RETHINKING ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE: Reframing the Challenge of Change Management

Article excerpt


The article examines three basic approaches to organizational change-directed change, planned change, and guided changing-and their appropriateness as a function of the relative business complexity and socio-technical uncertainty in the situation. Two moderating factors, the change capacity of the organization and the urgency of the situation, are also considered. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications for our thinking about organizational change and change management practices.

Key words: change management, planned change, resistance to change

Companies in every industry are increasingly being challenged to build the capacity for change, not only in response to competitive and technological pressures but also in anticipation of those changes. Accordingly, significant attention in conceptualization, empirical research and practice has been devoted to the growing field of change management. Most large consulting firms, for example, have developed extensive change management practices within their organizations (Garfoot, 2003; Werr, Stjernberg & Docherty, 1997; Worren, Ruddle & Moore, 1999). A growing number of MBA programs have added courses and curricula on change management (Adams & Zanzi, 2001; Kerber, 2001). In addition, the literature on managing organizational change seems to be expanding exponentially (cf. Beckhard & Pritchard, 1992; Beer & Nohria, 2000; Conner, 1993; de Caluwé & Vermaak, 2002; Fullan, 2001; Kotter, 1996; Kotter & Cohen, 2002; Quinn, 1996). Many of the resulting tools for managing and influencing change have enhanced our ability to deal with change processes, especially given their focus on the very necessary and critically important task of dealing with people's emotional reactions to change. As a result, we are beginning to develop a much more informed base of actionable knowledge to support our change efforts.

Unfortunately, many of these prescriptions and models continue to fall well short of the challenge. Our contention is that such failure is exacerbated and magnified largely by the inappropriate application of different approaches to change. Building true organizational change capacity involves leading change in ways that are appropriate to the situation.

Situational or contingency models of management and organizational behavior, of course, are commonplace in the literature about organizations, ranging from situational models of leadership to variations on organization design. When it comes to organizational change, however, there is a normative bias toward participation as the preferred strategy for overcoming many of the negative reactions associated with the change process (cf. Beer, Eisenstat & Spector, 1990; Bennis, Benne & Chin, 1961; Kotter, 1996; Sashkin, 1984). While there are some situational approaches, they tend to focus on specific aspects of the change process. Kotter and Schlesinger (1979), for example, describe different methods of dealing with resistance to change. They suggest that key situational variables, such as the amount and type of resistance and the locus of relevant data for designing the change, should influence the choice of method. Examining technological change in organizations, Orlikowski and Hofrnan (1997) distinguish between traditional and improvisational change and propose that the process of change should be aligned with the technology to be implemented and with the culture of the organization in which the change is introduced. Recent work by de Caluwé and Vermaak (2002) describes different types of change, which they color code, their underlying assumptions, and the concomitant ramifications for the role and focus of change agents and consultants.

Despite these efforts, organization development theorists and practitioners continue to exhibit a strong normative bias toward involvement and participation as the solution for organizational changerelated problems (cf. …