Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Understanding Change in Organizations in a Far-from-Equilibrium World*

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Understanding Change in Organizations in a Far-from-Equilibrium World*

Article excerpt

This paper addresses the issue of change in organizations in the new conditions of the contemporary world. We argue that linear theories and models still dominant in organizational sciences are inadequate to understand different modalities of change today. We deploy Prigogine's concept of far-from-equilibrium dynamics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and Zadeh's fuzzy logic, to develop more complex and adequate ideas of change in organizations. We show the value of these ideas for organization studies and theories of the "postmodern" world, illustrating their explanatory power by analyzing aspects of the success and failure of Enron, as a case study of organizational change in a chaotic world.


Change and chaos occupy a paradoxical place in discourses about organizations. Business people and the media they consume talk enthusiastically of change and continual "revolutions" managedby successful businesses, change as challenge and opportunity for those who can live with chaos (Hodge &. Coronado, 2005). Tom Peters' 1980s bestseller on the theme, Thriving on Chaos, celebrated a new rate of change, seeing "chaos per se as the source of market advantage, not as a problem to be got around" (1987: xii). Yet some writers argue that organization sciences tend to see and emphasize stability in organizations (e.g., Orlikowski, 1996; Tsoukas &. Chia, 2002). It is this tension we seek to explore. We shall claim that the scale and complexity of the changes facing business and organizations today are even greater than in the popular hype, yet in spite of the best efforts of some recent writers, organization sciences are still sy stemically ill equipped to provide models for understanding change and chaos. Change has always been a feature of the world of business, but the scale and scope of change today have reached a qualitatively new level, requiring a new theoretical framework. That framework, we argue, must look for models and concepts in two areas: from chaos theory on the one hand, and theories of postmodernity on the other.

Invisible change in organization sciences

In business discourse, "change" is the dragon slain by each heroic incoming CEO, or yoked to his triumphal chariot. Yet organization science as science finds change a difficult concept to grasp and theorize, whether to understand or critique this hyperbole. This is substantially because it draws its models and criteria mainly from the most influential and prestigious form of science, classical (Newtonian, linear) science. In an important article on which we draw substantially in this section, Tsoukas and Chia (2002) explore the surprising invisibility of change in understanding apparently unproblematic forms of change. They quote the philosopher of science, Henri Bergson (1946: 131), on this paradox:

The point is that usually we look at change but we do not see it. We speak of change but we do not think about it. We say that change exists, that everything changes, that change is the very law of things... In order to think change and see it, there is a whole veil of prejudices to brush aside, some of them artificial, created by philosophical speculation, the others natural to common sense.

For Bergson, a pervasive mindset makes it difficult to see and describe change as change, whether "evolution" or "revolution."Tsoukas and Chia focus on problems they see in Lewin's influential three-step model of change (1975): unfreezing-moving-refreezing. In this model, movement and change occur, necessary and important, but hedged between two stages characterized as stable and immobilized; like blocks of ice, in Lewin's strong metaphor.

Tsoukas and Chia deepen their argument by drawing on William James. James noted an intrinsic difficulty, that concepts to describe change and everything else are discontinuous, whereas reality is full of continuous phenomena: "the stages into which you analyze a change are states; the change itself goes on between them. …

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