Challenging the notion of “organizational change”

By Ileana

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?

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One response to “Challenging the notion of “organizational change”

  1. Very interesting…I have one critical question though.
    Is organizational change really static? I think ‘change’ actually denotes a dynamic process. Furthermore, if you analyze the organizational change literature, there are so many different perspectives, generally classified in three categories of perspectives: integration, differentiation and fragmentation.
    The integration perspectives indeed focus on the outcome and view organizational change as a neat, carefully planned, rational and non-political process.

    However, the other two perspectives of change (differentiation and fragmentation) focus on the inevitability of conflict, the lack of consensus, subcultures as well as the flux of organizing, the processes for constructing and re-constructing organizational reality respectively. In particular, the fragmentation perspective includes everything that you sum up in relation to a rethinking of organizational change, namely a focus on ambiguity, on the complexity of relationships among manifestations, a multiplicity of interpretations (Martin, 1992, p. 130).

    Perhaps the focus on sociomateriality is not explicitly embedded in this perspective (also note that these perspectives developed approximately 20 years ago), however, by focusing on the complexity of relationships among manifestations, we can see that the constitutive entanglement of the social and the material in everyday life can easily be embedded in this perspective.