Organizational Change Research Paper

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A simple definition of organizational change is new ways of organizing and working. It involves the movement over time from a present state of organization to some future state and may range from finetuning to strategic redirection. The deeper and more pervasive forms of organizational change and the development and use of new forms of work organization (for example, lean manufacturing, virtual work, and network organizations) have become a major focus of research. Across this growing and rather diverse range of studies, there remains an underlying debate on whether change can be characterized as a logical sequence of events which can be planned, or whether large-scale change unfolds in unpredictable ways.



1. The Changing Historical World Of Organizational Change

Programs aimed at bringing about a fundamental change in the organization and control of work are not peculiar to the twenty-first century. For example, the development of the steam engine in 1785 and the mechanization of the textile industry in the late eighteenth century marked a significant societal transformation in changing from a mainly agricultural society into an industrial economy. By the turn of the century, Chicago meat-packing industries were experimenting in the use of continuous production lines which finally reached maturity under the new fixed-speed moving assembly lines of Henry Ford in the twentieth century.

Although there has been a long history of research into organizations and change, many commentators advocate that the current climate of change is quantitatively and qualitatively different from those experienced in the 1960s and early 1970s. The breakup of the old Soviet Union and the transformation of Eastern Europe, the launching of a single European currency, the growth in trade in the Asia Pacific region, wars, technological advances, world recessions, and changes in international trade agreements are all part of the current world in which many corporations find themselves. As an organization’s ability to manage change is perceived to be increasingly central to its competitive position and ultimate survival, so the demand has increased for simple change recipes to solve complex organizational problems. However, academics who have sought to explain organizational change have been quick to show how there can be significant variation in the adoption of managerial ideas, how any substantive change is likely to engender employee distrust and resistance, and how different strategies and structures may be appropriate under different circumstances. These and other competing views have resulted in a large body of empirical research used in the formulation of ‘new’ approaches to understanding and managing change (Burnes 2000).

2. Why Do Organizations Change?

Many commentators have sought to isolate the factors which support and promote change and a range of ‘triggers’ to organizational change have been identified. Some of the main external factors are seen to comprise:

(a) Organizational growth and expansion (as an organization increases in size so may the complexity of the organization, requiring the development of appropriate coordinating mechanisms).

(b) Globalization of markets and the internationalization of business.

(c) Government laws and regulations (for example, international agreements on tariffs and trade).

(d) Advances in technology.

(e) Major political and social events (for example, the changing relationships and tensions between countries).

(f) Fluctuations in business cycles (for example, changes in the level of economic activity both within the national economy and within major trading blocks can significantly influence change strategies).

Four internal triggers to change are generally characterized in this field of study (Leavitt 1965). First, a change in an organization’s technology which may involve the installation of a single piece of equipment or the complete redesign of an operating process. Second, a change in the administrative system such as restructuring lines of communication, establishing new working procedures, and introducing reward systems. Third, changing the human element of work, for example, through cultural change programs which seek to change employee behavior at work. Fourth, in changing the business focus (primary task) of the company, for example, from the development and marketing of computer software to the provision of a computer support service.

In practice, these various internal and external influences may all interlink and overlap in determining the speed, direction, and outcomes of change within an organization. Furthermore, with the growing expectation of the need to change, the managerial careers and political aspirations of business leaders can also promote visions and strategies for change. In seeking to explain this complex issue, a number of competing change perspectives have been developed.

3. Understanding Change: Models And Frameworks

There are numerous models and frameworks for understanding change (Beckhard and Harris 1987, Buchanan and Badham 1999, Kanter 1983, Mohrman et al. 1989). There are debates over whether change can best be explained with reference to the external environment (population ecology theories), whether it is largely a political and social process (institutional theory), or whether it needs to be understood in terms of the embeddedness of organizations within particular social, political, and economic structures (critical theory). Postmodernist writers have turned their attention to questioning the degree to which organizations are radically changing in shape and form to meet a new postmodern epoch and/or the degree to which we need to overturn assumptions and deconstruct modernist accounts. Within these broad spectra of studies, two views have proven particularly influential. First, those that seek to develop models which can be employed in planning the successful management of change. Second, those that aim to explain the dynamics of the change process which is seen to be messy, emergent, and iterative.

3.1 Planned Change Models

Kurt Lewin (1947) stands as an early pioneer in developing a model to service the successful management of organizational change. As a founding father of Organizational Development (OD), Lewin has had a lasting influence on planned change management models. From his work on group dynamics, he maintained that within any social system there are driving and restraining forces which serve to maintain the status quo, and that organizations generally exist in a state of equilibrium which is not itself conducive to change. As such, there has to be an unfreezing of this equilibrium through creating an imbalance between the driving and restraining forces. In the management of change, these planned models tend to focus on methods which reduce the restraining forces rather than on those that increase the driving forces. Once an imbalance has been created then the system can be altered and a new set of driving and restraining forces put into place. A planned change program is implemented and only when the desired state has been achieved, will the change agent set about ‘refreezing’ the organization. The new state of balance is then appraised and where appropriate, methods of positive reinforcement are used to ensure employees ‘internalize’ attitudes and behaviors consistent with new work regimes.

