theoretical neither

Institutional Ambidexterity: Leveraging Institutional Complexity in Practice
Prof Paula Jarzabkowski
Dr Michael Smets
Dr Rebecca Bednarek
Dr Gary Burke
Dr Paul Spee
This chapter develops a practice approach to institutional ambidexterity. In doing so it first
explores the ‘promise’ of institutional ambidexterity as a concept to address shortcomings within
the institutional theory treatment of complexity. However, we argue that this is an empty promise
because ambidexterity remains an organisational level construct that neither connects to
institutional level, or to the practical actions and interactions within which individuals enact
institutions. We therefore suggest a practice approach that we develop into a conceptual
framework for fulfilling the promise of institutional ambidexterity. The second part of the
chapter outlines what a practice approach is and the variation in practice-based insights into
institutional ambidexterity that we might expect in contexts of novel or routine institutional
complexity. Finally, the chapter concludes with a research agenda that highlights the potential of
practice to extend institutional theory through new research approaches to well-established
institutional theory questions, interests and established-understandings.
Keywords: Institutional logics, institutional complexity, practice
The published version is available from:
The full citation is:
Paula Jarzabkowski, Michael Smets, Rebecca Bednarek, Gary Burke, Paul Spee (2013), Institutional
Ambidexterity: Leveraging Institutional Complexity in Practice, in Michael Lounsbury, Eva Boxenbaum (ed.)
Institutional Logics in Action, Part B (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 39), Emerald Group Publishing
Limited, pp.37-61
This chapter is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear on the
Oxford Eureka and ORA platforms. Emerald does not grant permission for this chapter to be further
copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Institutional ambidexterity (Greenwood, Raynard, Kodeih, Micellota, & Lounsbury, 2011) is
institutionalists’ latest attempt to come to terms with situations of institutional ‘complexity’ or
‘pluralism’, in which incompatible expectations and prescriptions, or ‘logics’, collide (Goodrick &
Reay, 2011; Kraatz & Block, 2008; Pache & Santos, 2010; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury,
2012). Drawing on existing literature in the strategy field (Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004; Gupta,
Smith, & Shalley, 2006; March, 1991; Tushman & O’Reilly, 1996), institutional ambidexterity
looks to the potential benefits of being able to operate across coexisting, contradictory logics.
This perspective marks a significant departure from previous approaches that saw institutional
complexity as problematic and focused on resolving conflict by keeping apart people, practices or
audiences that followed contradictory logics (e.g., Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006; Seo & Creed,
2002; Smets, Morris, & Greenwood, 2012) This problem-based focus led institutionalists to
overlook the potential benefits for organisations in operating across different logics. Indeed,
from healthcare to professional services to academia, there are numerous examples of
organizations in which seemingly incompatible logics not only coexist, but also fruitfully
complement each other. Therefore, we need to better understand how organizations can
capitalize on interdependencies between logics, and not just remedy problems arising from their
The concept of institutional ambidexterity is an important step towards addressing this
shortcoming in the institutional literature; albeit, one that still falls short of resolving it. The
notion of ambidexterity differs from existing approaches because it acknowledges that working to
different prescriptions, while difficult, has the potential to benefit organizations. From this
perspective, institutional complexity is not a problem to be resolved, but a naturally occuring
condition to be managed, and harnessed (Kraatz & Block, 2008). Indeed, if we see exploitation
and exploration (March, 1991) as two distinct and contradictory logics of learning, then
ambidexterity has, implicitly, always been looking at logics-in-action and is a useful frame for
looking at institutional complexity (Greenwood et al., 2011). Transposing organizational
ambidexterity insights into the institutional literature thus appears promising at first sight. Closer
scrutiny, however, exposes this as an empty promise because, to date, ambidexterity scholars
struggle to suggest practical solutions to the puzzle of integrating contradictory prescriptions. For
example, relying on senior management teams to integrate separate efforts lower down the
corporate hierarchy may work for exploration and exploitation (e.g., Benner & Tushman, 2003;
Jansen, Tempelaar, van den Bosch, & Volberda, 2009; O'Reilly & Tushman, 2004; Siggelkow &
Levinthal, 2003), but is a less useful insight for other logics that need to be balanced on a
continuous basis by practitioners at work. Similarly, those authors suggesting that ambidexterity
hinges on organizational culture, fail to specify what people in those organizations do to create
such cultures, or to perform their everyday work under their influence (Gibson & Birkinshaw,
2004). These problems arise because ambidexterity scholars have treated complexity as an
organizational phenomenon, without pursuing its practical implications at the individual level or
its origins at the institutional level. Hence, in order to fulfil the promise of the institutional
ambidexterity concept, we need an approach that leverages institutional complexity in practice.
Developing this practice approach to institutional ambidexterity is the focus of this chapter,
which unfolds as follows: First, we review existing approaches to institutional complexity. Then,
we visit the ambidexterity literature to gauge the promise it holds for addressing the puzzle of
institutional complexity. Third, we introduce practice theory as a perspective that fruitfully
connects individual, organizational and institutional levels of analysis (e.g., Barley, 2008;
Bourdieu, 1990; Lounsbury & Crumley, 2007; Smets et al., 2012; Whittington, 2006), building a
conceptual model to illustrate our argument. Finally, drawing on the relatively few examples from
the institutional theory literature, we outline the types of insights that a practice perspective on
institutional ambidexterity can generate and indicate promising avenues for future research.
