Organizational Change

What is Organizational Change?

Organizational change is concerned with the proactive execution of change in a planned and systematic manner.

According to one definition, organizational change involves ‘moving from the known to the unknown, from relative certainty to relative uncertainty, from the familiar to the unfamiliar’ (Cohen, Fink, Gadon & Willits, 1995, p.396).

Van de Ven and Poole (1995, p.512), define ‘change, one type of event, is an empirical observation of difference in form, quality, or state over time in an organizational entity’.

A third definition comes from complexity theorists, who state that organizational change is ‘characterized as a process that unfolds over time, revealing periods of greater and lesser instability, in which the restlessness of a system is an instinctive response survival in a continually changing environment’ (Ferdig and Ludema, 2003, p.8).

Furthermore, Mezias and Glyn (1993, p.78) consider innovation as organizational change, with innovation defined as ‘non-routine, significant, and discontinuous organizational change that embodies a new idea that is not consistent with the current concept of the organization’s business’.

Accordingly, an innovative organization is one that is characterized by the following features: that is intelligent and creative, that is capable of learning effectively, and that is capable of creating new knowledge (Lam, 2004). For Hage (1999), the subject of organizational innovation is relevant for studying the most basic problems of society.

A common theme found in these definitions is that change represents a movement from the present state of the organization to a desired future state.

Organizational change may be a result of internal adjustments to business strategy or it can be a reaction to external events and pressures. The objective of organizational change is to move the organization from the current situation to the desired new position, whilst at the same time maintaining focus, achieving organizational objectives, controlling costs and managing people effectively.

When organizations are faced with implementing a new strategy, or a change program, it needs to ensure that employee’s attitudes and behaviors correspond with the overall vision. If any change is to be successful, it is essential that organizations’ management can clearly envisage and anticipate cultural resistance and develop appropriate change strategies.

Traditionally, strategic organizational change was regarded as a step-by-step process from one state of rest to another, which would inevitably become outdated at some point. This philosophy has been replaced with the view that change is a continuous function of the organization (Drucker 1993; Stacey, 1993; Peters, 1992).

Types of Organizational Change

Ackerman (1997) distinguishes three types of organizational change:

  1. Developmental Change which deals with enhancing or improving an existing situation in an organization, often focusing on improving skills or processes.
  2. Transitional Change which involves moving from the current state to a desired state in which management of the interim transition state occurs over a controlled period of time.
  3. Transformational Change, which is radical in nature, requires a shift in assumptions on the part of the organization and its members. In this type of change, a new state develops, which is unknown until it emerges, from the chaotic death of the old state, and the time period of transition from the old state to the new state cannot be easily controlled.

Change Dimensions

It is essential to first understand the magnitude and pace of change in order to properly explain organizational change. DeWit and Meyer (1998) describe the magnitude of change as consisting of two dimensions, scope of change and amplitude of change, and the pace of change as having two components, timing of change and speed of change.

The scope of change may be comprehensive or narrowly focused, with comprehensive changes affecting the organization at large and different organizational functions, while narrowly focused changes are limited to specific parts of an organization or organizational functions.

The amplitude of change varies from high to low, with low amplitude denoting incremental changes to the current state of the organization, and high amplitude signifying radical changes to organizational structure Opens in new window, culture Opens in new window, processes or people.

The pace of change depends on the point in time during which changes are introduced and the time span over which changes occur.

The timing of change ranges from intermittent to constant. In intermittent changes, the organization selects the appropriate time to introduce changes and thus distributes change activities over time, while in constant changes, the timing for introducing changes is unimportant so long as there is no peak at any given point in time.

The speed of change differs between high and low. The change speed is high when a significant change is implemented within a short duration, and the change speed is low when a minor change is implemented gradually over a longer duration (DeWit & Meyer, 1998).

Dawson (2003a) takes a slightly different view on change dimensions and states that the change process consists of four dimensions:

  • movement over time from a present state to a future state of the organization;
  • the scale or scope of change focusing on permanent, influential, large-scale operational and strategic changes;
  • the political dimension indicating the varying degrees of political intensity depending on the settings and types of change initiatives; and
  • the substantive element of change, which refers to the essential nature and content of the change in question.

