Researchers and practitioners both seek to explain phenomena in the real world and to give an account for the data they consider relevant. There are opportunities to understand current issues as they relate to future trends, generating dialogue to assist research, while providing an opportunity for each to gain insight from each other’s point of view. The purpose of this paper is to form a rich and integrated understanding of the phenomena of organizational change within a project environment, exploring the frameworks upon which classical change theory is developed. I discuss the role of research and the application of research findings in this area of study, based on one Canadian utility company’s performance with change initiatives. I will offer advice on the need for a more integrated conceptual framework between scholarly knowledge and practitioner experience in working with organizational change. A review of multidisciplinary literature on change management models is presented in conjunction with this framework. The framework is then applied as a basis for deriving the effectiveness of the change management implementation during one organization’s change initiative.
The Need for Better Integration
Bentz and Shapiro’s (1999) view is that society has moved toward being a knowledge-based society, and structured inquiry of a scholarly kind has come to shape knowledge in every field. The notion of scholarship does not just represent knowing the subject matter of a discipline; it’s equally about competence in the specific methods of scholarly inquiry in the field. There is tremendous value in bringing together the contribution of the scholar and practitioner, promising significant gains in knowledge of the world and improvements to interventions in it. Each role has its contributions and limitations. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection. The practitioner brings experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge. The scholarship of integration makes connections between the disciplines, and explores the wider relevance and usefulness of knowledge.
Scholarly work and their results need to be relevant and of value to the requirements of practitioners. Practitioner knowledge and experience-based feelings should recognize the value in establishing an epistemology of practice that indicates when or why certain interventions should be used for this partnership to work. In other words, the skills, rules, and knowledge of human behavior should be used by practitioners to develop approaches that are compatible with multiple ways of knowing or sources of information. Adding to this contradictory relationship, the field of change management includes extensive popular management literature and an abundance of independent consultants who sell applications of one methodology as the solution to all organizational problems. This is often confusing to businesses, since consultants appear to have anecdotal evidence that their solutions work. What is often lacking is good scholarship that helps users of management consultants’ ideas know how to decide when and if the theory will solve their problems.
History – Informing Practice
There is no shortage of articles on organizational change theory, organizational development, or any number of the other descriptors for this field of study. However, the literature suggests that there is not one single approach or methodology that is comprehensive, yet concise enough to serve as a practical guide for those who wish to advance a change initiative in their practice or a comprehensive theory that understands organizations and guides change approaches (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995; Dunphy, 1981). This mutually exclusive approach to change has resulted in a mixture of change models that often fail to promote the general understanding of this subject matter, even though they all contain elements of truth.
One of the first individuals to study change theoretically was Lewin who, in the 1950s, led a group of social psychologists studying organizational change. They immersed themselves in a culture with managers inside organizations (Kleiner, 2008). Lewin and his colleagues described change as involving an unfreezing process, learning or changing process, and a refreezing process. Practitioners keen to follow Lewin’s (1947) approach to change concentrated on best practices for successful implementation of change, and provided models, frameworks, tools, and cases to assist practitioners in managing change more effectively (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Kotter, 1996).
There are a variety of ways of categorizing the majority of the change management models that provide prescriptive steps of what to do and what not to do (Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996). These models have largely been developed from the authors’ experiences with companies either as consultants and/or researchers. Groupings of change management models are available that provide specific diagnostic tools and approaches to support key change management issues, such as resistance to change (Eriksson, 2004; Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979), rates of adoption of change for individuals (Huy, 2001), communications (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995), and organizational culture (Schein, 1984; 1992; 2009).
