Journal Article | Journal of Operations Management | April 2009

Perspectives on the Productivity Dilemma

by Paul S. Adler, Mary Benner, David James Brunner, John Paul MacDuffie, Emi Osono, Bradley R. Staats, Hirotaka Takeuchi, Michael Tushman and Sidney G. Winter


For more than a century, operations researchers have recognized that organizations can increase efficiency by adhering strictly to proven process templates, thereby rendering operations more stable and predictable. For several decades, researchers have also recognized that these efficiency gains can impose heavy costs. The capabilities that enable consistent execution can also hinder learning and innovation, leaving organizations rigid and inflexible. By optimizing their processes for efficiency in the short term, organizations become brittle. In the “Productivity Dilemma”, Abernathy conjectured that short-term efficiency and long-term adaptability are inherently incompatible. Organization theorists have conceptualized Abernathy's dilemma as the challenge of balancing exploitation and exploration. Exploitation leverages existing knowledge and capabilities, resulting in stable and efficient performance. Exploration creates new knowledge, enabling organizations to innovate and adapt to changing conditions. Enduring organizational performance requires ambidexterity, the ability to sustain both exploration and exploitation. Various techniques have been proposed for achieving ambidexterity, such as differentiated exploratory subunits and meta-routines that modify underlying processes. Ambidexterity requires operational processes that combine high levels of efficiency with the flexibility to evolve and improve over time. Thus, the perspectives of operations management are essential to understanding the mechanics of ambidexterity. Moreover, theories of ambidexterity raise important questions for operations management. This article synthesizes several recent perspectives on the dynamics of ambidexterity and the productivity dilemma.

Keywords: Learning; Innovation and Invention; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Operations; Business Processes; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Performance Efficiency; Performance Improvement; Performance Productivity; Adaptation;


Adler, Paul S., Mary Benner, David James Brunner, John Paul MacDuffie, Emi Osono, Bradley R. Staats, Hirotaka Takeuchi, Michael Tushman, and Sidney G. Winter. "Perspectives on the Productivity Dilemma." Journal of Operations Management 27, no. 2 (April 2009): 99–113.