Balancing present needs and future options: how employees leverage social networks with clients

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Journal of Business Strategy, 2017, 38 (1), pp. 14 - 21
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© 2017, © Emerald Publishing Limited. Purpose: This paper aims to analyze how business units can use their employees’ external social capital to explore and exploit the resources available in their environment. Based on multiple interviews with the employees of the global commodity firm Gamma Chemical (around 50,000 employees), the research aims at gaining an understanding of the contextual conditions required to successfully build and leverage individuals’ external social client network ties for business unit ambidexterity. Design/methodology/approach: The authors conducted a single-case study at Gamma Chemical that entailed 33 semi-directive interviews, each of which lasted 1-4 h, at different organizational levels (ranging from top-level management to production workers). We had access to three regional business units. The interviews addressed the links between the individuals in the business units and external actors. The authors also collected information about the company’s strategic objectives, the local competitive environment and work organization. Open-ended questions were used to allow the interviewees to freely relate anecdotes about their own network development. In particular, the authors asked the respondents to identify business contacts with whom they interacted privately and to describe the relationships. Findings: The research findings are two-fold. First, and contrary to prior studies, the authors find that individuals’ social capital contributes to both exploration and exploitation at the business unit level. Second, developing and leveraging individuals’ external social capital requires a specific organizational context at the business unit level that allows employees to develop and nurture their personal business relationships with clients. Research limitations/implications: The study is limited by the scope of the sample (a study of one large multinational firm). Further research conducted in similar contexts may therefore be useful for comparability purposes and to generalize the results. Practical implications: Several practical recommendations describe how managers can effectively make use of their employees’ social connections with clients. In particular, the results suggest that managers should seek business unit flexibility on the basis of team-based structures, an autonomous leadership style and by actively creating a degree of critical social network tie redundancy, encouraging a shared network culture. These three specific conditions allow employees’ personal client networks to not only flourish but also contribute to business unit ambidexterity. Originality/value: Prior social capital studies have analyzed intra-firm and inter-firm relationships in terms of contributing to firm ambidexterity. However, these findings have often been difficult to translate into specific organizational levels. Given business units’ critical role in identifying and implementing business opportunities for a firm, the authors focus on the micro-foundations of exploratory and exploitative learning by using a social capital perspective to explore the link between employees’ private external social relationships with clients and business unit ambidexterity. In this way, we contribute to the social capital literature and research on business unit ambidexterity and to extant contextual ambidexterity research by specifying the conditions that help firms develop and leverage their employees’ own external social capital for exploration and exploitation.
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