The Mainstream Change Theories Commerce Essay


Todays organisations can be looked upon as living organisms that are in a continuous motion and transformation, and that have deeply embedded in their DNA the urge for change to sustain their shape. The purpose of this paper is to identify how the internal mechanism of an organisation is being reconstructed in motion, what are the implications of on-going change and why the organisation can be portrayed as a shape shifter (Mariotti, 2003). Firstly we will address the literature in search of explaining the concept of continuous change, secondly we identify the alternative views described by the literature and thirdly we will engage in a discussion on the effects of continuous change for the management of change. Throughout the course of our discussion we will also look to integrate and debate around the following statement 'Organizations are always in a state of change'.

The statement "organisations are always in a state of change" alludes to the fact that organisations are not only in state of "motion", but also in state of "movement" (Bates, 1994, p.33). The literature makes a distinction between incremental changes that involve "adjustments in the systems, process and structures" of the organisation and radical changes that can be seen as fundamentally changing the entire organisation (Newman, 2000). Additionally, Weick and Quinn (1999) assert that change can be also perceived depending on the position of the observer. At a macro level, the observer identifies the organisation in a state of "inertia dotted with occasional episodes if revolutionary change" (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.362), while at a micro level the organisation is continuously changing and adjusting.

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The mainstream change theories are in line with the view that change is a "relatively continuous, converging" process (Newman, 2000, p. 605). First order changes identify the organisation as a dynamic entity that is perpetually maintaining and developing its internal structures and processes (Bate, 1994). The idea of the organisation in a continuous state of change is central to Orlikowshi's (1996, p. 63) work: "change is no longer a background activity but a way of organisational life", pointing that change emerges from the desire to perfect and update existing practices and is based on the sense making capacity of its actors (Orlikowshi, 1996). The organisation is envisaged as having a flexible and self-taught structure, which is ever-changing due to the need of the individuals to respond to day to day challenges by adjusting and optimizing the internal processes and structures (Weick and Quinn, 1999). Therefore we can assert that change is about altering and strengthening the skills and the knowledge of its actors (Weick and Quinn, 1999). Also, characteristic for the first order changes is that the actors of the change process are very active and supportive of the whole idea of continuous change (Weick and Quinn, 1999). The timeframes associated with incremental changes are considerable, as change takes place during extended periods of time (Newman, 2000).

In the same line of argument Feldman (2000) demonstrates that routines are one of the main sources of change in organisations and depicts that there are two kinds of outcomes that lead to continuous change: "past outcomes" that did not reached their full potential and planned outcomes achievement that opens new perspectives for organisations. Given this argument we can assert that in general continuous change is fuelled from bottom-up by the front line actors, and "organisational routines are …often works in progress rather then finished products" (Feldman, 2000, p.613).

Another aspect worth considering is that all relatively small incremental changes coupled within an interdependent organisation can lead to the emergence of transformational changes (Weick and Quinn, 1999). The fact that changes might seem to be of low magnitude at a local level, does not necessary imply that the repercussions in time will not have an echo at a macro level, affecting the organisation at its core (Weick and Quinn, 1999). However we should acknowledge that in order to initiate a transformational change as a result of a series of incremental changes the interdependencies of the internal units are of utmost importance (Weick and Quinn, 1999). The academic community also debates around the idea that planned change should not be necessary if the organisation has strived to continuously adapt.

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Weick and Quinn (1999) propose a model that reflects the idea of continuous change through three simple steps: freeze, rebalance and unfreeze. During the first step, freeze, the organisation is searching and analysing internal patterns. This can be associated in practice with the pre-assessment of the change plan, when the current working models and their faults are considered and different scenarios are examined. Rebalance should entail all activities related to the sense making and issue solving, discovering faults of the change plan that can be leveraged later on. Finally unfreezing of the organisation implies that the change has been already institutionalized and now the actors have to "resume improvisation, translation and learning" (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.380).

Wieck and Quinn (1999, p.371) assert that the ideal organisation is the one in an on-going state of change: "if organisational change occurs in the context of failure to adapt, then the ideal organisation is one that continuously adapts". However analysing this statement from the current perspective, we can assert that most of the organisations in todays' economy have understood that "the only constant is change", and they are evolving towards the "ideal organisation" as Wieck and Quinn call it (1999, p.371).

