This paper aims to propose an analytical framework in which to study ambidexterity in the management of policy networks. The paper is inspired by the concept of organizational ambidexterity in the public sector (Smith and Umans, 2015). By focusing on policy networks fostered by public administration with the aim of supporting small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) innovation, the paper elaborates on the links between firm innovation and performance and regional development. The cases analyzed are policy networks fostered by two publicly owned county development agencies in the Basque Country (Spain). An analytical framework emerges from bridging the gap between theory and practice. By understanding ambidexterity as a dynamic capability, the authors found that key ambidexterity drivers are related to network features (motivation to balance exploration and exploitation and diversity in terms of participants) and the individual feature of diversity within the network management group. However, other individual characteristics (leadership style) and territorial features (local institutional capacity) did not provide conclusive insights, calling for a deeper analysis and complex models to capture specific nuances.
The method used in the empirical part of the paper is the case study, as it considers the contextual conditions pertaining to a phenomenon (Yin, 2009) and helps understand present dynamics in specific contexts (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 2009). Flyvbjerg (2006) examines common misunderstandings about case studies to conclude that social science may be strengthened by the execution of greater number of good case studies. Following his arguments, the authors consider that practical knowledge is also valuable together with theory, that is why the framework is not derived exclusively form theory but from the interaction and mutual influence of theory and practice.
The case studies lead to a discussion on the effect of network, territorial and individual characteristics (including management/facilitation modes) on network outcomes, including innovation performance of firms and network sustainability. Additionally, these cases show the importance of different factors as necessary conditions and key discriminants when supporting ambidextrous networks. The case analysis and the integration of the theory in this analysis allow observing the evolution of both networks, developing some conclusions on the core factors that influenced these trajectories, thus proposing an analytical framework. Specifically, it can be seen that some of the factors conditioned the ambidextrous strategy of the network.
The main implication of the paper in practice is that the concept of ambidexterity and the framework developed to understand some of its features are a useful tool to diagnose policy networks. The impact in society inspired in this implication is that authors, through the discussion workshops mentioned in the methodology section, have helped the community of policy network managers in Gipuzkoa reflect and improve their strategies and consider the potential of not exclusively focusing on exploration or exploitation. Consequently, the impact on society, in this case on policy networks in the region, has gone beyond the cases studied.
The paper proposes the concept of ambidexterity as one that helps analyze the ability of policy networks to foster SMEs innovation. Managerial literature has extensively analyzed the importance of modes to foster ambidexterity within organizations (Gibson and Birkenshaw, 2004; He and Wong, 2004; Levinthal and March, 1993; Lubatkin et al., 2006) and also its individual dimension (Volery et al., 2015). Managerial focus on policy networks and its link to organizational ambidexterity thus remain understudied. Although private sector literature has explored both concepts, the relation between them has not been analyzed (Smith and Umans, 2015).
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