The Contribution of Processual and Emergent Perspectives to Strategic Change

Change is ubiquitous. Organisational change has become synonymous with managerial effectiveness since the 1980s (Burnes, 1996; Wilson, 1992). However, north American influence over the quest for commitment, efficiency and improved performance, appears to have fallen back upon largely Tayloristic notions of management, with the result that organisational change is widely perceived to be controllable by modern management, with organisations themselves instrumental in their in their hands (Collins, 1997).
However, this ‘scientific’ approach appears to have diffused with scant regard to contextual variables that may serve to modify and constrain contemporary managerial rhetoric for change (Hatch, 1997). One perspective that attempts to refocus the debate on wider issues has come to be known as the processual or emergent approach to organisational change (Collins, 1997), and it is this perspective that this paper seeks to evaluate
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First, the inevitability of change is briefly considered as the time frame selected for organisational analysis tends to dictate the substance of investigation. This leads into a critique of planned change under the umbrella of strategic choice, with its core assumptions based upon managerial hegemony. This approach is then contrasted with the processual and emergent perspectives that seek to widen management appreciation to include factors beyond the organisation and its immediate environments. The implications of the apparent divergence between theory and practice are briefly outlined before concluding that the subjectivist paradigm of the processual/emergent approach is best seen as a modification to theories of strategic choice, which may add to effective managerial practice in the future. This argument is qualified by the need to support such a modification by a fundamental change in modern managerial education.
The Inevitability of Change
‘Change’ exudes temporality. While it may be a truism that in any field of activity, all periods may be characterised by change and continuity, the time frame selected will tend to highlight change or continuity (Blyton and Turnbull, 1998). For example, a focus upon organisational change during the last two-decades may reveal a period of rapid change. However, a perspective encompassing the last two hundred years may indicate a basic continuity in the capitalist social mode of production (ibid). Consequently, differentiating between whether organisational change should be analysed from the perspective of a strict chronology of ‘clock’ or linear time, with its associated notions of relentless progress, planning and implementation, or whether changed is viewed from the perspective of a processual analysis over tracts of time, has given rise to a vigorous debate on how change should be understood as it applies to complex business organisations (Wilson, 1992).
Two paradigms dominate the analysis of organisational change. On the one hand, a positivist view holds that change is objectively measurable, and thus controllable, embracing notions of rationality, temporal linearity and sequence – change is an outcome of deliberate action by change agents (Hatch, 1997; Kepner and Tregoe, 1986). On the other hand, a subjectivist view holds that change is dependent upon the temporal context of the wider social system in which it occurs and is thus a social construction – while organisations define and attempt to manage their change processes, outcomes are not necessarily the result of the top-down cascade advocated by the planned approach (Pettigrew, 1985). Consequently, as a point of departure, planned organisational change shall be discussed before moving on to examine the emergent approach as a challenge to the rational model.
The Planned Perspective
Contemporary US and UK managerial ideology may be identified as an outcome of, and a contributor to, neo-liberalist voluntarism (Dunlop, 1993). This ideology is mobilised through the agency of management to protect capital’s interests above all others. Consequently, management and managers come to be considered a social elite through their exercise of ‘god-like’ control over a logical and rational process of adaptation, change and ever-improving performance. The organisation is thus instrumental in the hands of management (Collins, 1997; Daft, 1998; Hatch, 1997; Kepner and Tregow, 1986).
Generally referred to as ‘strategic choice’, the planned approach, according to Wilson (1992:22) is constructed upon the following theories of organisation:
1 Organisational Development (OD) and Behavioural Modification (BM);
2 Planned incrementalism;
3 The ‘enterprise culture’, best practice and ‘gurus’ as change agents.
These perspectives have all in common the role of human agency, whereby, ‘…human decisions make an important difference… a voluntarism in which human courage and determination count’ (Gouldner 1980, cited in Wilson, 1992:25).
OD and BM (closed system) approaches emanate from the field of psychology, positing that organisational change is implemented by management through changing the behaviour of individuals. OD aims to foster consensus and participation on the basis that management attributes resistance to change to poor interpersonal relations (Wilson, 1992). BM is a systematic approach to the conditioning of managerially defined ‘appropriate’ behaviour, based upon Skinnerian psychological theories of learning (reward and punishment) and motivation (ibid).