Institutional Complexity: The Story So Far
Since Friedland and Alford’s (1991) seminal work, institutional complexity, which is the
encounter of ‘incompatible prescriptions from multiple institutional logics’ (Greenwood et al.,
2011), has captured institutionalists’ interest. Such complexity arises from an overlap of
institutional orders with incompatible prescriptions (Thornton et al., 2012); for example, where
organizations operate across institutional spheres with contradictory prescriptions (e.g.,
Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006; Smets et al., 2012) or face different constituents with divergent
demands (e.g., D'Aunno, Sutton, & Price, 1991; Greenwood, Magàn Diaz, Li, & Céspedes
Lorente, 2010; Heimer, 1999). Over time and based on the intellectual priorities in the broader
field of institutional theory, this interest has taken three different guises that we outline below.
Institutional Complexity as Occasion for Change
Institutional logics are the building blocks of institutional complexity and initially rose to
prominence as a means of theorizing about the heterogeneity in institutional environments
(Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Seo & Creed, 2002; Thornton & Ocasio, 2008; Thornton et al., 2012).
Complexity allowed institutionalists to counter critiques of being overly focused on homogeneity
and stasis (Hirsch & Lounsbury, 1997) and to theorize institutional change arising endogenously,
rather than from exogenous regulatory, social, or technological shocks (Edelman, 1992; Garud,
Jain, & Kumaraswamy, 2002; Rao, Monin, & Durand, 2003). Seo and Creed (2002) argue that
institutional contradictions can function as an endogenous trigger of change, because they make
actors aware of alternatives to their institutionalized, taken-for-granted ways and motivate them
to pursue more favourable alternatives (e.g., Djelic & Quack, 2003; Greenwood & Suddaby,
2006; Seo & Creed, 2002; Smets et al., 2012; Thornton, Jones, & Kury, 2005). Given the
predominant preoccupation with explaining institutional change, such research depicted
complexity as transitory, en route to a state of relative stability in which one logic dominates over
another (Marquis & Lounsbury, 2007; Reay & Hinings, 2005; Thornton, 2002; Townley, 2002).
Institutional Complexity as Contested Coexistence
More recently, institutional theorists have come to recognize that institutional complexity may
not be transitory, but permanent (Greenwood et al., 2011; Zilber, 2011); especially for those
organizations which, by their very nature, are ‘an incarnation or embodiment of multiple logics’
(Kraatz & Block, 2008). In these organizations, contradictory prescriptions from different
legitimating audiences systematically collide in everyday operations and institutional complexity
must be managed continuously. Therefore, studies of such organizations made efforts to leave
the field level and ‘get inside’ organizations to understand organizational responses to
institutional complexity (e.g., Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Pache & Santos, 2010). However, they
retained a focus on the incompatibilities and tensions that characterize the overlap of competing
logics (Greenwood et al., 2011), as reflected in the imagery of ‘turmoil’ (Hallett, 2010); ‘threat’
(Jarzabkowski, Matthiesen, & Van de Ven, 2009) and ‘uneasy truce’ (Reay & Hinings, 2005). As a
result, suggested organizational responses, building on Oliver’s (1991) seminal work, have been
largely defensive. These may involve resistance to institutional pressures (Townley, 1997), use of
organizational status to avoid or defy problematic stakeholders (e.g., Greenwood & Suddaby,
2006; Smets et al., 2012), or compartmentalization of compliance with different sets of
expectations into different organizational or geographic units (e.g., Binder, 2007; Dunn & Jones,
2010; Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Lounsbury, 2007). Common to the majority of these responses is
their focus on simplifying the situation and reducing the tensions of complexity by keeping apart
competing logics and the practices and people that enact them. Advocating an approach of not
letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing, such studies did not fully consider that
organisations that are ‘dextrous with both hands’ might not only avoid tensions, but also reap
distinctive benefits.