Many authors, scholars, and researchers have described the steps involved in planning and managing change. Kotter (1996) described eight steps to transforming an organization, including establishing a sense of urgency, forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision, communicating the vision, empowering others to act on the vision, planning for and creating short-term wins, consolidating improvements and producing still more change, and institutionalizing new approaches. Ackerman-Anderson and Anderson (2001) describe a change leadership process that is continuous and non-linear, and incorporates an evaluation component. Their steps include: preparing to lead the change, creating vision, commitment and capacity, assessing the situation and determining design requirements, designing the desired state, analyzing the impact, planning and organizing for implementation, implementing the change, celebrating and integrating the new state, and learning and course-correcting. Authors Van de Ven and Poole (1995) addressed change from the perspective of life cycle changes, teleological, dialectical, and evolutionary changes. Their conclusion suggests that each theory is typically incomplete in its description and classification of change because organizations do not exist within a vacuum and one theory can address the assumptions of another.
The field of organizational development and change is widely known for its large spectrum of theories that strive to understand and explain individual, group, and organizational change. Historically, these diverse theories have haphazardly combined and crossed levels of abstraction and analysis. Porras and Robertson (1987) developed two types of organizational development theory that help to exemplify the ongoing tension between the theory of change and the practice of changing. They stated that the findings of academic research associated with change theory should inform practice. Their contribution of implementation theory focuses on the intervention activities needed to execute effective planned change.
Understanding organizational change requires more than one theory (Dunphy, 1981; Dunphy & Stace, 1988). Dunphy further considered the components of a comprehensive theory of organizational change. Frameworks such as this allow us to evaluate theoretical approaches and determine whether the theory is complete, allow us to compare theoretical traditions, and determine whether they are similar or different. This provides a greater understanding about the ways in which we would direct our attention in analysis with regard to internal or external factors affecting the organization, and to the levels of analysis with key groups within the workforce.
Though there have been recent developments in refining change theory, it is important to note that my use of change theory in this paper is done in a very broad sense. Continual refinements in change theory will have strong parallel implications for implementation. Businesses are recognizing that change continues to build at an alarming rate, it is viewed as a continuous process, and that a systematic and disciplined structure is required for managing this tremendous amount of change.
Role of Research and Integration
Research is not often used as a basis for action in organizations and the experience of organizations are not used as a basis for generalizing theory. This has been, and remains, a significant learning opportunity for integration of scholarship and practice. The following example explores the nature of integration of scholarship and practice across the multi-disciplinary field of change management. This offers insights into the perspectives, methodologies, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship and practice. In the following section, I will (1) explore an understanding of what academic theories, models, and research inform the practice, (2) observe whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions; and, (3) comment on the ways in which an integration of scholarship and research be integrated into the practice of organizational change.
By carrying out research, focusing on a real business situation, interesting results are often found. The change process evaluated in this paper describes how a large Canadian utility developed and approved an information technology strategy that called for replacement of business systems and processes. To commence implementation of this information technology strategy, the company initiated a business transformation strategy. In order to achieve this transformation strategy, a project was put in place to replace core, enterprise, information technology systems, and transform the corporate culture. What companies have realized today is that there is a need to successfully manage this tremendous amount of organizational change in order to remain competitive and to improve business performance.
The question this case scenario asks is: Did this organization use formal change management techniques based on organizational change theory to ensure the success of change initiatives? And, I ask, why should an integrated conceptual framework and methodology for managing change initiatives be considered an important discipline in the business environment? For a change project to be successfully managed, the change it creates must be approached in the same disciplined manner (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002). A number of change management and project management models adopted by businesses today are designed to assist change projects that are intended to create new business processes or transform existing ones to accomplish major goals that projects bring to the organization. With the variety of models, frameworks, and theoretical perspectives available (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Beer & Nohia, 2000; Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996), many agree that organizational transformations involving large-scale, strategic change require a planned approach, a road map for providing direction on how to arrive at an organization’s desired state.
Given a common definition for change management as a set of processes that are employed to ensure that significant changes are implemented in an orderly, controlled, and systematic fashion to effect organizational change (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Cowan-Sahadath, 2010; Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002) and the review of literature and research on organizational change theory described earlier, I have shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to customize and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change.