Both approaches are based on the assumptions that managers are capable of identifying internal barriers to change, determining appropriate behaviours, and designing and implementing programmes to achieve desired outcomes. Consequently, there is a plethora of ‘frameworks’, ‘recipes’ and ‘how to’ packages aimed at managerial audiences (Collins, 1997)
A central feature of many of these packages is Lewin’s (1951) ‘force field’ framework, which proposes that change is characterised as a state of imbalance between pressures for change and pressures against change. It is suggested that managers are capable of adjusting the equilibrium state of zero-change, by selectively removing or modifying specific forces in the required direction (Senior, 1997). Implicit is the normative nature of planned change: managers should know the various forces as they apply to their own particular situation, and should understand and possess the means to exert influence over them. It follows that, ceteris parebus, without deliberate managerial action, change, at worst is unlikely to occur and, at best, is unlikely to realise desired outcomes without the intervention of chance (Collins, 1997).
Planned incrementalism argues that change is constant and evolutionary and should be planned in small steps based on an orderly adjustment to information flowing in from the operating environment (Quinn 1980, cited in Senior, 1997). This approach is related to contingency theory. The argument runs that the most effective way to organise is contingent upon conditions of complexity and change in the environment. Thus, the organisation should achieve congruence with its market environment and managers should support their strategies with appropriate structures and processes to enhance the likelihood of success (ibid).
Turning to the final ‘ingredients’, Wilson (1992:37) argues that ‘enterprise culture’, ‘best practice’ and ‘management gurus’ are different faces of the same ideology. Enterprise culture denotes best practice and grows from a particular interpretation of management theory. This interpretation shapes the role of external consultants and thus determines who are the gurus; the ideology becomes self-supporting. Thus the ideology of strategic choice is mobilised in support of managerial ideology: to be successful in a free market system (entrepreneurial), firms should be modelled by managers upon best practice (currently, from the US and Japan), should adopt flexible specialisation and decentralised structures, and should seek to create organisational cultures congruent with managers’ own. The ‘successful’ manager comes to be defined as a ‘change master’ (Kanter, 1993; see Peters and Waterman, 1982).
The Emergent, Processual Perspective
A common critique of the planned perspective is that the ability of management to rationally plan and implement organisational change ignores the influence of wider, more deterministic forces outside the realms of strategic choice (Wilson, 1992). Largely in opposition to this perspective and generally referred to as ‘systemic conflict’, the emergent approach, according to Wilson (ibid:22) is constructed upon the following theories of organisation:
1 Contextualism;
2 Population ecology;
3 Life cycles;
4 Power and politics;
5 Social action.
While also tending to acknowledge the role of human agency in effecting change, these approaches serve to widen the debate to include the impact of human interaction at micro and macro levels, thus constraining strategic choice (ibid).
Contextualism is based upon an open systems (OS) model which views any organisation as being an interdependent component of a much larger whole (Pettigrew, 1985). Serving as a direct intellectual challenge to closed system perspectives, fundamental is the notion that no organisation exists in a vacuum. Emery and Trist (1960, cited in Wilson, 1992) argue that OS reveals the following characteristics:
Equifinality – no one best way of achieving the same outcomes;
Negative entropy – importing operating environment resources to curtail or reverse natural decay;
Steady state – relationship stability between inputs, throughputs, outputs;
Cycles and patterns – cash flows, stock-turns and so on.
Thus, OS enables the variances between organisations’ performances to be explained by external influences, facilitating comparative analysis, the establishment of sectoral norms and the identification of ‘supra-normal’ practices (Wilson, 1992).
Population ecology (and perhaps institutional theories) is based upon the Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ (Hatch, 1997). Thus strategic change is aimed at maximising ‘fitness’ within the general population of organisations, through the identification of ‘market’ niches and strategies of specialisation, differentiation or generalism (Porter, 1980, 1985). Competitive advantage is thus created and sustained through the construction of distinctive and inimitable structures, processes and cultures, eg: erecting high barriers to entry through technological investment, or eliminating threats of product substitution through high R & D investment and thus (desired) innovation (ibid).
The life cycle perspective explicitly recognises the temporal nature of organisational change. Though linear in nature (all life cycle theories assume birth, growth, maturity, decline and death as givens), this approach provides insights into the potential internal and external conditions (and constraints) that an organisation is likely to encounter during distinct life cycle phases (Greiner, 1972 cited in Senior, 1997). However, this approach suffers from a similar critique to those levied at models of planned change. ‘Cycles’ are not in fact cycles (suggesting reincarnation). Development is linear and progressive and an organisation’s location on the ‘cycle’ is highly subjective.
Perhaps the major contribution of the emergent approach to organisational change, is the highlighting of the role of power and politics in moderating managerial efforts to effect fundamental and sustainable change (Handy, 1986). Essentially, three political models of power reveal that outcomes are incapable of being considered independently of processes and personal stakes.
