the type of community needed is very different from those with which we are most familiar. I call this new type collaborative. Instead of building bonds of personal loyalty, or imposing expert-designed procedures, or relying on high-powered financial incentives, collaborative organizations create a shared sense of purpose, and encourage everyone to get involved in defining and refining the procedures they need to achieve that purpose.

I am in the process of testing and deepening these ideas with a survey. If you can spare five minutes to help me in this work, please take the survey before October 12. I would be happy to share the results with everyone who takes the survey or requests a copy.

I like to think this is the kind of research USC and Marshall celebrate as scholarship with consequence. It simultaneously advances basic theory and helps industry and society move forward and grow. Your gift today will keep Marshall strong so that we can continue to generate and share this kind of scholarship. Thank you for supporting my research in any way you can.

Fight On!
Paul Adler
Harold Quinton Chair in Business Policy and Professor of Management and Organization