Dawson adds that researchers often employ some combination of these four dimensions to define and classify organizational change.

Analysing Organizations' Change Process

Burnes (1996) provides a useful framework for analyzing the change process. This suggests that the change process consists of three interlinked elements: objectives and outcomes, planning the change and; people. This approach acknowledges the multi-dimensional approach to change management that is necessary.

1.   Objectives and Outcomes

It is essential that objectives and outcomes are explicit and open. Burnes (1996) suggests that initially there will be a trigger that prompts the needs for change. From this clarity, agreement must be sought about who has the responsibility and authority to initiate change. It will then be necessary to identify the assessment team who will clarify the problem/opportunity, investigate possible solutions, provide feedback and then present recommendations. If from this the decision is to go ahead, then it becomes necessary to begin the implementation process.

2.   Planning the Change

According to Burnes (1996), this strategy involves six interrelated activities:

  • Establishing a change management team.
  • Management structures — Specail structures may be necessary to facilitate the change process.
  • Activity planning — Constructing a schedule to the change program.
  • Commitment planning — Identifying key people whose support is necessary for the successful implementation of change.
  • Audit and post-audits —It is essential that progress is carefully monitored to identify whether objectives are being met.
  • Training — This may be necessary to provide staff with the new skills they will need in the new era or it may involve providing training to help them facilitate change in themselves.

3.   People

This is probably the most overlooked part of the change process. For change strategies to be successful, it is essential that all the people affected are involved and motivated and that their support is gained. This involves creating a willingness to change, involving people and sustaining the momentum:

  • Creating a willingness to change — Many people will resist change because of the fear of the unknown. Thus, it is essential that people are made aware of the need for change and also provided with regular feedback on its progress. In order to create a positive attitude to change, organizations should publicize successful change and the benefits this has brought to employees. It is also essential that the concerns and fears of people should be taken seriously and addressed.
  • Involve people — In order for people to ‘buy into’ the change process, they must be able to take ownership of the process rather than having it imposed upon them. This can be achieved through effective communication (two-way) and getting people involved.
  • Sustaining the momentum — It is difficult to sustain the momentum of change particularly when those involved continue to be faced with the day-to-day pressures of meeting customer needs. It is essential that organizations sustain the momentum and this can be helped by ensuring that sufficient resources are available, support is given to the ‘change agents’ and desired behavior is reinforced through rewards. It is likely that change will result in the need for new skills and competences and it is essential that staff are adequately trained, mentored, counseled or coached.

In this way, it is obvious that the change process is a complex blend of objective-setting, planning and people.

Why Change Fails

Research literatures postulate that up to 80 per cent of change strategies fail. Robbins and Finley (1998) suggest a number of reasons as to why change initiatives fail:

  • It is the wrong idea — No matter how well implemented, it is not going to succeed because it is not appropriate.
  • It is the right idea but the wrong time — Maybe too soon after a failed change initiative, too few available resources, lack of top management support.
  • You are doing it for the wrong reasons — Usually money. For example, companies initiate change as a means of increasing efficiencies and saving money.
  • It lacks authenticity — Some companies are led to change not because it is inherently necessary but because it is in vogue, that is everyone else is doing it.
  • Your reality contradicts your change — For example, a company may announce a flattening of the organizational structure to encourage a more egalitarian culture. However, the reality is far from that – the old practices such as separate dining rooms for managers and workers send out stronger messages that in fact nothing has changed. This often leads to cynicism and distrust in the organization.
  • You have the wrong leader — Once cannot underplay the role of a strong leader that inspires and motivates staff. It is essential that the leader is compatible with the culture of the company or else this may result in conflict.
  • Change for change’s sake — Senior management initiate change to alleviate the boredom of everyday life. They thrive on creating turmoil and even gain personal satisfaction from this turmoil.
  • People are not prepared or convinced — In the short term this suggests the need for training and communication to encourage people to buy into the new ideas. In the long term it is probably more of an issue of corporate culture.
  • Bad luck — Contingencies that are not planned for. For example, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, death of a senior manager.
  • There is nothing you can do — In some cases there may be absolutely nothing anyone can do to stem the rising tide of failure.