Commentary

Does the Ambidextrous Business Exist in Interactive?

  • by May 24, 2005
By Michael Leo

A common theme in the meetings we have with a growing number of Web publishers is the tension between innovation and operations in our business.

The Web marketing business is populated with leaders who have risen in the ranks because they know how to innovate. This pattern holds true throughout the digital enterprise, as innovation is usually--and appropriately--rewarded. But one of the reasons why so many of these businesses have failed is that so few senior executives were in possession of operational experience. A key reason why so many major Web publishing enterprises are doing better today than they were three or four years ago is this experience, as well as an increasing awareness of the need for senior executives to force their businesses into becoming ambidextrous.

What is an ambidextrous business? The term, coined by two Harvard Business School professors, depicts businesses and executives that can strategically focus on the future while executing the tactics so crucial to the bottom line.

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Operations in digital media are about looking backward and basing forward-looking projections on this empiricism. A smart CEO must prepare for the innovations that will define the market's future while making certain that already-launched products and services are paying the bills today.

This intellectual and behavioral balancing act is among the toughest of all managerial processes. Thus, the dearth of solid examples shouldn't surprise anyone. How do successfully ambidextrous businesses get that way--and stay that way?

The smartest ambidextrous businesses maintain a separation between new, innovative, exploratory units and traditional, sales-based ones. This separation enables the two units to maintain different processes, structures, and even cultures. At the same time, tight links between the two units must be maintained across the highest levels in order to preserve cross-team morale while fueling the flow of knowledge exchanged between them.

Such ambidextrous businesses enable C-level executives to pioneer cutting-edge (or, yes, bleeding-edge) innovations on the front end while concurrently pursuing the incremental, tactical gains necessary to running their business.

It's too easy to say that ambidextrous managers are an essential part of this equation, especially at today's point in the Web's development, when many companies struggle to fill junior and senior roles with top-tier talent, along with middle managers. An integral part of any ambidextrous business's success will usually hinge on the ability of senior managers to focus the company's energies on core competencies and maintain partnerships--not just vendor relationships--with qualified outsourcing companies to execute on elements that do not reside within these core competencies.

The pace of interactive is so fast that it's been a veritable Petri dish for the study of these theories during the past six or seven years. The companies in our business that have best managed this tension all have these things in common: Their senior leadership trusts the judgments of those they work with atop both ends of their business, and they outsource the parts of their businesses that won't make them money, or which they can't do as efficiently as others, or which they don't count among their core competencies.

Think about these traits as they pertain to your business. Do you feel as though the juggling act of senior management forces you to drop a ball or two from time to time? If your business and management are truly ambidextrous, this should almost never happen. Where is your enterprise going, and what tactics have been most responsible for having brought you where you are today? If the same people are managing the answers for both of these questions, think about how adopting ambidextrous attitudes might improve your enterprise For most companies, it begins with an examination of operations--the tactics that pay the bills, and how these can be executed more efficiently. What are the pain points, and are there better means that reside outside of your organization to manage them?

Michael Leo is CEO of Trafficmac, which provides ad operations software, technology, and outsourcing services.

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