Change is fundamental to organizing. To organize, or structure human activity intentionally to achieve collective goals, is in itself a change process – a movement from one state of being to another. A change process in the context of formal organizations may be defined as a sequence of events by which alteration occurs in the structure and/or functioning of an organization. Alternatively, it may be seen as the way in which difference(s) emerge between two (or more) successive conditions, states, or moments of time in an organization (Ford & Ford 1995).
As implied by these definitions, organizational change processes can be all-encompassing in scope, but scholarly attention is typically devoted to large-scale planned changes, such as restructuring, mergers, or implementation of major new management methods or information technology. Transcending the traditional concerns of innovation research, the study of change-related communication (CRC) considers how planned changes are adopted and implemented and how change-oriented discourse can infuse organizational interactions and messages.
Research Interests In Organizational Change
Organizational change processes have been of interest to organizational communication scholars from the early days of the discipline’s formation. In a historical overview of organizational communication research, Redding (1988, 45) cited several early publications that in one way or another focus on the role of communication in organizational change processes. For example, he mentions the following titles: “Employee Magazines Build Morale (1950),” “Effective Communications – One Road to Productivity (1950),” and “How House Magazines Improve Industrial Relations (1953).” Each of these suggests that early organizational communication scholars considered that communication could play a key role in enhancing productivity, improving employee relations, or attaining other organizational change goals. Additionally, Everett Rogers’s classic work on diffusion of innovations also highlights the role of communication in change.
However, organizational change has not until recently been a significant focus of study for organizational communication researchers. For example, handbooks of organizational communication have given only brief mention of organizational change. This is surprising, as the 1980s were a time when the notion of organizational culture was coming into vogue as a major organizing construct, and culture change has been a major focus of both practitioners and organization studies scholars. However, organizational communication theorists tended to be critical of culture change initiatives, resisting the notion that culture is something that can be reliably managed. Thus, while practitioners and organizational scholars both became enamored of the culture metaphor beginning in the 1980s, practitioners were much more likely to associate culture with organizational change than were scholars.
The 1990s brought more focus on organizational change processes by communication scholars, largely stimulated by the increased emphasis on change in the contemporary workplace. There is still a relatively small body of work within the communication discipline, and few self-identified organizational communication scholars whose work concentrates on organizational change processes. However, this literature is growing, as is the sense of importance attributed to organizational change-related communication. In fact, Jones et al. (2004, 722) identified one of the six major challenges for organizational communication scholarship as “understand[ing] the communication of organizational change.”
Intellectual And Social Context
The intellectual context for organizational change scholarship is quite diverse. Communicative dimensions of organizational change processes have been addressed by scholars from multiple countries and disciplines. Among organizational communication scholars in the English-speaking world, the work of Laurie Lewis in the United States is particularly prominent, but there is also substantial work on the subject by organizational communication scholars in Australia (e.g., Victor Callan and colleagues at the University of Queensland), the United Kingdom (e.g., Dennis Tourish at the Aberdeen Business School), and mainland Europe (e.g., Wim Elving at the University of Amsterdam and Anne-Marie Søderberg at the Cophenhagen Business School). Outside of organizational communication, numerous management scholars have investigated communication aspects of organizational change processes or discursive approaches to organizational change. In particular, Jeffrey Ford’s work (e.g., Ford & Ford 1995) has been widely cited, and Loizos Heracleous has been prominent in researching discursive approaches to organizational change (Heracleous 2002).
The social context in which organizations operate has changed substantially in the past 30 years, and as a result of a number of converging factors, we have seen an intensified commitment to organizational change on the part of managers and executives. Among these factors are: the emergence of Asian economies as serious competitors to western businesses in high-profile industries such as manufacturing and electronics, creating a heightened sense of threat; revolutionary new technologies such as personal computers and the Internet that enable rapid processing and transmission of information across boundaries; and the political-economic force of neo-liberalism, which has resulted in freemarket principles being applied globally and in new domains of society.
Alongside these changes is the global dissemination of management ideas. Thus, we have seen waves of popular management models and methods, such as quality circles, total quality management (TQM), business process re-engineering (BPR), downsizing, outsourcing, lean manufacturing, e-business, knowledge management, enterprise resource planning, and sustainable or “green” business. The recommended response to these forces from socalled experts has been to organize for continuous change – to become a flexible organization that can adapt quickly to changes in the environment. This argument for change has been repeated by popular management “gurus,” such as the late Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, and John Kotter, as well as by business schools, management consulting firms, and the business press, such that it has become the accepted wisdom for many managers and executives.
