Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change

By Smith, Virgil | Journal of Business and Entrepreneurship, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change


Smith, Virgil, Journal of Business and Entrepreneurship


Hurst, D. K. (1995). Crisis & renewal: Meeting the challenge of organizational change. From The Management of Innovation and Change Series, Michael L Tushman and Andrew H. Van de Ven, Series Editors. Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press.

By

Virgil Smith

Biola University

This book will prove useful to the practitioner who believes his or her organization is growing stagnant. Hurst uses ideas from Population Ecology Theory and Chaos Theory, augmented by case histories of firms that have faced dramatic change, to explain why organizations cease to innovate, and what the owner/manager can do about it. He begins by using an analogy of an organizational system - the Bushmen culture in the Kalahari Desert. This hunter-gatherer culture, overtime, was transformed into a herder society - the point is that organizations follow the same patterns.

Hurst's argument is that many of the features that managers seek in the modern organization were present in hunter bands. Each person within the band was multi-skilled, there was little hierarchy, and there was a high level of open communication, trust, and empowerment. These hunter bands were traditionally self-organizing entities which appeared chaotic from the outside, but made perfect sense to the band itself. More recently the lure of material wealth has caused the Bushmen hunter-gatherer culture to be transformed into a herder culture.

With the advent of the possible ownership of material property the hunter bands suddenly needed a hierarchy to resolve disputes over ownership of the property, and the hierarchy diminished the power of the individuals at lower levels of the hierarchy. Also, band members tended to specialize for material productivity, becoming single skilled. Since members were afraid that someone might be trying to get what they had, communication became less open, and trust diminished. Once the transformation had occurred from a hunter way of life to a herder society the Bushmen culture looked very much like a traditional organization. While the hunter culture was self-organizing and looked chaotic, the herder culture was structured from the top down and looked much more orderly.

Hurst uses the analogy of the hunters and the herders throughout the book. The hunter culture with its open communication, trust, and empowerment allows for the learning necessary for quick, creative responses and adaptation to opportunities. This, in turn, allows the clan to deal with an environment that is treacherous and constantly changing. Indeed, when the Bushmen were hunters, they were constantly on the move, seeking sustenance where they could get it. On the other hand, the herder culture with its hierarchy and specialization allows the band to be maximally productive in a much more stable "herding" environment, where they stay in one place and gather possessions.

Using the previous analogy, Hurst says that most entrepreneurial firms start out as hunters but, over time and with success, they are transformed into herders. However, they still need the innovative skills of the hunters. He says, "[Y]oung businesses begin their lives as informal, learning organizations, but if successful, they become formal, performance organizations. It is thus helpful to think of learning and performing as two ends of a continuum with the young organizations starting off on the left-hand side and moving toward the right as they age" (Page 33, italics in original). According to Hurst, the current adoption of organizational methods such as interdisciplinary teams and networks is an attempt on the part of managers to go back to being hunters. Small, new organizations are held together through the self-selection of members into the organization, and an overriding agreement with the organizational mission - everything else is worked out as needed. Strategy in new organizations tends to be emergent, while it is top down in more established companies. …

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