First, overt power is the visible manifestation of localised influence over preferred processes and outcomes (eg: ‘it’s the way we’ve always done things around here’). Second, covert power is less visible and related to the extent of information sharing and participation in change processes afforded by organisational sub-groups (eg: senior management) to others – the phrase ‘inner circle’ is a common indicator of covert power relations in operation. Finally, third, contextual power suggests that outcomes are mediated by societal forces and the economic structure of society itself (eg: elites, notions of social justice, and so on) (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). Postmodern analysis reveals the influence of discourse, symbol and myth as interchangeable between organisations and societies in the endorsement of preferred solutions.
Thus, contextual power may be utilised to shape the wider justification and acceptability for organisational change( eg: ‘restructuring’ for labour stripping; ‘reingeering’ for work intensification; ‘partnership’ for collective labour coercion; ‘TQM’ for zero-tolerance and panoptican managerial control). Moreover, the contextual power perspective also reveals the hegemony of accounting ideology in neo-liberal systems (itself positivist, reductionist and inextricably linked to Taylorism). Thus serving to expose the influence of elite groups, notably silent under the strategic choice framework (Wilson, 1992).
Finally, social action theories depict organisational culture (OC) as the structure of social action (ibid). The strategic framework choice would hold that OC is a possession of the organisation and is thus capable of manipulation . In contrast, the systemic conflict framework depicts OC is something an organisation is (a contrasting ontological position) and is therefore largely beyond managerial influence (Legge, 1995). Nevertheless, ‘strong’ (integrated) notions of OC are eulogised by the so-called gurus (see Kanter, 1993; Peters and Waterman, 1982), despite receiving severe criticism for their weak methodological foundations (See Guest, 1992). The emergent approach appears to be at odds with the strong culture = high performance proposition at the heart of most change programmes; its causality is unclear.
As the above discussion illustrates, the management of change appears to hold sway over the analysis of change (Wilson, 1992). This implies that understanding has been exchanged for expediency. Put differently, managing change is both a learnable and teachable skill.
In view of the short-termism inherent in the US and UK economies, with their shareholder emphasis on maximum financial returns and minimal financial risk (itself a contradiction with the notion of ‘entrepreneur’), it is hardly surprising that ‘recipes for success’ are so eagerly sought after by under pressure managers and eagerly supplied by management gurus with pound-signs in their eyes. Practice appears to be on a divergent path from theory (Collins, 1997).
Collins (ibid) attributes this apparent divergence to managerial education, which itself (as must any educative process) be viewed as a perpetuation of ideology. With respect to organisational change, management education serves to promote the aggrandisement of managers as ”Canute-like rulers of the waves’. Epitomised by the MBA (Master of Bugger All?) with its roots in north America, such programmes are themselves reductionist and short-term in nature. Thus, students are precluded by time constraints from exposure to the theoretical foundations of change and, consequently, may be discouraged from challenging received wisdom. This is not to assert that ‘hands on’ skills are unimportant, rather to expose that they lose potency in the absence of the appreciation of the wider context which MBA ‘babble’, among a wider range of programmes, serves to suffuse.
Conclusion – a rejection of Positivism?
The investigation of organisational change has not escape the inexorable north American ‘shift’ towards hypothetico-deductive perspectives of economics and psychology, with their positivist paradigms focused upon atomisation akin to the natural sciences (Cappelli, 1995).
From a temporal perspective, while organisational change is viewed as inevitable in much the same way as in nature, the time frame selected for analysis tends to dictate the scope and degree of change to be investigated. Short-termism, it appears, is a form of temporal reductionism in the search for objective truth, that is a key factor behind the notion that managers can be trained to manage change through sets of skills that imply mastery over the ‘natural’ world and therefore, time itself. In this view, planned models of change, rooted in classical theories of management, may be accused of being an ideological construct of assumed legitimacy and authenticity.
On the other hand, a subjectivist systemic tension approach, rejects reductionist ‘tool kits’ and lays claim to the inclusion of contextual variables at work throughout an organisation, its operating environment and beyond. In this view, while change is clearly not beyond managerial influence, its management is reliant upon wider understanding of the interplay of these variables, of which power relations may be prominent, in order to be able to predict the likely outcomes of managerial actions.
However, for something to exist it must be capable of theoretical explanation. That practitioners have opted for voluntarist models of strategic change is not surprising given the elitist ideology of modern management: to control is to manage; short-termism equates to reduced risk and increased control; the institutions of Western corporate governance and finance thus have their goals met by such an approach.
Yet, this is to obfuscate the quintessential qualities of the processual, emergent contribution to organisational change. While not refuting planned change, it perhaps serves to modify it – for any change to be understood, explained and sustained, the duality of voluntarism and determinism must be acknowledged and incorporated into the managerial knowledge base. The emergent approach exposes the potential folly of the extremes of positivism as applied to organisations as social entities, thus throwing open the debate to multi-disciplinary perspectives and enriching the field or organisational change. To be of value, such enrichment must be reflected in managerial education itself.

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