Organizational success, human resources practices and exploration–exploitation learning

Publication Date07 Oct 2019
AuthorMercedes Ubeda-Garcia,Enrique Claver-Cortés,Bartolome Marco-Lajara,Francisco Garcia-Lillo,Patrocinio Zaragoza-Sáez
SubjectHr & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Organizational success, human
resources practices and
explorationexploitation learning
Mercedes Ubeda-Garcia, Enrique Claver-Cortés,
Bartolome Marco-Lajara, Francisco Garcia-Lillo and
Patrocinio Zaragoza-Sáez
Department of Business Administration,
University of Alicante, Alicante, Spain
Purpose The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to analyze which policies of human resource
management (HRM) contribute to exploratory learning and which to exploitation learning; and second, to
determine the influence of the two types of learning on organizational performance.
Design/methodology/approach The research hypotheses are tested by partial least squares with data
from a sample of 100 Spanish hotels.
Findings The results confirm that, in order of importance, selective staffing, comprehensive training and
an equitable reward system lead to exploratory learning. Exploitative learning seems to be fundamentally
driven by comprehensive training and an equitable reward system (but in a different way than with
exploratory learning). Finally, both types of learning have a positive impact on performance.
Practical implications Both exploratory and exploitative learning result from HRM practices. To
maintain performance expectations managers should develop both learning types, which entails the
utilization of the best HRM practices.
Originality/value This study presents empirical evidence around the findings of other studies (Laursen
and Foss, 2014; Minbaeva, 2013) which call for further research into whether strategic HRM configurations
have positive effects on the two learning types. The results find some practices that have a positive effect in
both cases, but with different intensities in their explanations. This finding reveals the need for more detailed
exploration around which combinations of HRM practices, in terms of exploratory vs exploitative learning,
are advisable for organizations. The study also finds that the two learning types have a positive influence on
organizational performance.
Keywords Human resource practices, Exploitative learning, Explorative learning,
Organizational performance
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Exploration and exploitation form a construct developed by March (1991) in the field of
organizational learning, to help understand the adaptation process of organizations seeking
better performance. In recent years the conceptual debate around how organizations can
balance exploratory and exploitative learning has led to the development of a line of
research based on the ambidextrous organizational (Kang and Snell, 2009; Simsek, 2009;
Raisch et al., 2009).
The term organizational ambidexterityis used as a metaphor to describe an
organizations ability to exploit its current competences (exploitation learning) while
simultaneously exploring opportunities (exploration learning) for the development of new
capabilities (Gibson and Birkinshaw, 2004; Raisch et al., 2009). The literature has
long recognized the importance of reconciling the conflicting requirements posed by
the two forms of learning and the tensions involved in trying to achieve this balance
(March, 1991).
The literature has generally described organizational structures, and behavioral contexts
as promoters of simultaneou s exploratory and explorat ory learning (Raisch and
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 41 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1379-1397
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-11-2017-0261
Received 5 November 2017
Revised 8 December 2018
Accepted 21 February 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Birkinshaw, 2008), both of which are dependent on the quality of the human resource
management (HRM) system (Kang and Snell, 2009; Patel et al., 2013; Garaus et al., 2016) for
effective deployment.
In general, studiesthat analyze ambidexterity (exploratory and exploitativelearning) have
emphasized the importance of entire HRM systems and practices such as recruitment and
selection policy (Bartlett and Ghoshal, 1989); training and career development (Adler et al.,
1999); job enrichment schemes, performance management and rewards system (Gibson and
Birkinshaw, 2004). It is usually argued that HRM shouldadopt different strategiesdepending
on whether the aim is to develop exploratory and/or exploitative learning, meaning that
different human resource (HR) configurations are needed for differentaims (Kang et al., 2007;
Medcof and Song, 2013; Collins and Kehoe, 2017). This approach is based on the idea that
depending on its strategic priorities in terms of exploration/exploitation, an organization
should encourage different employee behaviors. For example, greater use of existing
knowledgeor further search for new knowledge fromoutside the firm, with the corresponding
need to design different HR systems to support each learning type.
Some studies have linked high-performance work systems with incremental and radical
innovation capabilities (Wang and Chen, 2013; Fu et al., 2015) or organizational learning.
Previous research papers (Youndt and Snell, 2004; Kang and Snell, 2009; Swart and Kinnie,
2010) have revolved around the importance of HR practices when it comes to supporting
organizational learning and, particularly, around the extent to which such practices
contribute to shaping certain types of knowledge assets that act as inputs in the learning
process. However, they fail to clarify which practices contribute to developing exploration-
and/or exploitation-based learning.
Accordingly, the literature, while exploring various ways to encourage employees
to develop exploration or exploitation learning, has started to examine the
complementariness between HR practices (Shipton et al., 2006; Beugelsdijk, 2008; Foss
et al., 2015) and it has mainly found that the combined effect of aligned practices is
positive and produces added value for the organization. However, it has paid less attention
to a more critical idea that even if the HR practices are aligned toward the same goal, their
combined effect on exploration and/or exploitation learning may be insignificant or even
negative. Several review pieces call for more research in this area (Laursen and Foss, 2014;
Minbaeva, 2013), but little empirical research has been forthcoming. Andreeva et al. (2017)
show that the combined application of two HR practices (rewards for and appraisal of
knowledge behaviors) has a positive effect on exploitative learning but a negative effect
on exploratory learning.
To address these gaps in research, this study individually analyses the effects of four
HRM practices (selective staffing, comprehensive training, development-oriented
performance appraisal and equitable reward system) on exploratory and exploitative
learning using a sample of 100 Spanish hotels. In this way, we will be able to find which
HRM practices contribute to exploration and exploitation learning. We aim to find out if all
the practices considered contribute to the two learning types (and therefore to an
ambidextrous organization), or whether there should be practice packagesaccording to
the learning type prioritized by the organization.
Additionally, we assess the extent to which each learning approach influences organizational
performance to find whether they are both necessary for improved performance or whether
2. Human resource management and exploitative and exploratory learning
The essence of exploitative learning consists in the refinement and extension of existing
competences, technologies and paradigms (March, 1991). This is arguably the ability to
develop a clearer sense of how value can be created in the short term and how activities

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