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Four Dimensions of Change

Stephen Billing, July 26, 2009

Four dimensions of change that are considered in the mainstream literature on change.

According to Alvesson and Sveningsson’s excellent new book Changing Organizational Culture, key dimensions of change that are common in the literature include:

  1. The scale of change
  2. The sources of change
  3. The content of change
  4. The politics of change

The Scale of Change

Change is often characterised in terms of two extremes as revolutionary or evolutionary. Revolutionary change refers to changes that affect several aspects of the organisation simultaneously, such as culture, resources, performance management systems, strategy, technology, market positioning. Evolutionary change refers to operational change that affects part of the organisation within existing strategy and resources.

The following scales are also used to characterise organisational change:

  • revolutionary vs evolutionary
  • discontinuous vs continuous
  • episodic vs continuing flow
  • transformational vs transactional
  • strategic vs operational
  • total system vs local option

Alvesson and Sveningsson point out that these labels and distinctions often mean roughly the same.

The Sources of Change

The sources of change can vary – hence a distinction between planned change and emergent change. In planned change, the intentions of top managers are central, and in emergent change, the source is those outside top management. Emergent change emphasises the messy nature of change. Planned change includes the grand change projects often involving HR staff and consultants, including re-engineering, TQM, new technology, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and so on.

The Politics of Change

Strategy is the result of political processes where bargaining, negotiating, lobbying and power relations are used to further the interests of top managers. The political dimension of change is often downplayed, perhaps by being framed in rational and analytically accepted terms which are useful especially when change is challenged.

The Content of Change

The content refers to the specifics of the change, whether it’s restructuring, re-engineering, strategy, customer orientation, new production systems or whatever. Often many aspects of the content are related to each other, for example a culture change is often seen as affecting aspects such as management control systems, strategy and structure.

Conclusion

Alvesson and Sveningsson go on to point out that these categories are not so neat and tidy as they might first appear. Depending on your position in the organisation, the scale of change might look quite different. What appears as minor and incremental to a senior person might be seen as radical and revolutionary by someone else. Personal interests, background, education, hierarchical position and other factors all influence how you see and categorise the change.

There are plenty of examples where change that is seen as major by the top managers is disregarded by the troops. The converse is also common, where the troops see a change as far more significant than the managers; many cases of industrial unrest and strikes reflect this different perception.

These views of change are also affected by whether you see organisational change as discontinuous and episodic or as continuous. Major planned change initiatives are often implemented on the assumption that change occurs from time to time and the organisation reverts back to stability or equilibrium in between. Seen at a distance organisations can appear quite stable (episodic change), but looked at closely they can appear to be constantly changing as people leave, customers and suppliers change and new products are developed (continuous change).

 

2 Comments »

  1. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for reconnecting me with the work of Alvesson and Sveningsson. I had read this book several months ago but had, shamefully, forgotten their authorship of it when I read the reference to another paper of theirs in your recent posts on leadership.

    I enjoyed the book and, in particular, their advocay of what they call a “process” approach to change. As they say, “Change is … not quite the neat, apolitical and linear process suggested by the rationalistic orientation and expressed … [in terms of]‘n-step’ thinking.”

    No doubt you’ll go there in future posts.

    Cheers, Chris

    Comment by Chris Rodgers — July 26, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Chris I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I did too and you are right, I am planning to post further about some of their insights.

    Comment by Stephen — July 26, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

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