Managing ‘Human Resources’ by Exploiting and Exploring People’s Potentials: Volume 37


Table of contents

(17 chapters)

In this introduction to the special issue we propose the main problems and issues that are addressed, namely, how the ambidextrous ideal in contemporary working life plays out at the individual level. Today, employees need to have the intellectual, social, and physical capacity, will, strength and ability to produce, execute, refine, and choose. But they also need to have the intellectual, social and physical capacity, will, strength and ability to experiment, search, and play. They need both be able to discipline themselves and “go crazy.” They need both focus and fantasy. They need to adhere to organizational norms and values, as well as challenge them. We discuss the challenges and problems that face the ambidextrous person, and why he or she cannot remain but an ideal character. At the end of this introduction, we outline the contributions of all authors who seek to explore in various ways how the ambidextrous employee comes into play in contemporary society and its human and organizational consequences.

James March's highly influential article on organisational learning underpins the studies of exploration and exploitation collected in this issue. What is less well known is that March's article, which is based on a computer simulation of collective and individual learning, reflects a real-life experiment in exploration and exploitation that he, in large part, designed and conducted when he was the new ‘boy Dean’ of the School of Social Sciences in the University of California at Irvine between 1964 and 1969. This chapter tells this story and then uses it to critique March's original model. It argues that March's model, which was probably the first simulation of an organisation learning, worked to constitute rather than model the phenomenon of organisational learning. The Irvine story is also important because it provides the context for what constitutes knowledge in organisation theory, and because it highlights the personal trauma and distress that can accompany the creative play of exploration.

This chapter investigates March's concepts of ‘exploration’ and ‘exploitation’ in relation to the graduate labour market (Levinthal & March, 1993; March, 1991). We focus on its use of the imagery of potentiality as key criterion of employability and investigate its dimensions through March's conceptual framework. We argue that the balancing act of exploring and exploiting one's potential becomes one of the main coordinates through which contemporary organisations attempt to configure the profile of the future employee. An ambidextrous ideal employee is configured who is trapped between the continuous demands of routinised production, execution and implementation, and those of equally sustained experimentation, self-expression and creativity. We conclude by arguing that this ideal can be interpreted as another example of an unsustainable utopian image of work in the context of contemporary management. The theme of potentiality illustrates the dangers of this utopia in a specific way. On the one hand, it plays the role of an inescapable framework guiding the individual's sense of self, whilst on the other hand, it predicates the self based upon an image of limitless potential.

The article conceptualizes the dilemma between exploration and exploitation for flexible knowledge workers. At a time when work is fragmented and society is individualized, we consider, besides the strategies of organizations, also those of workers and the ways in which they move among organizations in an attempt to ‘get by’ between increased margins of autonomy and a lack of the resources necessary to pursue their passions and to fulfil their projects. Through analysis of the life stories of flexible knowledge workers and their relationships with the organizations for which they work, the article illustrates how flexible knowledge workers handle the tension between exploration and exploitation and how organizations resist their attempts. The purpose is to interpret the pervasiveness of individualization processes that prompt individuals to think of themselves as organizations, while human resource management claim that people are their most valuable resource but treat them as disposable workers.

The classic distinction between two types of organizational learning – exploitation and exploration – has been unsettled under new forms of workplace regulation. This paper investigates management practices that exploit by exploring, capturing, and enclosing employee efforts (including learning) that occur beyond the formal enterprise. Life itself or bios is put to work. This largely unpaid work is of increasing importance to organizations that require employee qualities it cannot provide on its own accord. Three types “free work” are identified: free time, free self-organization, and free self-development. A critical sociological explanation of this trend is developed and its implications for employment studies discussed.