Institutional Ambidexterity as Embracing Complexity
Most recently, institutional scholars have revisited relationships between logics in a more
nuanced fashion, discovering potential for more fruitful relationships between coexisting logics
(e.g., Almandoz, 2012; Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Greenwood et al., 2011; Kraatz & Block, 2008;
Smets & Jarzabkowski, forthcoming). Ironically, benefits of awareness and reflexivity were
already highlighted by Seo and Creed (2002); indeed, Friedland and Alford pointed out that
coexisting logics ‘are interdependent and yet also contradictory’ (1991; emphasis added; see also
Scott, 1991). This makes intuitive sense, as there are benefits in scientific and well-managed
patient-care (Dunn & Jones, 2010; Kitchener, 2002), more client-oriented or multi-disciplinary
professional services (Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006; Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005; Thornton et
al., 2005), or positive feedback loops between commercialized research outputs and ideas or
funding for future research (D'Este & Perkmann, 2011; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009). Institutional
scholars, given their predominant focus on incompatibility and tension, have largely neglected
such interdependencies. Yet, interdependence indicates that truly ambidextrous approaches to
complexity, in which the left hand not only knows what the right hand does, but can skilfully
complement its actions, are much more apposite to address the conundrum of institutional
Greenwood and colleagues (2011) suggest borrowing from the ambidexterity literature to
provide new insights into the integration of competing logics. The basic premise of ambidexterity
is the ability to simultaneously perform contradictory processes when both are critical to
organizational success (March, 1991; Tushman & O’Reilly, 1996). This change in perspective is
helpful for institutionalists insofar as it moves from attempting to resolve complexity to
balancing its components in pursuit of distinctive outputs and identities (Goodrick & Reay, 2011;
Kraatz & Block, 2008; Reay & Hinings, 2009). Based on Simsek’s (2009) distinction of ‘structural’
and ‘blended’ hybrids, two different approaches to ambidexterity have been proposed in
institutional theory; neither of which, however, seems to be currently delivering on the promise
of embracing institutional complexity. Structural differentiation arises from current work on
compartmentalization that assigns compliance with different expectations to different
organizational units. Where and how subsequent integration occurs, however, remains unclear to
date. Blended hybrids sidestep this problem by allowing different logics to pervade the
organization and relying on individuals to strike an appropriate balance (Battilana & Dorado,
2010; D'Aunno et al., 1991; Smets et al., 2012). So far, this appears to be the ‘gold standard’ of
institutional ambidexterity. However, several problems remain. For example, suggestions for
facilitating logic blending are currently limited to recommendations of using human resource
policies to create an open and receptive context (Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Smets et al., 2012).
How this is to be done and what individuals inhabiting these contexts do to enact different logics,
however, remains obscure. Furthermore, it is questionable that an indistinguishable blend of
competing logics and the practices that enact them would always be desirable. As Battilana and
Dorado (2010) foreshadow, blended hybridization may produce ‘slippage’ towards either logic.
From a theoretical perspective, slippage may herald institutional change, rather than balanced
complexity with distinct but coexistent logics. Empirically, failure to discriminate between, and
sustain, competing logics may herald the neglect of critical standards, as experienced in the case
of Enron and other corporate scandals in which commercial goals superseded professional
standards (Gabbioneta, Greenwood, Mazzola, & Minoja, forthcoming; Grey, 2003). Alternatives
that can integrate practices governed by competing logics on an ongoing, practical basis in order
to sustain them as interdependent yet separate have thus rarely been explored in the (institutional)
ambidexterity literature. We consider this neglect both theoretically and empirically problematic.
We now briefly visit the foundations of ambidexterity in the strategy literature, before developing
a practice-theoretical variant that we consider more suitable for addressing remaining blind spots
in the study of institutional complexity and the attendant concept of institutional ambidexterity.
Ambidexterity in the Strategy Literature: A False Promise
The ambidexterity literature suggests that successful firms are ambidextrous; ‘aligned and
efficient with today’s business demands [exploitation] while simultaneously adaptive to changes in
the environment [exploration]’ (March, 1991; Raisch & Birkinshaw, 2008). As discussed above,
Greenwood et al. (2011) link this concept to institutional theory through labelling ‘exploitation’
and ‘exploration’ as different logics of learning. Other scholars argue that, as ambidexterity can
been used to signify an organisation’s ability to do two different (apparently conflicting) things at
the same time more generally, it is applicable to logics other than exploitation and exploration
(Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004). Ambidexterity, the ability to excel at two contradictory things
simultaneously, is posited as both possible and desirable for organizations. It is thus portrayed as
an organizational resource that links to organizational performance, which is the central
theoretical proposition and empirically explored relationship in the ambidexterity literature
(Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004; He & Wong, 2004; Simsek, 2009; Tushman & O’Reilly, 1996).
Achieving ambidexterity is not, however, assumed to be easy, as the simultaneous fulfilment of
competing demands is filled with potential tensions and trade-offs (Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009;
Raisch & Birkinshaw, 2008; Smith & Tushman, 2005). The literature has explored three main
ways of achieving organizational ambidexterity: structure, organizational context (culture) and
leadership (Raisch & Birkinshaw, 2008; Simsek, 2009). Initially, structural solutions proposed that
distinct organizational units should pursue either exploration or exploitation (Benner & Tushman,
2003; Burgelman, 2002; Gupta et al., 2006; O'Reilly & Tushman, 2004; Smith & Tushman, 2005;
Tushman & O’Reilly, 1996). Then, contextual ambidexterity focused on an organization’s culture,
suggesting that if management created a suitable context, for example by engendering trust,
ambidexterity would be apparent at all levels of the organizations (Birkinshaw & Gibson, 2004).
