Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

The Fetish of Change

Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

The Fetish of Change

Article excerpt


This paper is a polemical critique of the current orthodoxy that the world is changing at an ever faster rate, that organizations must adapt to this change in order to survive, and that change management techniques enable organizations to do this. There is no basis to evaluate the proposition that the we face unprecedented rates of change, and change is not something to which organizations must respond, but is instead an outcome of organizational actions. Change management initiatives are largely failures, and the usual explanations for these failures are inadequate.


In this polemical paper I aim to interrogate prevailing assumptions and practices in the field of organisational change and the management of such change. I argue that change has become such a key part of our taken-for-granted understanding of organisations that we have made it into a 'fetish.' Just about every organisation scholar, manager, and management student seems persuaded that we live in times of unprecedented change, that organisational survival depends upon change, and that the work of managers is centrally concerned with change. Against this orthodoxy, I want to subject the notion of change to critical scrutiny.

After discussing in more detail the ubiquity of the concept of change, I will proceed in three main ways. First, I will discuss the general proposition that we live in times of unprecedented change, stressing the partiality of such a view. Second, I will examine understandings of organisational change, with particular attention to the invocation of organismic and Darwinian metaphors. Third, I will consider change management, casting it as a perennial failure, and identifying both the normal explanations for this failure (inadequate implementation and resistance) and the most common panaceas for avoiding failure (strong leadership and consultation). I conclude by offering some tentative explanations for the apparent dominance of change discourse (by discourse, I mean the ensemble of ways of representing change).

The purpose of the paper is to point to flaws, inconsistencies, and paradoxes within the discourse of change and change management. It is not, therefore, about proposing alternatives. This is partly for reasons of space, but also because change discourse is so intimately bound up with broad political and social matters that it would have to encompass far more than the issues of organisation and management with which I am concerned in this paper. It should also be said at the outset that the argument is sketched on a broad canvas, reflecting the breadth and diversity of ways in which change and change management are deployed as concepts. In so doing, I inevitably deal rather superficially with a whole range of concepts and debates, each of which has a substantial literature and history. My justification for this is precisely that: to grasp the meaning and impact of change discourse, we must focus on its extent, rather than to seek refuge in the traditional academic habit of a cautious narrowing of focus to a point where, in saying something very precise, we end up saying very little at all. Indeed, it is my view that organisation science has a greater responsibility than it normally discharges, both to address the broad terrain of organising which affects so many people's daily lives, and also to do so in a way which challenges, rather than confirms, established wisdom (cf Chomsky, 1969). Perhaps this is what defines the 'critical, postmodern' organizational science to which this journal is devoted.

If the target I aim at is rather broad, then so too are the theoretical resources which I bring to bear. These have already been implied but, in brief and at the risk of pretension, I would characterise my overall stance as one of 'radical scepticism.' Scepticism has a long philosophical heritage, dateable to at least Pyrrho of Elis in the 3rd Century BC. In its more modern incarnation, it is to be found in the critical traditions arising out of the Enlightenment which urge us, as Immanuel Kant did, to use our own reason rather than to accept the authority of traditional wisdom. …

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