Strategic approach to organisational change

Following the brief introduction of a model-ideal conceptualisation of Organisational Goal-Directed-Activity, and the definition within the perspective defined by this model of such terms like ‘rational (organisational) action system’, ‘strategy’, and ‘organisational change’, the first part of this essay presents a non-evaluative summary of a selection of distinct approaches to organisational change. Various approaches to strategy are similarly addressed in an attempt to register and explore some of the links that have been identified by a number of authors between positions on strategy reviewed and corresponding approaches to organisational change.

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The second part, bypassing the rather common practice of partitioning the set of organisational change approaches into largely non-overlapping rational and nonrational, strategic and nonstrategic, subsets, identifies a number of distinct Rational and/or Strategic Modes, associates them with the approaches to organisational change reviewed in the first part, and attempts an integrated appraisal of the distinctive strengths and limitations such diverse Modes confer to the approaches to change that invoke and utilise them.

1. A Model-Ideal Conceptualisation of Organisational Goal-Directed-Activity, Rationality, Strategicality, and Organisational Change When planned and goal-directed, fully rational organisational action, like any other ideal form of goal-directed-action, relies on activity generated by the decomposition of a goal-structure, a term that has been defined as follows: “The goal-structure is a principled construction with a clear semantics.

That is, subgoals are asserted as necessary and sufficient conditions for achieving the goal” (Anderson, 1983:33). By implementing all the necessary action-steps in a principled manner, means indispensable to the attainment of the pursued goal are not left out. In its reliance on such a goal-structure the action-system is effective. Not exceeding some sufficiency standard, on the other hand, makes the action-system efficient. An organisation’s reliance on the recursive application of the means-ends relational thinking that defines goal-structures capable of conferring effectiveness and efficiency to the action-system that uses them, establishes that action system as a rational action-system.

In one form or another, the type of rationality involved here is commonly referred to as instrumental rationality, and is by far the most common in discussions of goal-directed-action. Elster, for example, defines rationality as “roughly speaking the instrumentally efficient pursuit of given ends” (1999:102). For Simon “a system is rational to the extent that its behaviour is well adapted to reaching its goals without excess time and effort” (1996:166).

Strategy may be defined as “the determination of the basic, long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for those goals” (Chandler 1962:13). You act strategically, in an organisational setting, to the extent you derive and implement a strategic change goal-structure which asserts a number of pre-planned courses of action as means necessary to securing the long-term objectives specified. So viewed, “strategy is a plan, or something equivalent-a direction, a guide or course of action into the future, a path to get from here to there” (Mintzberg et al, 1998:9).

Defining organisational change of the rational/strategic type requires specifying courses of activity at two closely interacting levels: An organisational action level at which changes are effected in a largely goal-directed manner on relevant inputs in order to transform them into the pre-specified outputs that define the organisations products. And an organisational metalevel where activity aiming at changing prevailing defaults regarding the ways organisational inputs are transformed into outputs takes place.

2. Approaches to Strategy and Organisational Change

The Planned approach to change relates to the so-called Classical approach to strategy (Whittington 2001). Classicists (like, for instance, Chandler, 1962; Ansoff, 1965) view strategy as an essential rational process of long-term and comprehensive planning, formulated at top managerial levels. Only when the strategy is fully formulated is it made available to be implemented by operational managers.

Related to the Classical approach to strategy, the so-called Planned Approach to change, originating with Lewin’s (1958) all too well-known Three-Stage Model, has dominated for a long period the field of organisational change. As Burnes puts it: “[T]he Planned approach to change has been, and still is, highly influential… it is still far and away the best developed, documented and supported approach to change” (Burnes, 2000:281).

OD may be described as follows: “[A]ll OD programs are identifiable flows of interrelated events moving over time toward the goals of organisational improvement and individual development. Major events in the process include sensing something is wrong and should be corrected; diagnosing the situation to determine what is happening; planning and taking actions to change the problematic conditions; evaluating the effects of the actions; making adjustments as necessary; and repeating the sequence” (French & Bell, 1999:3).

OD theorists and practitioners alike rely on the instrumental rationality of means-ends relational thinking and the prescriptions of the Classical approach to strategy to device change-effecting tools, typically multi-stage models of the change and change management processes (e.g., Burke 1994; Porras & Robertson, 1992; both cited in French & Bell, 1999). Processes commonly targeted, by OD’s essentially person-oriented and humanistically-inspired interventions, include problem solving and decision-making, strategic management, exercise of authority, resource and reward allocation, communication, and continuous learning.

According to Processual positions on strategy, associated with the Emergent approach to organisational change, the Classical faith in rationality in strategy formulation is wrong as “strategies form out of a mixture of analysis and instinct, routine and spontaneity, top and bottom, fortune and error” (Whittington 2001:57). Humans are simply too limited in their rational powers to deal with the future in the manner that Classical conceptions of, and reliance on, rationality reflected.

They, at best, exhibit what Simon termed bounded rationality, a type of rationality that aspires to nothing higher than ‘the good enough’, Simon’s (1957) satisficing, rather than ‘the best possible’ of the maximising perfect rationality of homo economicus. Moreover, rather than being unitary and pursuing the maximisation of some single utility, organisations are constituted instead as coalitions of individuals with varying and often conflicting objectives. Talk of multiple action-systems operating on the basis of different and possibly conflictual goals should replace, according to this approach, the unitary view of the organisation developed earlier.

Organisational change itself involves the iterative application of an essentially political rather than analytical change process. The application of this “emergent, informal, messy [process]”, in ways involving multiple organisational levels in a “middle-up-down incremental process”(Mintzberg et al, 1998:357) may lead to conclusions that no rationality of any kind is possible when change takes place in such contexts. Not necessarily so! It may simply mean that the emergent approach to strategy has its own rationality, what Quinn (1980:89) calls logical incrementalism, a form of adaptive local applications of rationality where “honest about his or her limits, the logical incrementalist is committed to a process of experimentation and learning” (Whittington 2001:23-4).