Finally, given that both these bodies of research focus on the upper echelons of management that
are either the strategic integrating apex (Smith & Tushman, 2005); or responsible for creating a
supportive business-unit context (Birkinshaw & Gibson, 2004), a large body of work has focused
on leadership and leaders’ characteristics that enable organizational ambidexterity (Carmeli &
Halevi, 2009; Jansen et al., 2009; Lubatkin, Simsek, Yan, & Veiga, 2006; Siggelkow & Levinthal,
2003; Smith, Binns, & Tushman, 2010; Smith & Tushman, 2005)
In considering the ambidexterity literature, issues emerge regarding its capacity to provide a
theoretical foundation for managing institutional complexity and the desire to embrace
interdependence and integration between divergent logics. First, there is a surprising lack of
integration in the ambidexterity literature (Simsek, 2009). Indeed, ‘organizational ambidexterity’
was initially treated as ‘virtually synonymous with structurally differentiated hybrids’ (Greenwood
et al., 2011) and any integration that does occur is usually located at the apex of an organization
rather than something that is imbued at all organizational levels (Smith & Tushman, 2005).
Second, ambidexterity remains an explicitly organizational construct, which partly explains the
lack of attention to the practical doing of ambidexterity by managers. The literature lacks
integrative models that span multiple levels of analysis, such as the individual and institutional
levels (Gupta et al., 2006; Raisch, Birkinshaw, Probst, & Tushman, 2009; Simsek, 2009). In
particular, contextual and structural approaches exclude a micro focus on how individuals
perform ambidexterity or macro perspectives on the institutional ramifications of ambidexterity
(Simsek, 2009). While the lineage of the term ‘ambidextrous’ is explicitly individual – the capacity
of an individual to do two things at once – as a metaphor in organization studies, ambidexterity
has not focused on the individual per se or how actors do ambidexterity (Andriopoulos & Lewis,
2009; Gupta et al., 2006). This is true even when authors argue that ambidexterity resides at the
individual level, such as Gibson and Birkinshaw (2004), who propose that individuals should use
their own judgement to achieve ambidexterity, but focus on the characteristics of their context
rather than on how the individuals might do that. Tellingly, in painting a multi-level picture of
ambidexterity, Bledow et al. (2009) include only one explicit ambidexterity citation in their
summary of the individual level (Mom, Van Den Bosch, & Volberda, 2007), drawing the rest of
their literature from other research domains.
Bledow et al.’s (2009) model is also explicitly intra-organizational, with no discussion of the
broader organizational environment, leading to our second point that the ambidexterity literature
is almost exclusively internally focused on organizational capabilities. It is not concerned with
legitimacy and adherence to externally imposed rules of action (Greenwood et al., 2011). When
the inter-organizational environment is considered, it is a secondary focus behind intraorganizational performance and resources, such as how alliances may be a source of intraorganizational ambidexterity (Rothaermel & Deeds, 2006), or how particular characteristics of an
organizations’ immediate, local environment may impact the ambidexterity-performance link
(Jansen, van de Bosch, & Volberda, 2005; Jansen, van de Bosch, & Volberda, 2006; Levinthal &
March, 1993). Consequently, ambidexterity does not provide institutional theorists with the
means to link the ambidextrous doing of institutional complexity at the individual level, with the
organizational level and the broader institutional field. In its current conceptual state, it is a false
promise for studying the problems and benefits of institutional complexity.
Fulfilling the Promise: Institutional Ambidexterity in Practice
In this section we draw together the concept of institutional ambidexterity, the shortcomings
that currently prevent it from fulfilling its promise, and our suggestion of practice theory as a way
to address those shortcomings in a conceptual model of our argument. Ambidexterity presents a
potential solution to how organisations can reap the benefits of interdependent logics, by
suggesting that they may embrace two potentially contradictory courses of action simultaneously.
However, as shown in Figure 1, it is primarily an organisational level construct that does not
adequately address the issues of logics in action. That is, ambidexterity neither examines the
institutional logics within which potential contradictions are embedded, nor the actions that
people take in coping with coexistence in more or less complementary ways. Hence, we need an
underpinning theoretical approach that can flesh out institutional ambidexterity as a concept that
embraces the potential benefits of institutional complexity and also examines how actors work
within such complexity to perform ambidextrous associations between logics.
Practice theories span multiple levels from institutional to individual within which institutional
complexity is socially accomplished. From a practice perspective, all action is situated within,
produces and re-produces the dynamics of its wider social context. Thus, by looking at the
actions of individuals at the nexus of different institutional logics, such as health care,
educational, arts and regulated organizations, we can see how actions that are situated within
multiple logics construct ambidexterity. Institutions themselves cannot be ambidextrous; rather,
people do institutional ambidexterity in their everyday actions and interactions as they work within
and enact multiple logics.
