Emergent View of Change

Emergent Approach to Change Management

Emergent approach to change was prescribed as an alternative to the planned approach Opens in new window which tends to be heavily reliant on the role of managers Tsoukas and Chia (2002). The emergent approach involves a process-centered approach to change in which organizational change is seen as continuous and evolving.

The emergent approach recognizes that the business environment is becoming increasingly turbulent and difficult to predict, and stresses the unpredictable nature of change. It regards change ‘as a process that unfolds through the interplay of multiple variables such as context, political processes and consultation within an organization’ (Burnes, 1996).

  • Basically, the emergent approach starts from the assumption that change is a continuous, open-ended and unpredictable process of aligning and realigning an organization to its changing environment. It views change as a process that unfolds through the interplay multiple variables (context, political processes and consultation) within an organization (Burnes, 1966).

According to the emergent approach, successful change is more reliant on reaching an understanding of the complexity of the issues involved rather than developing a detailed plan that moves through a number of different stages. Thus, in the emergent approach, the impetus for organizational change Opens in new window comes from the organization’s need to constantly adapt to an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment. It views the change as a process in which individual parts of the organization deal incrementally and separately with one problem and one goal at a time (Burnes, 2005).

Those taking the emergent view of change believe that ‘the key decisions about matching the organization’s resources with opportunities, constraints and demands in the environment evolve over time and are the outcome of cultural and political processes in organizations’ (Hayes, 2002, p.37).

As a variation to the planned approach Opens in new window, change Opens in new window in the emergent approach tends to be a bottom-up activity and is seen as an open-ended process (Burnes, 1966b). Again, it recognizes that a number of small adjustments, which are created simultaneously across units, can accumulate and produce significant change over a relatively long time period (Weick and Quinn, 1999).

To these authors, the issues of continuity and scale are central to emergent change, with continuity associated with organizational culture Opens in new window, and the scale treating micro-level changes as the basis for transformational change and the means for institutionalizing it.

Further, interventions in emergent change are not concerned with creating the conditions for change, but with developing a collective vision that provides direction to already ongoing change activities (Burnes, 1966b). Finally, the role of managers in emergent change is one of understanding the dynamics of change and ‘managing language, dialogue, and identity’ (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.381). To create a culture of continuous change, managers seek to foster an organizational structure Opens in new window and climate Opens in new window that promotes and sustains experimentation and risk-taking (Burnes, 1966b).

A distinctive feature of the emergent approach is that it views change as a learning process Opens in new window and not simply as a method of changing organizational structures and practices (Burnes, 1966b).

Organizations adopting this approach need to have flexible structures and processes in order to be able to respond to unexpected and unpredictable circumstances as they learn to deal with the emergent aspects of the change (Kenny, 2006). Creating learning organizations Opens in new window is therefore viewed as a means of coping with the increasingly turbulent environment (Beer and Eisenstat, 1996).

In comparison to the planned view of change, the emergent view is backed by relatively limited research and the approach itself seems to be unorganized with a variety of different views found in the literature. In spite of this disparity in views, there is agreement among the proponents that emergent changes should be aligned with the organization’s internal and external demands, and that managers should continuously scan the environment in order to adapt and respond to changes if they want to improve organizational performance (Burnes, 1996b).