There is little consensus on how to evaluate organizational change processes: Is it appropriate to focus mainly on perceptions of change recipients, like psychological research does (Oreg et al., 2011)? Should one, like Hannan and Freeman (1984), pay attention to the overall wellbeing, fitness or more precisely mortality hazard of the organization and see how change in general influences these? Or should one primarily be concerned with the effects of change on the talent pool of the organization, such as in Baron et al. (2001)? Would it be more appropriate to look at the speed of the implementation of the change, since the speed drives the opportunity costs of the organizational change, or will a focus on the relationship between change in the employment blueprints and the economic outcomes, such as growth or the time between founding and the initial public offering as in Hannan and Baron (2002), generate more valuable insights?
Many of these studies yielded valuable insights, and the value of these insights is responsible for the temptation researchers are exposed to: Borrow from these theory fragments in order to generate novel explanations and derive valuable predictions. But it is not difficult to see that borrowing from separate theory fragments carries certain risks: The theory fragments briefly described previously are not always consistent with one another, and the complex explanations built on the insights they generate might lack coherence. The current paper attempts to carve out the set of insights that can be fruitfully combined with each other in a consistent manner so that they offer a logical basis for the propositions offered. In so doing, we illustrate how we can enter new ground by integrating arguments from different theory fragments in a way not done before, crossing disciplinary boundaries and developing a multi-level logic.
Specifically, in this paper, we advocate an integration of organizational behaviour and strategic approaches to develop a single organizational change theory.
Towards an integrated organizational change theory We aim at enlarging our understanding of organizational change, by looking simultaneously through the individual-focused micro lens and the organization-oriented macro lens. Our framework explicitly relates to both the inside and the outside world of organizations, which makes the case for an interdisciplinary and multi-level approach to the study (and practice) of organizational change. In so doing, we link insights from micro-level theories of individual change acceptance to macro-level perspectives on the environment, with input from meso-level theories on leadership and organizational identity, implying that we bridge organizational change theories from psychological, sociological and economic perspectives. We are aware that we can in no way fully live up to our ambitious attempt, and that we need to select some limited theoretical insights from these different disciplines.
Our selection is, next to theoretical considerations, guided by an emergent understanding during our field research, where we identified theories addressing issues raised by practitioners in the field of organizational change. Our unified theory of organizational change is informed by three main observations of the nature of organizational change. First, organizational change is a risky strategy, as it is often related to the violation of an organization’s core cultural values and, potentially, the organization’s identity (Hannan et al., 2007). Therefore, we explicitly focus on the vital role of organizational identity to explain the successes and failures of organizational change. Second, the analysis of organizational change needs an approach that can account for the specifics of the organization in question. Yet, the organizational change industry is dominated by consultancies that offer universal solutions to organization-specific problems (Sorge and van Witteloostuijn, 2004). Scholars have noted that this tendency to rely on universal remedies is counterproductive (Ostrom, 2007). Therefore we incorporate a contingency perspective in our framework of organizational change, suggesting that it is important to identify the external and internal conditions needed to ensure the success of specific organizational change programmes in specific organizations and contexts.
Third, there is still a widespread habit within organizational change research to ignore the major influence of cross-country cultural and institutional differences. This is closely related to our second observation, and it has also been substantiated in organization theory and practice (Sorge, 2005). It boils down to the fact that what works in one organization, culture, or country, may well produce failure in another organization, culture, or country. Or, more subtly, practices that look similar across organizations, cultures, or countries on the surface often turn out to be very different if analysed more carefully. As Pettigrew et al. (2001) note, in a culturally diverse world, scholars of organizational change cannot continue to assume with a quiet heart, that the change patterns in their corner of the world reflect those experienced on a wider, global stage.
This does not imply that the overall logic of the theory we propose here is idiosyncratic, being tailored to each and every specific case – it is not. Rather, we believe that our framework is general, although the details of how things work out in practice are specific to the context. Even though two organizations might appear to be alike to analysts, they might have different audiences and, as a consequence, their
A framework of organizational
identities might be very different. Such differences have important implications for the types of organizational change processes that are adopted, as well as the acceptance or resistance of specific change projects in different organizational contexts and among different parties. To bring to life our theoretical arguments, we decided to add propositions and examples. First, we formulate a series of 13 propositions that provide examples of core theoretical insights or insights that we believe are interesting to explore further in future work. This list of 13 propositions is by no means exhaustive, but we hope that it clarifies the kind of follow-up work we envision. Second, to put some real-world flesh to our theoretical argumentation, we illustrate our arguments with examples from police organization in a series of quotes. We do so because our theoretical framework is currently applied in the context of a large EU project on organizational change in police forces in ten European countries. In this paper’s discussion, we will introduce this project in a little more detail and illustrate how we put our theoretical framework into research practice.
Theoretical framework Our macro-lens brings a fundamental observation to the theoretical discussion that is often ignored by micro-level researchers: Organizational change does not emerge and evolve in splendid isolation. Stakeholders inside and outside of the organization tend to be heavily involved before, during and after the change process (Frooman, 1999). Our micro-lens, in turn, draws attention to the role of organizational members in organizational change, an aspect that is often overlooked by macro-level scholars of strategic management. We embed our analysis of internal organizational change processes in a larger cultural and institutional framework, focusing on differences across societies. To organize the arguments, we frame this process in a simple input-throughput-output model, as introduced in Figure 1.
Input relates to the antecedents of change (the period before the change), throughput to the process of change (during), and output to the consequences of change (after). The glue that binds all of these elements of our theoretical framework together is organizational identity and how this may be affected by organizational change. Therefore, before introducing our unified input-throughput-output framework, we first discuss this essential nexus between organizational identity and organizational change.