Practice theory (e.g. Jarzabkowski, 2005; Jarzabkowski, Balogun, & Seidl, 2007; Schatzki,
2001) directs attention to, ‘how people engage in the doing of “real work”’ (Cook & Brown,
1999) but also the ‘shared practical understanding’ which gives it meaning and makes it robust
(Schatzki, 2001). The focus is on how actors interact with, construct and draw upon the social
and physical features of their context in the everyday activities that constitute practice. Practice
theorists have thus sought to go beyond the dualism of institutions and action that still permeates
much institutional theory (Barley, 2008; Hallett, 2010), by demonstrating that institutions are
constructed by and, in turn, construct action (e.g. Bourdieu, 1990; Giddens, 1984; Sztompka,
1991; Turner, 1994). For these theorists, the collective practice that constitutes institutional order
exists only through the way that it is enacted in the mundane, practical actions of actors, as
depicted by the double-headed ‘practice’ arrow in Figure 1. Practice theory thus takes actions,
interactions and negotiations between multiple individuals as the core unit of analysis
(Jarzabkowski et al, 2007). In these actions and interactions, actors instantiate, reproduce and
modify the shared or collective practice (Schatzki, 2002)that is the focus of institutional theory
(Jarzabkowski, 2004; Whittington, 2006). A practice lens can thus provide insight into how actors
perform institutional ambidexterity within their work; enacting competing understandings about
‘how to go on’ (Chia & Holt, 2009; Giddens, 1984) and coping with the resultant tensions in
practical ways that perform the ambidexterity of working within and between multiple logics
(Denis, Langley, & Rouleau, 2007).
Recent developments in institutional theory show sensitivity to the practice approach. For
example, a recent book exhorts institutional theorists to examine logics in action, devoting an
entire chapter to practices as the material enactments of institutional logics (Thornton et al.,
2012), while other studies explicitly propose a practice approach as a means of understanding
how actors cope with and respond to institutional complexity (e.g., Jarzabkowski et al., 2009;
Smets et al., 2012). In contrast to existing accounts that locate institutional complexity in fieldlevel ‘contradictions’ (Seo & Creed, 2002), such studies propose that institutional complexity is
experienced as ‘part of the ordinary, everyday nature of work, rather than exceptional
phenomena’ (Jarzabkowski et al., 2009). Practice theoretical approaches thus address the gap in
Figure 1, by showing how we may understand institutional ambidexterity at the collective practice
level through a focus on people’s practical coping with institutional complexity. The majority of
such studies furnish insights into practical actions in situations of novel institutional complexity,
such as changes in the juxtaposition of logics within an organisation. Examples include
Jarzabkowski et al’s (2009) study of a shift in the association between market and regulatory
logics in a telecoms company, Smets et al’s (2012) study of German and English professional
logics colliding in a law-firm merger, or Zilber’s (2002) study of the way that practices become
imbued with different meanings during a transition from feminist to clinical institutional logics.
However, the practice theory focus on everyday, practical coping indicates that there may also be
significant value in moving beyond novelty to also examine cases of long-standing or routine
institutional complexity.
Individual level: Action and interaction in doing ambidexterity
We now examine some of the main findings from such practice-oriented studies of
institutional complexity, in order to develop the final section of our conceptual framework about
the practical understandings through which actors perform institutional ambidexterity. ‘Practical
understanding’ is a practice term that refers to the actions – the know-how and embodied
repertoires – that compose a practice (Schatzki, 2002: 77-78). While practical understandings are
firmly grounded in actors and their actions, they encompass the collective practice within which
people tacitly understand or have a ‘feel for’ how to perform the social order (see also Bourdieu,
1990; Giddens, 1984). They thus provide a useful unit of analysis for practice-based approaches
to institutional theory. While not intended to be exhaustive, this section illustrates some insights
that a focus on the practical, mundane doing of institutional ambidexterity in action can provide.
First, is an expanded practice repertoire whereby individuals incorporate both traditional local
practices, for example, English- and German logics of legal practice, and new hybridized
practices in their work (Smets & Jarzabkowski, forthcoming). As these authors showed, German
lawyers could undertake cross-border financing for international clients according to international
standards, whilst also retaining those practices specific to their domestic markets, to be activated
when required in local transactions. The finding of an expanded practice repertoire gives
empirical credence to theories about the potential benefits of institutional complexity
(Greenwood et al., 2011) beyond suggestions that they expand individuals’ cultural tool kit
(Swidler, 1986). Specifically, they show that the expanded portfolio need not be cultural, but may
also be practical. We are thus motivated to think not only of ‘strategies to respond’ to complexity,
but also of the generative capacity of complexity (Kraatz & Block, 2008) to expand the practical
toolkit of actors.
A second, related form of practical understanding is ‘situated improvising.’ Smets et al. (2012)
show how urgency and high stakes in meeting client expectations encouraged lawyers to
experiment and respond in a localized fashion to institutional complexity. These actions were
simply actors’ practical efforts to find ways around obstacles to getting the job done in an
institutionally complex environment. Intriguingly, such situated improvising can unfold effects at
the organizational and institutional level. It may broaden practitioners’ zone of competence and
consolidate in an expanded practice repertoire (Smets & Jarzabkowski, forthcoming) or radiate to
the level of the field and, under specific circumstances, re-arrange dominant field-level logics
(Smets et al., 2011).
