Organizing for incremental and disruptive innovation through ambidexterity: evidences from a case study in the Brazilian automotive industry

Type de publication:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, São Paulo (2018)


Ambidexterity, Emerging countries, Exploitation, Exploration, organization for innovation, Subsidiary role



Purpose: Companies are increasingly dedicated to innovation, however, innovation activities, especially when focusing at disruptive innovation, are often expensive, with results coming in the long term. This can lead to a competition for resources with ongoing operations, which are responsible for the maintenance of the company in the short term. The so-called "ambidexterity" is the organizational capacity to simultaneously perform "exploitation" and "exploration", that is, to exploit existing skills, for instance through improvements in operations or even through incremental innovation, without abandoning the exploration of new opportunities, which is typically done through disruptive or major innovation. However, this may require different organizational structures and work contexts on the part of the companies. In this sense, this paper aims to analyze how a large Brazilian automotive company organizes itself for innovation and undertakes its efforts in the development of exploration and exploitation.

Design: Research was done from a single longitudinal study, qualitative, non-experimental, and promoted a descriptive analysis. In addition, a systematic review of the literature was carried out, aiming to better understand the phenomenon of organizational ambidexterity, its concept, application types and contexts, as well as the organizational characteristics of ambidextrous companies. Four types of ambidexterity were concerned: structural ambidexterity, parallel structures, contextual ambidexterity and time balancing. Data collection was done through semi-structured interviews with engineers, managers and analysts related to the areas of innovation, product development, engineering and manufacturing as well as informal conversations and documentary analysis.

Findings: Results showed the existence of several types of ambidextrous behavior in the organization of the company. However the company does not have separated structures to incremental and major or disruptive innovation, therefore pointing to the absence of structural ambidexterity. This may be due to the very nature of innovation within the automotive industry, in which tacit knowledge plays an important role, and also to the international division of labor concerning innovation activities, since most of the basic research is conducted in the headquarters. The innovation process is mostly formalized, following the stage-gate model, and both incremental and major or disruptive innovation must follow the formal process developed in the headquarters. Nevertheless, sometimes incremental innovation is conducted informally, inside the engineering departments. In this sense, there is a certain "contextual ambidexterity", especially in the work of engineers, who do not see their daily activities as exploitation, as they are. A differentiated organizational structure was observed for the Innovation Management sector in the Product Engineering Department as well as for the Advanced Engineering area in the Powertrain Engineering Department, which are responsible for major or disruptive innovation management, with greater autonomy and flexibility and less bureaucracy compared to the rest of the company and to the exploitation activities. As the activities conducted in the Innovation Management and in the Advanced Engineering areas are related to the management of other exploration activities carried out within the Product/Powertrain Engineering departments, this configuration may characterize a "parallel structure" aiming at ambidexterity. Finally, the longitudinal research approach allowed to evidence "time balancing" in which concerns ambidexterity, due to the creation and subsequent disappearance of innovation initiatives, as well as by the large variation in the number of employees dedicated to innovation activities over time.

Practical implications: Results presented in the paper offer insights to Research, Development & Engineering managers in automotive companies concerning how to organize R,D&E activities in order to balance exploration and exploitation within the same site. This is particularly important in the case of automotive subsidiaries located in emerging markets, which frequently find difficulties in justifying the decentralization of exploration activities, i.e disruptive or major innovation activities, from their headquarters towards themselves.

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