Major Dimensions Of The Topic
A number of key dimensions of organizational change processes can be discerned. One important dimension is the meta-theoretical perspective from which the topic is approached. At least two broad meta-theoretical perspectives can be identified.
Managerialist perspectives, including positivist, post-positivist, realist, normative, and behaviorist approaches, are prominent in both communication and organization studies, with scholars attempting to discern more or less effective means of communicating in the process of change. From this perspective, communication is seen as a tool or instrumental means to achieve organizational change, and change agents are seen to be attempting to align or adapt organizations to an objective reality (Ford & Ford 1995). For example, research has focused on effective ways to announce change (Smeltzer & Zener 1993), the relationship of communication frequency and participation to perceptions of success (Lewis 1999; Lewis 2006), the effectiveness of particular methods of employee participation in change (Kellett 1999), persuasion campaigns in the context of change programs (Garvin & Roberto 2005), and the effects of major change on communication patterns (Tourish et al. 2004).
A second group of perspectives, which might be referred to as constructivist, includes social constructionist, interpretive, critical, discourse, and postmodern approaches. This group tends to be more concerned with understanding and critiquing organizational change processes, and communication is viewed as a means by which change is constructed by organizational members. Interpretively oriented approaches tend to describe patterns of communication practices and meaning constructions. For example, researchers have investigated the means used to frame change initiatives (Fairhurst 1993), patterns of communication with external stakeholders (Lewis et al. 2001), and alternative constructions of a single change initiative (Zorn et al. 2000). Critically oriented constructivist approaches see communication as the arena in which organizational members struggle for preferred constructions of change-related phenomena. For example, researchers have demonstrated how certain communication practices serve a hegemonic function in change processes (Leonardi & Jackson 2004) and how tensions are reflected and constructed in CRC (Fairhurst et al. 2002).
Four Phases Of Organizational Change
To understand the major dimensions of the topic of organizational change processes, it is helpful to consider a model of the change process, as shown in Figure 1. This model is essentially a communication-oriented reinterpretation of traditional phase models of change, the best known of which is Kurt Lewin’s unfreezing–moving–refreezing model. The model in Figure 1, however, highlights the interaction of the organization with its discursive environment. That is, change programs do not take place in a vacuum; rather, social-historical trends influence the interpretation and choices made regarding changes in each phase.
Communication is implicated in each of the phases of change. In the first phase, the formulation phase, members of the organization become aware of the need for or possibility of change and decide upon a particular course of action, more or less well defined. In addition to identifying potential problems internally, members consume popular books, articles, seminars, and training videos – not to mention everyday talk with other managers – to learn of new programs and “best practices.” They may consult internal and outside experts (e.g., academics, consultants) as well as non-expert members of staff who may have insight or who may be affected by changes under consideration. Meetings will be held and memos, emails, and reports exchanged as discussion of a change develops. The organization may experiment with a change program on a small scale.
Figure 1 Phases of organizational change-related communication
Communication processes in the formulation phase have been the focus of substantial theorizing and study, especially the processes by which popular management ideas are communicated and adopted. Guru theory, management fashion theory, and discourse theory make similar and mostly complementary claims. For example, Clark and Salaman (1998) theorized that management gurus construct an appealing identity for the manager as a heroic, transformational leader, thus encouraging managers to enact change to live up to the role. The management fashion perspective (e.g., Abrahamson 1996) suggests that a management fashion industry, consisting of gurus, consultants, business schools, and the business press, identifies new developments in management practice and then represents these ideas as simple but radical departures from existing practice that are necessary to prevent impending disaster. The fashion industry employs a recognizable pattern of rhetorical conventions and principles to convince managers to adopt them in some form (Clark & Greatbatch 2004). Discourse theorists (e.g., Zorn et al. 2000) suggest that managers draw on the popular discourses from gurus and the fashion industry more broadly to legitimate their change initiatives, and that organizational members are prepared and disciplined by these same discourses in their interpretations of and responses to change initiatives.