A third practical understanding is mutual adjustment (Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Lindblom, 1965),
in which individuals adjust in various ways to the logics governing each other’s actions, without
the need for an overarching coordinating device or purpose. Jarzabkowski et al. (2009) highlight
mutual adjustment in a utilities company facing contradictory market and regulatory logics. In
their study, actors working to different logics recognized their interdependence and therefore
tried “to accommodate the other, advocating tolerance of the other’s position in relation to their
own logic” (ibid, p. 300). They show that pragmatic collaboration and recognition of
interdependence between activities governed by divergent logics can guide practice as individuals
adjust, in various ways and to varying degrees, in relation to one another. Their practice study
thus complements and extends Reay and Hinings’ (2009) inter-organizational level findings about
how truces between logics are constructed.
A fourth practical understanding is switching. The idea of switching resonates with ideas of
compartmentalization (Kraatz & Block, 2008; Meyer & Rowan, 1977), in so much as different
logics are separated into different divisions and actors. However, it is distinct insofar as it allows a
single actor to shift between logics by enacting them at different times or in different spaces, so
switching between compartmentalized logics. This practical understanding draws from
DiMaggio’s (1997) theorization of the capacity of individuals ‘to participate in multiple
[inconsistent] cultural traditions’, and Delmestri’s (2006) depiction of individuals as ‘possible
bearers of multiple institutionalized identities.’ Delmestri shows the capacity of managers to
switch between different institutionalized modes of practice according to the way that different
logics underpin their roles and identities. For example, managers that were exposed to greater
institutional complexity were able to maintain multiple professional modes of practice and apply
them in different contexts. Zilber (2011) provides another example of how this occurs in
practice, indicating how the same actors used language and situational cues to switch between
logics, and participate in and promulgate different discourses, at an industry conference. Such
‘cues’ of language and meeting format connect to DiMaggio’s (1997) argument that switching is
usually connected to a circumstantial trigger, such as language in Zilber’s case. In sum, this ability
for an individual to switch between multiple logics, and thus participate in their associated
practices, enables them to maintain what might otherwise be considered inconsistent modes of
Individuals in action and interaction
While practice theorists have always focussed on individuals through their actions and
interactions (Jarzabkowski et al, 2007), institutional theory also suggests other, more cognitive
and identity-based approaches to the individual that may also provide insights into institutional
ambidexterity (Creed, Scully, & Austin, 2002; Greenwood et al., 2011; Lok, 2010; Rao et al.,
2003). Such approaches suggest that personal identity and experience-base shape how
practitioners cope with institutional complexity, and that organizations can skilfully harness these
personal characteristics. For instance, Delmestri (2006) identified middle managers’ personal self
as a critical intervening variable in their engagement with local and foreign practices in
multinational corporations. Smets et al (2012) found that international law firms preferred more
‘cosmopolitan’ recruits who were multi-lingual, had lived or studied abroad and, as they were less
wedded to a particular way of ‘doing things’, appeared to be more flexible in improvising around
institutional contradictions. Likewise, Battilana and Dorado (2010) show that prior experience
with – and attachment to – a particular logic hampered organizational hybridization in a
microfinance bank. Here, recruits that arrived as a blank sheet, rather than with a fully formed
‘commercial’ or ‘social’ professional identity were considered more likely to develop
ambidextrous capabilities to support organizational hybridization. Individual characteristics and
experiences are thus important in the context of institutional ambidexterity. They shape
individuals’ responses to specific logics and the complexities that arise at their interstices, and
thereby help or hinder organizational engagement with coexisting and potentially contradictory
However, from a practice perspective such identity and experience are only antecedents to
practical understandings and potential ambidextrous capacities. The individuals whose identities
are being considered still have to be seen as individuals-in-interaction. To focus on them as
individuals per se, in terms of their cognitive and person-centred characteristics, without
considering how these characteristics are situated within and shape the wider collective practice
would be reductionist (Schatzki, 2002; Turner, 1994), taking institutionalists back to overly
individualistic, disembedded, or cognitive views of institutions and their complexities. This would
not only constitute a step backwards in the evolution of institutional theory (Delbridge &
Edwards, 2008; Delmestri, 2006; Hirsch & Lounsbury, 1997), but also fail to harness practice
theory’s distinct ability to link individual-level action and interaction to the organizational and
institutional dynamics that are critical for understanding institutional ambidexterity.
Organizational level: Novel and routine complexity
As shown in Figure 1, the opportunity for ambidexterity arises when contradictory logics
come together in an organisational context, generating practices that enact and construct
institutional complexity. However, we still know little about different characteristics or forms of
such ambidexterity, and their connection to different individual practices. Pache and Santos
(2010) thus outline the need for increased understanding of when particular strategies may or
may not be used in response to institutional complexity. Such studies could focus on a number of
triggering elements at the organisational level, such as urgency (Smets et al., 2012), the extent to
which complexity is internally or externally imposed (Pache & Santos, 2010); and the level of
scrutiny (Aurini, 2006; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). However, these elements all indicate a focus on
conditions of novel complexity that trigger a change in practical understanding. We argue,
therefore, that there is a particular need for studies of organisational context that embody routine
complexity, and comparisons with contexts of novel complexity.