My work is informed by my experience as an internal change management consultant. Incorporating expertise offered by scholars, in addition to practitioner experience, links relevant theory to a series of concrete and practical steps that one can execute via an integrated framework. Questions I might start with include: Would you design and implement major organization change based on an approach or framework that is supported by research and validation? Will the framework accelerate the achievement of your stated outcomes?
I now present a high-level overview of an Integrated Change Framework (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) that includes an integration of multidisciplinary theories and research to help plan, design, and implement organization and people changes. It organizes processes for moving the organization from its current status to where it needs to be to ensure continued success in the business. As a framework, it does not specify what to change; instead, it provides guidance for how to change so that you accomplish your intended business outcomes while simultaneously engaging the people in the organization in positive ways. The Framework is organized using a project management methodology with each of the phases identified clearly along with their respective activities and tasks and incorporates change management processes.
An Integrated Change Framework
The elements of the Integrated Change Framework represent the inherent logic and flow of activities for leading and achieving real change. This conceptual framework provides a set of coherent ideas organized for communication purposes, to assist in understanding the interconnections of activities and elements, and provides a basis for thinking about what we do and what it means. The author developed this integrated conceptual framework for project change leadership (Figure 1). Figure 1 depicts the conceptual framework of this change management approach, set in the context of a dynamic organizational environment, focusing on the context of leaders at work, and subject to the employer’s organizational change agenda and corporate strategy. The role for leadership operates at every intersection of the framework, however of particular focus in this framework is the focus on leaderships role within the change management framework.
Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change
Examining the Business Environment
During the implementation of this integrated change management framework, the business recalled past projects and change initiatives in which a change initiative faltered because the vision did not provide others with the necessary direction or support to make the change happen. There were examples where people or groups were more relationship-driven, yet nothing concrete was accomplished. Given the complexity of the example discussed in this paper, the leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management techniques, training, and project staff management processes.
Change Management Framework
A structured approach to change is used to describe the management of change in this business. It represents aligning relevant combinations of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems in the organization in order to make change happen in a structured, systematic manner. It involves elements of the company’s mission, vision, and values, and a project management methodology providing the foundation for all change in the organization. All change initiatives are grounded in and demonstrate clear and strong support to one or more of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. The business case for change identified what combination(s) of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems were not aligned and the implications for the misalignment on the business for fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values.
The desired future articulates what a stronger alignment of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems would actually look like and how that alignment would strengthen the organization in fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values. The readiness level of key stakeholders (those directly affected by the change or those who have influence over others) must be assessed, including: how they perceive the benefits from the change, their dissatisfaction with the existing situation, how they perceive the effort required to make the change, and how they perceive the challenges associated with the change. This assessment influences the strategies and plans that need to be followed in dealing with key stakeholders. The strategy addresses the fundamental “how” in achieving the desired future, given the readiness levels of key stakeholders. In the face of strong support for the change, the strategy may be to drive it forward in a short period of time, with a minimum level of engagement. In the face of strong resistance, however, the strategy may involve a higher degree of engagement over a longer timeframe. The plan to get to the desired future details the results to be achieved, actions to be taken to get there, accountability for those actions, a time frame for completion and measures to assess progress.
Implementation is the movement forward with the strategy and plan with a strong focus on measurement of both the processes and results, and a willingness to consider revisions to the plan in the face of unforeseen. Sustainment establishes processes and ownership of those processes to ensure against slippage of the alignment that has been achieved and its results, so that they become an ongoing part of the organization and how it works. Lessons learned identifies what is working and not working and why in bringing about change. It assesses both the process and the results and needs to be conducted at periodic stages of alignment initiatives, not just at its conclusion.
Project Management Framework
The leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management plans, employee engagement, and management accountabilities. Integrated strategic change strategies and organizational systems are coordinated in response to external and internal influences. An example would be a strategic change plan that is developed to help employees manage the transition between a current strategy and organization design and the desired future strategic orientation.