In contrast to the largely functionalist and apolitical literature which dominates organisational scholarship on exploitation and exploration after March, this paper seeks to complement this view of exploitation and exploration with a Marxist reading which is unwittingly implied by these terms. More specifically, we combine neo-Marxist and paleo-Marxist arguments to more fully understand the conflictual relations that underpin exploitation and exploration in the management of firms. This enables us to address both the objective and subjective dimensions of exploitation and exploration which firms and workers are involved in through the contemporary capitalist labour process. We illustrate this by drawing on a case study of a large Swedish manufacturing firm which sought to improve lean production by systematically helping employees to explore their own lifestyles and possibilities for a healthier and happier life.

The evolution of Wikipedia betrays an increasing reliance on policies and guidelines, signalling certain stabilisation in the knowledge making processes underlying the encyclopaedia. We interpret such a state of affairs as reflecting the need to provide a few principles and guidelines of coordination, in a context that has otherwise been marked by vast diversity, high membership turnover and the lack of traditional exploitative structures. Rather than reflecting bureaucratisation and a shift away from its constitutive principles, the consolidation of these coordinative mechanisms further embeds the distinctive profile of knowledge making processes characteristic of the online encyclopaedia. They reinforce the diversity of the collective (rather than individual capabilities and skills) as the primary source of knowledge and render the mechanisms of harvesting that diversity and assembling it to a reasonable knowledge output key means of social learning.

Contemporary working life highlights the challenge between exploitation and exploration both on a general and a more individual level. Here, we focus on the latter, and connect the critical debate regarding self-management to March's exploitation/exploration trade-off, as this forms a useful theoretical frame to understand how employees make sense of their self-management efforts. The employee is subjected to an individual responsibility to understand and manage an exploration of the self while handling the norms of self-exploitation that a self-management culture creates. Through an empirical study of a large group of management consultants, we explore how they perform and make sense of self-exploitation and self-exploration through three specific discourses: the discourse of workload, the discourse of aspiration, and the discourse of fun. Through these, the consultants try to identify optimal amounts of work, play, and ambition, all while handling the trade-off between self-exploitation and self-exploration. We show how this keeps failing, but how it reappears as a necessary condition for avoiding future failures. In all three discourses, the trade-off therefore presents itself as the problem of as well as the solution to self-management.

This article discusses how the concepts of exploration and exploitation are fruitful for understanding individual fantasies of escape from the demands of contemporary workplaces. We examine one influential articulation of such fantasies, namely the best-selling self-help book “The 4-Hour Workweek.” This book advocates that individuals outsource the bulk of the routine (“exploitation”) tasks of their lives, leaving themselves free for creativity, play, and leisure (“exploration”). In this way, a radical separation of exploitation and exploration at the individual level is proposed. We examine the meanings and contradictions of such ideas by discussing how they may function as powerful escape fantasies for those facing corporate overwork. However, we argue that the solution proposed is unsatisfactory because of its individualism, which fails to see the inherently social nature of work and life.

For many years within Organization Studies, broadly conceived, there was general agreement concerning the pitfalls of assuming a ‘one best way of organizing’. Organizations, it was argued, must balance different criteria of (e)valuation against one another – for example ‘exploitation’ and ‘exploration’ – depending on the situation at hand. However, in recent years a pre-commitment to values of a certain sort – expressed in a preference for innovation, improvisation and entrepreneurship over other criteria – has emerged within the field, thus shifting the terms of debate concerning organizational survival and flourishing firmly onto the terrain of ‘exploration’. This shift has been accompanied by the return of what we describe as a ‘metaphysical stance’ within Organization Studies. In this article we highlight some of the problems attendant upon the return of metaphysics to the field of organizational analysis, and the peculiar re-emergence of a ‘one best way of organizing’ that it engenders. In so doing, we re-visit two classic examples of what we describe as ‘the empirical stance’ within organization theory – the work of Wilfred Brown on bureaucratic hierarchy, on the one hand, and that of Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch on integration and differentiation, on the other – in order to highlight the continuing importance of March's argument that any organization is a balancing act between different and non-reducible criteria of (e)valuation. We conclude that the proper balance is not something that can be theoretically deduced or metaphysically framed, but should be based on a concrete description of the situation at hand.

Publication date
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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