The majority of the institutional literature has focused on novel complexity, including those few
studies that have focused on individual practice (Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Smets & Jarzabkowski,
forthcoming; Smets et al., 2012). In general, institutionalists have been alerted to institutional
complexity by relatively recent clashes between commercial and professional logics.
Consequently, their primary focus has been on moments of flux and crisis in which competing
logics collide (e.g., Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006; Jarzabkowski et al.,
2009; Reay & Hinings, 2009; Smets et al., 2012). While insightful, this may predispose a focus on
urgency, contestation, crisis, and problematic understandings of complexity (Goodrick & Reay,
2011; Lawrence, Suddaby, & Leca, 2009). Instead, the call for greater attention to the day-to-day
actions of individuals at work (Powell & Colyvas, 2008) can help institutional theory as a whole
resist the ‘search for drama’ (March, 1981). While we urge further practice studies of the novel we
therefore highlight the need for a sustained focus on the routine. In settings that have been
characterized by institutional complexity for a sustained period of time, solutions may become
‘settled’ into everyday, taken-for-granted practical understandings of ambidexterity, characterized
by an explicit lack of struggle and noise (Smets et al., 2012). As such, institutional complexities
that form a well-rehearsed part of everyday practice may become unremarkable and mundane
(Chia & Holt, 2009). Nonetheless, these routine practical understandings remain effortful
accomplishments (Giddens, 1984) and clashes over the appropriate enactment of different logics
can still occur. However, actors in such contexts may have a different set of practical
understandings through which they both enact ambidexterity and also cope with the inevitable
clashes that occur. To understand institutional ambidexterity as a routinized phenomenon, we
thus need to study how institutional complexity is managed on an ongoing basis in organizations
that have practiced and retained multiple, potentially competing logics over a long period of time.
A practice approach is particularly suited for such a research agenda, because it is attuned to what
people do when institutional complexity is settled into routinely enacted patterns of everyday
working practice and, hence, less visible, than when they craft overtly strategic responses to novel
complexity or institutional crisis (Chia & Holt, 2009).
Power and politics
Institutional theory has long acknowledged the importance of power and politics in
organizational dynamics (DiMaggio, 1988; Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Kostova & Zaheer, 1999).
Indeed the concept of institutional complexity helped researchers highlight these issues
(Greenwood et al., 2011). Despite the somewhat sanitized picture of routinized practice described
above, we are usefully reminded that all contexts that generate ambidexterity involve power and
politics in determining how and when to work within and between potential contradictions. It is
apparent that the novel furnishes greater visibility of these concepts than the routine (e.g.,
Jarzabkowski et al., 2009). Nonetheless, one role of practice studies could be to surface the
hidden, often forgotten, sources of power and politics at play, highlighting the persistence of
such dynamics even when they are not readily apparent. Concepts such as expanded repertoires
and routinized practices are ‘power-laden’, even if they do not require the same degree of overt
political negotiation as open conflict (Clegg, Courpasson, & Phillips, 2006). We thus expect that
studies of ambidexterity might focus on the way that concepts of power and politics play out at
the practical level of individuals in action and interaction and at the organisational level.
Institutional complexity in context: Characteristics of collective practice
A practice approach to institutional complexity has the ability to connect the individual,
organisational and institutional levels of analysis (Lounsbury & Crumley, 2007; Smets et al.,
2012). We further argue that this practice approach can illuminate the nature of institutional
complexity in its specific context. Specifically, we suggest that the characteristics of the collective
practice in which logics come together influence how the nature of a particular institutional
complexity is constructed. Smets and Jarzabkowski (forthcoming) show that actors, through their
practice, can construct the same two logics and their associated practices as strange,
contradictory, commensurable and complementary. A focus on practice thus transcends
simplistic ideas that certain logics are compatible or contradictory per se. Rather, we argue that
(in)compatibility is always conditioned by the specific situated practice in which those logics
come together. For example, professional and commercial or managerial logics are likely to be
more compatible in consulting or business service firms (Smets et al., 2012) than in healthcare
(Reay & Hinings, 2009; Ruef & Scott, 1998). Similarly, professional and commercial logics are
easier to hybridize within the freedom of practice inherent in private educational contexts
(Aurini, 2006) than in the more restrictive and regulated practice of public education contexts
(Hallett, 2010). In other examples, medical practitioners may have established practices and
experiences that provide cost-effective social good, so that actors can affiliate with and move
between the multiple logics that govern their organisation. By contrast, a microfinance
organization interested in blending commercial and community logics might need to employ
practitioners with no prior affiliation with either logic (Battilana & Dorado, 2010). Hence, logics
such as ‘community’, ‘commercial’, and ‘professional’ are not absolute in being either conflicting
or complementary. Rather, they are interdependent in particular ways or constellations according
to the particular collective and situated practice in which they are enacted.