In the early stages of the project life cycle there was an opportunity to build a foundation for managing the change, assessing how the impact would affect the people and the organization through project sponsorship. To establish a realistic change framework for managing change at this company, they needed to change the way they would lead change. One of the leading contributors to project success was strong, visible sponsorship and leadership. The literature on change leadership implies that leaders have a responsibility to guide an organization through a course of change by providing direction and support throughout the process (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007). Leaders are encouraged to demonstrate change leadership behaviours, set a vision, and communicate effectively in a way that their organization understands and will want to follow the new direction of change (Kotter, 2005). In this review, the change management and project management models adopted by this organization, integrated the management of the tremendous amount of change the project brings to the organization. Management of this project and the changing business environment was best managed by focused project management and effectively managing the changes through a formal framework.
While the project management and change management practitioner communities suggest that integrated frameworks are applied for managing change in organizations (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002; Kotter, 1996), the research community has been slow to recognize the interaction and value between change management and project management in implementing change (Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Thomas & Mullaly, 2008). I suggested earlier that one approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to adapt and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change. The context in which this organization operates, including its history and culture, have a significant impact on its ability to manage change. It was important for a company to examine the business’ current circumstance and recent history and the challenges they represent to the successful implementation of a change initiative. Cultural differences are legitimate outgrowths of the distinct nature of the work, and some are unnecessary “silos” that get in the way of operational efficiency and co-operation.
In light of all of these challenges—past, current, and future—effective change management will represent the most important prerequisite to success with future change initiatives. It has been essential that the organization understands the cultural challenges faced in times of such rapid implementation and change. Reviewing these challenges and the systems and contexts that affect the operation of the business, provides a foundation of understanding on which to base research and in selecting change management frameworks grounded in theory. This understanding leads to practical application that supports intended business needs and outcomes.
Context for Integrating Research and Practice for Success
The purpose of this paper suggested that a deeper understanding of the complexity of change initiatives be understood; and, exploring the change management frameworks upon which classical change theory has been developed, would explain how and why particular things happen or do not happen. Some of these theories are vague conceptualizations about what will happen if we act in a certain way, in a certain situation, and what we might expect from others. But many of the theories we hold are more complex and express our understandings of, for example, how organizations work, and how organizations and people react to change.
In order to link theoretical knowledge to practice, as a scholar practitioner, I have begun to see the clear link from theory and what works within the organization. Without this experience though, theory can become something that seems abstract. From a practitioner perspective, with this particular example in mind, I can determine that the change frameworks have been developed based on theory, however complex they may appear. Essentially, theory helps to explain a situation, describe what is happening, explain why is it happening, and often, predict what is likely to happen next. This is of tremendous value to the practitioner. In addition, I observed whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions. The Integrated Change Framework applied in this example incorporated process steps that design the implementation, and plans the initial event. Internal consultants and leaders view the initial event or intervention as a non-linear and continuous change activity and assume there is much to learn from the experience. Throughout the implementation, internal consultants and leaders observe the results, often taking time as a group to discuss what is happening and how the implementation might be adjusted in the future. Adjustments and course corrections are also made, based on experience with similar events and past implementations. After the event, there is a debrief on how the process went, decision on whether or not to continue to develop further concepts, and planning for the next steps. There is also discussion regarding what patterns were observed and how they relate to past observations, not going as far as developing formal theory, but certainly continuing to build our own theories on how the organization works.
Experienced practitioners already know many meaningful practices. If academic research can add to these, it must proceed from a theory of what experienced practitioners fail to know and why they fail to know it. Research energy can be invested in, improving the understanding of highly-skilled practitioners, practitioners with limited skills or experience, and academic researchers. Adopting a variety of theories in this work offers us, as scholar practitioners, the ability to make sense of a situation, the ability to generate ideas about what is going on, and why things are as they are; using theory can help to justify actions and explain practice. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection and the practitioner contributes through experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge within the organization.
About the Author
Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.
Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.
In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.
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