The distinct field of OD has further refined and developed this approach in applying behavioral science knowledge to the planning and design of organizational change strategies. In evolving from a human relations approach, attention is given to employee involvement in change programs and to overcoming potential resistance to change (French and Bell 1995). In building on this work, a number of ‘recipes’ for successful change have been developed which stress the importance of involving people and open communication. In many of the new change initiatives such as business process re-engineering and quality management, this tendency towards a recipe approach to change has been maintained. However, these rather linear approaches which forward universal prescriptions have been criticized for failing to account for the more fluid, dynamic, and processual nature of change (Dawson 1994).

3.2 Change Process Frameworks

Processual studies (such as the pioneering work of Pettigrew 1985) draw attention to the importance of context in examining unfolding processes of change, yet, unlike previous theorists, they are not drawn towards unidirectional rational models of change. They are concerned with understanding the dynamic relationship between: the political arenas in which decisions are made, histories recreated and strategies rationalized—the politics of change; the enabling and constraining characteristics of change programs and the scale and type of change—the substance or content of change; and the conditions under which change is taking place in relation to external elements such as the business market environment and internal elements, including the history and culture of an organization—the inner and outer context of change (Dawson 1994).

This shift in research emphasis towards studying the processes which shape change outcomes was highlighted in the Academy of Management Chicago 1999 Conference where process was identified as the central theme and a key concept to understanding the unfolding nature of change. A growing number of these process studies are multidisciplinary and draw on a range of perspectives and methods. Considerable theoretical importance is placed on the temporal dimension of change (the need to study change ‘as-it-happens’), the substance or content of the specific change strategy, and the contextual dynamics within which change takes place. The political process is important and while actors influence change processes, the legacy of these decisions (which may become institutionalized) may in turn shape future action and decision-making activities. There is a complex dynamic between agency and structure within the unfolding sociopolitical context within which strategic choices are made (Child 1997). These processual accounts seek to accommodate the muddied and sometimes contradictory nature of change processes and reject both linear stage models and simple prescriptive ‘recipe’ guides. Although theoretically more sophisticated, some of these processual approaches have been criticized for being unable to deliver any practical advice on the management of change.

4. Organizational Change In The Twenty-first Century

The perception of change as a central notion is to be expected at the start of a new century. Academic concerns are likely to continue along the route of understanding the unfolding and dynamic process of change within increasingly diverse and pluralistic settings. However, the greater interest in process studies may refuel debates about the degree to which change processes are determined by the need for organizations to adapt to new economic circumstances in order to compete and survive and the extent to which individuals and groups shape the political process of organizational change. Furthermore, as more academics get involved from different methodological backgrounds, the push to use a broader selection of data techniques is likely to gain momentum with a concomitant increase in the systematic codification of approaches (Hinnings 1997). Attention may be given to improving methods for evaluating change and drawing more substantive links between change and organizational learning. Whatever eventuates, process is likely to be a key concept to studies of organizational change over the next decade.


  1. Beckhard R, Harris R T 1987 Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change, 2nd edn. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA
  2. Buchanan D, Badham R 1999 Power, Politics, and Organizational Change. Winning the Turf Game. Sage Publications, London
  3. Burnes B 2000 Managing Change: A Strategic Approach to Organisational Dynamics, 3rd edn. Financial Times Prentice Hall, Harlow, UK
  4. Child J 1997 Strategic choice in the analysis of action, structure, organizations and environment: Retrospect and prospect. Organization Studies. 18(1): 43–76
  5. Dawson P 1994 Organizational Change: A Processual Approach. P. Chapman, London
  6. French W, Bell C 1995 Organizational Development and Change. West Publishing Company, Minneapolis, MN
  7. Hinnings C 1997 Reflections on processual research. Scandinavian Journal of Management. 13(4): 493–503
  8. Kanter R 1983 The Change Masters. Simon and Schuster, New York
  9. Leavitt H J 1965 Applied organizational change in industry: Structural, technical and human approaches. In: March J G (ed.) Handbook of Organizations. Rand McNally, Chicago, pp. 1144–70
  10. Lewin K 1947 Frontiers in group dynamics. Human Relations. 1: 5–42
  11. Mohrman A M Jr., Mohram S A, Ledford G E, Cummings T G, Lawler E E (eds.) 1989 Large-scale Organizational Change. 1st edn. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
  12. Pettigrew A 1985 Awakening Giant: Continuity and Change in Imperial Chemical Industries. Blackwell, Oxford, UK


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