This chapter has outlined a practice research agenda for studying institutional ambidexterity
that links the individual, organizational and institutional levels within which ambidexterity is
enacted. We have developed Figure 1 as a conceptual model of our argument that is grounded in
institutional theory, the literature on ambidexterity, and the benefits of a practice approach in
fulfilling the promise of institutional ambidexterity. In particular, we suggest that scholars should
focus on individuals in action and interaction, as they develop practical understandings about
how to cope with institutional ambidexterity. Furthermore, we highlight the benefits of
comparing and contrasting contexts of novel and routinized organizational ambidexterity; in
particular proposing that routinized ambidexterity provides a fertile avenue for future practice
research. Finally, we propose that the collective practice that constitutes institutional complexity
is particular to its specific context, as logics may be more or less contradictory or interdependent.
Hence, actors will generate varying practices according to their particular contexts, in order to
cope with and construct institutional ambidexterity in ways that go beyond our existing insights
into institutional complexity. We therefore highlight the practice approach as a rich avenue for
future research that can fulfil the promise of institutional ambidexterity as a solution to the
problems, and enabler of the benefits, of institutional complexity.
Future research is unlikely to discover much novel insight if it continues to do ‘more of the
same’. Given the shift in focus that comes with a practice approach to institutional ambidexterity,
commensurate methodological adjustments should be made so that a new research agenda is
accompanied by a new methodological agenda. Recent practice-theoretical insights into
institutional dynamics have already been derived from an increasing focus on micro-dynamics
and the use of qualitative and ethnographic methods (Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Smets et al.,
2012; Zilber, 2002, 2011). We expect this trend to continue and intensify, making in-depth cases
studies and real time ethnographies the methods of choice for the research agenda laid out here.
As institutional theory is also concerned with embedded and long-standing patterns of social
order, these real-time studies may need to be considered as critical incidents for drilling deep into
institutional phenomena in action, even as they are, ideally, combined with more mainstream,
large-scale institutional methods (Dunn & Jones, 2010; Greenwood et al., 2010; Ruef & Scott,
1998; Thornton, 2002). This combination holds the promise of providing the kind of multi-level
data that is needed to bring a practice approach to institutional ambidexterity into its own by
linking individual, organizational and institutional levels of analysis (e.g., Lounsbury & Crumley,
2007; Smets et al., 2012).
Further potential lies in the refinement of qualitative methods to make them more acutely
sensitive to different aspects of practice. Promising avenues include a greater focus on the
minutiae of practical actions and interactions, as advocated by micro ethnographers (Streeck &
Mehus, 2005) or video ethnographers (LeBaron, 2005; LeBaron, 2008; LeBaron & Streeck, 1997).
If the practices by which logics are enacted, rather than the logics themselves take the
foreground, then the embodied interactions within which identities are formed and institutional
divides bridged yield pertinent data (LeBaron, Glenn, & Thompson, 2009; Streeck, Goodwin, &
LeBaron, 2011). Further, the contexts in which practices unfold are not only institutional but also
mundanely material. People do things with ‘things’ in different places and spaces. While the role
of boundary objects in bridging organisational divides has long been recognized (Carlile, 2002)
and the affordances of technologies and materials has been recognized in practice studies
(Leonardi, 2011; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008; Orlikowski, 2010), materials and spaces, their impact
on interaction ,and on the instantiation of different logics has so far not been studied from an
institutional perspective. Methodologies that look beyond the allocation of spaces (e.g., Kellogg,
2009) to consider their features and impacts on human interaction hold great promise for
advancing a practice approach to institutional ambidexterity.
Finally, the new research agenda not only opens opportunities for new methodologies, but
also holds a new challenge. Studying established complexities and ‘settled’ responses is predicated
on the researcher’s ability to observe the nexus of divergent logics as they come together in
practice. Finding that ‘nexus’ – that point in an organization, or in time – at which the routinized
coming together of contradictory logics can be studied in real time will be a critical
methodological challenge. Especially where organizational responses to institutional complexity
are settled and routinized, no ‘drama’ will signal a complexity of note that may appear worthy of
study. By its routinized nature, it will be less visible and less immediately interesting and yet it is
in precisely such everyday, settled enactment that we may gain the deepest insights into how
actors perform institutional ambidexterity. It is thus vital that scholars generate the in-depth
knowledge of an empirical context and the openness and interest to explore whatever ‘goes on’
quietly at the nexus of institutional logics if they are to uncover how institutional ambidexterity is
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Figure 1: A practice approach to institutional ambidexterity
Ins tu onal Complexity
Ins tu onal
Co-exis ng logics
Logic A
Logic B
No link
Solu on
Ques on: How to
engage compe on
logics construc vely?
A prac ce approach to ins tu onal
Complexity in context:
Characteris cs of collec ve
prac ce
Ambidexterity as
organiza on context
in which logics come
Complexity as a
Proposed solu on:
Ins tu onal
(explore and exploit)
Lounsbury &
Crumley, 2007;
Schatzki, 2002;
Whi ngton,
(Greenwood et al., 2010)
Collec ve Prac ce;
Situated actors and
ac ons
Problem to be
Organiza onal
Prac ce Theory
Solu on
Tenuous link
‘Doing’ (individuals’
ac ons
and interac ons)
Current focus:
Exis ng prac cal
Rou ne
Poten al new insight
in prac cal
• Selec ve Hybridisa on
• Mutual Adjustment
• Situated switching
• Expanded Prac ce Repertoires