The implementation phase is the most extensively researched in both the change management and communication literature. Communication processes in this phase include announcing changes, exchanging task-related information needed to enact planned changes (including training and coaching), persuading stakeholders (including employees) to accept and commit to changes, and resisting the changes. Given that many organizational changes today result in layoffs or decreased job security, winning employee commitment is no mean feat.
A number of aspects of implementation communication have been examined. A major focus has been identifying strategies that are likely to help managers introduce changes effectively. For example, Smeltzer and Zener (1993) modeled strategies for change announcements, and Lewis investigated both change agents’ (1999) and receivers’ (2006) perceptions of the relationship of implementation communication activities to the success of change. Timmerman (2003) investigated media choice during implementation and, while his work was predictive rather than prescriptive, it had clear implications for practitioners. In addition to these efforts, other research of a critical nature has focused on the political (e.g., Doolin 2003) and emotional (e.g., Zorn 2002) aspects of implementation communication, as well as resistance processes (e.g., Ford et al. 2002). Still other research has addressed variations in organizations’ socialization activities in the context of change (Hart et al. 2003), how employees cope with the stress of change (Callan 1993), and how discourses are used instrumentally to drive change (Leonardi & Jackson 2004).
The institutionalization phase is analogous to Lewin’s “refreezing” stage of change. Once changes have been introduced, efforts to make them part of the organization’s routines are important. This is a key phase in an era of constant change, since one of the pitfalls of constant change is that management is tempted to move on to the next “fashion” before the current change program is successfully institutionalized. Institutionalization may involve a number of communication activities, such as textualizing new practices into policies and procedures, recognizing and celebrating achievements, providing ongoing training and other socialization practices, discussing failures, and reorienting efforts. Few studies explicitly focus on the institutionalization phase of change efforts, although there are exceptions (e.g., Fairhurst et al. 2002).
The dissemination phase draws attention to the fact that, as a change initiative plays out, messages about the change process and change results are conveyed, either formally or informally, to multiple audiences. The organization’s reputation is influenced either intentionally or unintentionally by the dissemination of messages about the change process. Furthermore, these messages shape others’ views not only of the organization, but also of particular types of change initiatives. A management fashion perspective points to an interesting and practically important communication phenomenon in this phase. Because of managers’ motivation to garner the praise and positive identity associated with successful programs, there is a temptation to publicize and overstate successes and hide failures. Zbaracki (1998), for example, reported that organizations that had had questionable success implementing TQM programs nonetheless publicized their use of and successes with these programs extensively. Such publicity may encourage the increasing positive appraisal and popularity of programs like TQM, even though such appraisals may be unwarranted.
Future Directions In Research And Theory
Despite a wide-ranging exploration of communication processes in the context of organizational change, theoretical development has been rather sparse. This is less true in the research on CRC in formulation and dissemination than in implementation and institutionalization. Regarding communication in formulation and dissemination, management fashion, guru, and discourse theories are prominent, as reviewed above. Institutional theory has been used extensively to explain change processes generally, but only recently has it been considered as a means to explain CRC (Lammers & Barbour 2006).
Much research on communication in implementation and institutionalization has been atheoretical, for example focusing on variables that are related to perceptions of success or resistance. However, Lewis (2007) has recently begun to address this concern, developing a model of implementation communication around stakeholder theory. In addition, structuration theory (e.g., Fairhurst et al. 2002) and discourse theory (e.g., Heracleous 2002) have been drawn upon by some scholars in researching implementation and institutionalization. Surprisingly, the rich theoretical tradition in persuasion research has rarely been brought to bear on organizational change processes. Since so much of CRC is a process of influence – in all four of the phases – organizational change would seem an appropriate context in which to apply the theory of reasoned action, the elaboration likelihood model, and other persuasion theories.
A recent development has been a focus on “positive” approaches to CRC. Building on developments in positive psychology, the gist of such approaches is to identify positive deviance – that is, what is working well in an organization – and build on it, as opposed to identifying problems – or negative deviance – to be solved. Methods such as appreciative inquiry and dialog have drawn particular attention (Barge & Oliver 2003).
Another future direction that seems particularly important is increasing research on intercultural and trans-national organizational change. While there are a few notable studies (e.g., Søderberg & Vaara 2003), these are rare. Given increasing globalization, an understanding of CRC practices in different parts of the world and, especially, in intercultural situations seems needed.
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