How Can Radical Organizational Change Be Achieved More Easily?

[We’re pleased to welcome author Dr. Barbara Kump of WU–Vienna University of Economics and Business. Dr. Kump recently published an article in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science entitled “Beyond Power Struggles: A Multilevel Perspective on Incongruences at the Interface of Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in Radical Organizational Change,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Kump briefly describes the research and its significance.]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

This research was inspired by observations from a radical change case in a 100-person firm in the Austrian building industry that our research team has been working with for several years. In many ways, that firm was a showcase company: When they started the radical change process, they were very successful in their core business (general renovation works), they had undergone successful changes in the past, the CEO was a charismatic leader, and the staff was highly committed to the firm. Moreover, the change was carried out in line with best practices of change management. However, despite these promising starting conditions, the firm barely survived the change. Nearly 70% of staff members dropped out and it took them a couple of years until they were a successful business again. This really bothered me. I kept asking myself, how this could be possible: They had followed all the ‘rules’ for successful change and this was not (merely) a matter of ‘power and resistance’. So why was it still so difficult for this firm to change? This question was the starting point of my conceptual analysis.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

The popular opinion about organizational change is that people just don’t want to change because they are too lazy, or because they are ‘creatures of habit’. In research, scholars have emphasized the role of power and politics, concluding that radical change is mainly blocked by those who are afraid to lose power within the firm. Complementing previous research, and partly contradicting popular opinion, in this article I provide an alternative explanation for why radical organizational change is so difficult: It requires people to change what they do, what they know (or which knowledge they can apply in their jobs), and who they are. And, in many cases, even if they are willing, they are just not able to change. I hope that this complementary perspective will inspire many organizational scholars to further investigate conditions under which radical change can be achieved more easily – and ways to establish these conditions.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Much research in the context of radical organizational change takes a psychological angle and looks at individual-level antecedents and outcomes of organizational change; most organizational research is focusing on best practices of how to implement change. I believe that we need more empirical studies that investigate what is actually going on in radical change: What are the typical, complex multi-level processes that take place, and what are the typical problems that we can expect and need to counteract. Scholars (including myself) are still building on Lewin’s seminal models from the 1950s, because no other agreed-upon scientific models of change exist. Given the current state of research, I think that longitudinal, qualitative (even ethnographic) case studies are the most promising way to increase our understanding of organizational change processes. Besides interview data, artifact analyses and analyses of ‘objective’ changes (firm name, layout, branding…) would be very interesting sources to take into account.

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