My conversation starter is intended to raise a question concerning our conceptualization of the notion of “organizational change” and its usefulness when used together with the sociomateriality approach.
I deeply support the call for a theorization of people and technology (or any other non-human actors) as “constitutively entangled” (Orlikowski 2007), rather than viewing them as independent entities mutually influencing each other. Likewise, I do support the argument that the constitutive entanglements generated between human and non-human actors are at the heart of understanding how new forms of organizing come about and how they are negotiated and performed.
However, across the organization studies literature on “organizational change”, the acceptance of the ontological position that humans and non-humans are constitutively entangled seems to be shadowed by the researchers’ cling to the notion of “organizational change” (see Leonardi and Barley 2008 and Zammuto et al. 2007). I would argue that this notion is far too static and liner to account for the dynamic human and non-human constitutive entanglements and how they bring about new forms of organizing. “Organizational change” – as a noun – implies a concrete, emotionless development, generated in a cause and effect fashion, with clear boundaries between what was there before and after the ‘intervention’. Such a conceptualization is at odds with the tenets of sociomateriality and as such I am not surprised that the ontological and epistemological positions of sociomateriality are accepted so slowly and sporadically in the organization studies literature.
My question is: can we think of “organizational change” in a more open way, one that facilitates an exploration of the continuous formations of constitutive entanglements between human and non-human actors, and that accounts for (intended and unintended) consequences of these entanglements? Is the notion of “organizing” sufficient to facilitate such an exploration or do we need something else? In any case, we need to rethink our conceptualization of “organizational change” in a way that:
- Allows for the theorization of a process or a movement (a verb), rather than an outcome (a noun);
- Accounts for a movement that is messy and plagued with tensions, with feelings that it will not work as you intend it, with emotions and politics;
- Reveals the back and forth movement of human and non-human actors, their negotiations and failures;
- Acknowledges the wickedness of the situation in which human and non-human actors (need to) act;
- Views action and agency as dispersed, performed by many human and non-human actors, many of whom are not even present in the time-space of the inquiry (as when a decision taken in the past has consequences only when much time has passed and/or for different actors than intended), making it more difficult to pinpoint the ‘responsible’ actors for the current situation.
Only after we rethink the notion of “organizational change” can the epistemological and ontological positions of sociomateriality make sense to many organization studies researchers and be useful and insightful in their inquiries. Any suggestions?