The second order changes are widely refer to, as transformational changes that modify the organisation at its core (Palmer I., Dunford R., Akin G., 2009). Scholars presume that organisations are static, stable entities that suffer infrequent changes that are disrupting their state of equilibrium (Weick and Quinn, 1999). The central theory that governs the episodic change concept has been developed by Kurt Lewin, who asserts that organisations are in a state of inertia when both external and internal forces are in equilibrium. He has developed a model that is meant to successfully help organisations cope with change: "unfreeze", "transition" and "refreeze" (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.366).Unfreezing means to raise awareness for the need for change and discontinuing old practices (Sharma, 2008). During the transition phase the organisation shifts to a new mind-set and a new order or things is established. The refreezing stage is intended to bring stability in the organisation by consolidating and creating a supportive frame (Sharma, 2008).

The main drivers for the episodic change result from the misalignment between the organisation and the environment or can be internally triggered by various factors. Transformational change seldom occurs in periods of crisis, when the organisation is looking for short-term solutions (Levy and Merry, 1986, p.274), and given its complexity the outcome of revolutionary changes is highly unpredictable (Newman, 2000) and very risky.

However new derived theories present a middle way that implies that change does not have to be necessarily seen as either transformational or incremental. Tushman and Romanelli (1994, p.1141) have developed the "punctual equilibrium theory" that combines those two type of changes and draws upon the importance of a balance at the organisational level. Another approach that goes beyond first order or second order changes has been developed by Bergekman (1991) that asserts the organisational life is a mixture of continuous change strategies and "episodic initiatives" (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.371).

Another aspect that should be consider when discussing about ever-changing organisations is "What are the drivers for change?". In today's competitive economy the organisations are facing multiple pressures, which can be internal or external sourced (Sims, 2002). Both external and internal pressures can emerge as a consequence of scarce resources of all types, and in order to assure the survival of the organisation resources must be shifted and remodelled.

The continuously changing organisation originates important challenges that the actors of the change process have to overcome by taking effective action in implementing and institutionalizing change. The literature associates the effectiveness of continuous changes with the view of a unitary organisational culture, considering that culture is the key element, the glue that keeps everything together (Kotter and Heskett, 1992).

Change emerges at the level of day to day interactions (Dixon, 1997), as the organisation is searching for new ways to improve and adapt. The actors of the change process need to continuously be in a state of alert, proactive and not reactive behaviour can facilitate an effective process adjustment. The organisation has to simply its working processes in order to permit "ad hoc" arrangements that are usually direct towards improving or adjusting current practices. Furthermore critical to the well-being of the organisation are employee empowerment and process transparency. The role of the change agent has become increasingly important in todays' organisations, as he is now required to make sense of how the organisation is evolving and to assure a unitary communication frame (Weick, 1995).

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Successful change implementation and sustainability are achievable if the organisation creates for itself a have a coherent image that reflects the culture, the goals and the strategy. All undergoing change processes have to be integrated and adapted so that the organisation can move forward as a whole. As change is cumulative (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.366), it is important to have a well-defined structure on which it can be built upon. The creation of linkages and cross-functional implementation of change will facilitate the diffusion of "innovations" (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.381) and gain followers that will support the continuous change process.

Looking from a macro perspective the changes occurring within the organisation can be very complex and numerous. In order to make change "stick" (Palmer I., Dunford R., Akin G., 2009), the change manager should be promoting the idea that change needs to "cease being seen as something separate from the normal practice; it must become the new normality" (Palmer I., Dunford R., Akin G., 2009).

To conclude, the organisation in today's economy cannot survive without successfully sustaining perpetual change processes, as change has become "a means to organisational effectiveness" (Schwartz, 2009, p.306). We have seen that the perspective from which we look at the organisation does make a difference as its shape appears to be different at a local level.

Without overlooking the fact that organisations in todays' economy are inevitably going through continuous changes, whether it can be categories as incremental or revolutionary, we can infer that change is the normal order of things. The challenge of today's manager is to gain acceptance and support of the organisation and create a proper frame for the success of on-going change.