Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift: Analysis of the Change Process in a Large, Public University

By Simsek, Hasan; Louis, Karen Seashore | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 1994 | Go to article overview
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Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift: Analysis of the Change Process in a Large, Public University

Simsek, Hasan, Louis, Karen Seashore, Journal of Higher Education


Since the mid-1960s, systems theory has dominated the study of organizational change [43]. By viewing organizations as adaptive organisms that strive toward equilibrium under changing environmental conditions, systems theory shifted the focus of organizational research from exclusive attention to internal conditions to a concern with the relationships between the organization and its environment [10, 20, 24, 41]. Metaphors originating from the systems perspective have resulted in many new directions in organizational change research [32].(1) Common to most systems theorists is the assumption that, in the absence of dramatic changes in the environment, organizations will best be served by slow, adaptive change. Other theorists [50] have argued that educational organizations are unusual systems, in that they are "loosely coupled," a characteristic that makes large-scale change less likely to occur rapidly or to affect the whole organization in dramatic ways. The only strong alternative to the systems theory/incremental change perspective over the past two decades has been a political perspective [1]. This is perhaps best exemplified by Cohen and March's [8] image of universities as "organized anarchies," in which change is unpredictable because of the random but politicized nature of the involvement of different actors with different agendas and interests. Again, however, this perspective points toward the limited possibility of rapid, strategic change.

Along with these approaches to organizations, a new stream of cultural organizational research that incorporates a systems perspective, concern with metaphors, and anthropological theory appeared [11, 16, 34, 36, 40, 45, 46]. Cultural perspectives on organizations emphasize the maintenance of strong organizational cultures as a strategy linked to higher performance [36] and thus point to the conclusion that strategic management in successful organizations usually involves anticipatory adaptation rather than radical change.

An alternative perspective is grounded in Kuhn's [23] analysis of scientific progress, which also emphasizes the role of shared beliefs, values, and norms of behavior but points to the importance of radical shifts as a mechanism for maintaining vitality and progress in a system. It is this latter perspective that motivates the central question being investigated in this article: To what degree can major organizational changes in universities be said to be characterized by a change in a collectively understood paradigm that is reflected in metaphors, stories, or myths that reflect underlying values and shared understandings of how these metaphors and myths are enacted? To explore this question, we have investigated a strategic change process in a large, public university.

Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift

The terms "paradigm" and "paradigm shift" are part of the popular language of change at the present time. However, the concept of paradigm is usually misapplied and is typically used to refer to any set of beliefs that precipitates action. To investigate the applicability of a paradigm model to universities requires a more precise conceptual foundation. Our article is based on several assumptions, which will be further developed below: (1) Organizations are defined by their paradigms, that is, the prevalent view of reality shared by members of the organization. Under a particular dominant paradigm, structure, strategy, culture, leadership and individual role accomplishments are defined by this prevailing world view; and (2) radical change in organizations may be construed as a discontinuous shift in this socially constructed reality.

Kuhn [23] argued that the evolution of scientific theories is always punctuated by revolutionary leaps in which the entire shape of scientific activities and world views are altered. Change in scientific activities follows a predictable path where a long period during which the dominant scientific theories are barely questioned is punctuated by noncumulative, radical breaks.

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