Emergent Approach to Change Management

The emergent approach, in which organizational change is seen as continuous and evolving, was birthed out of the criticisms of the planned approach Opens in new window which tends to be heavily reliant on the role of managers.

The emergent approach recognizes that the business environment is rapidly changing and difficult to predict, and stresses the unpredictable nature of change. Thus, in the emergent approach, the impetus for organizational change Opens in new window comes from the organization’s need to constantly adapt to an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment. It views the change as a process in which individual parts of the organization deal incrementally and separately with one problem and one goal at a time (Burnes, 2005).

Emergent Approach to Change assumes that change is a continuous, open-ended and unpredictable process of aligning and realigning an organization to its changing environment … views change as a process that unfolds through the interplay of multiple variables such as context, political processes and consultation within an organization’ (Burnes, 1996).

Successful change, therefore, is more reliant on reaching an understanding of the complexity of the issues involved rather than developing a detailed plan that moves through a number of different stages.

In the emergent approach, organizational change Opens in new window can be regarded as a continuous process of experiment and adaptation aimed at matching an organization’s capabilities to the needs and dictates of a dynamic and uncertain environment.’ (Burnes, 1996). This is most effectively achieved by a number of often small-scale incremental changes over time which can in turn lead to major transformations.

Features of Emergent Approach

Unlike in the planned approach Opens in new window, change in the emergent approach tends to be a bottom-up activity and is seen as an open-ended process (Burnes, 1966b). It recognizes that a number of small adjustments, which are created simultaneously across units, can accumulate and produce significant change over a relatively long time period (Weick and Quinn, 1999).

A distinctive feature of the emergent approach is that it views change as a learning process and not simply as a method of changing organizational structures and practices (Burnes, 1966b).

Organizations adopting this approach need to have flexible structures and processes in order to be able to respond to unexpected and unpredictable circumstances as they learn to deal with the emergent aspects of the change (Kenny, 2006). Creating learning organizations is therefore viewed as a means of coping with the increasingly turbulent environment (Beer and Eisenstat, 1996).

The Role of Managers in Emergent Approach

The role of managers in this approach is very different to that of the planned change approach. Rather than being planners and implementers of change, their responsibility lies in creating an organizational structure and climate which encourages staff to embrace and initiate change.

To the proponents of emergent approach, the issues of continuity and scale are central to emergent change, with continuity associated with organizational culture, and the scale treating micro-level changes as the basis for transformational change and the means for institutionalizing it.

Further, interventions in emergent change are not concerned with creating the conditions for change, but with developing a collective vision that provides direction to already ongoing change activities (Burnes, 1966b).

Finally, the role of managers in emergent change is one of understanding the dynamics of change and ‘managing language, dialogue, and identity’ (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.381).

To create a culture of continuous change, managers seek to foster an organizational structure and climate that promotes and sustains experimentation and risk-taking (Burnes, 1966b).

There is agreement among the proponents that emergent changes should be aligned with the organization’s internal and external demands, and that managers should continuously scan the environment in order to adapt and respond to changes if they want to improve organizational performance (Burnes, 1996b).

See also:
  1. T. R. Ramanathan, The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing ..., (p.31-32) Emergent Approach
  2. Roger Palmer, Richard Meek, Lynn Parkinson, Helen Meek, CIM Coursebook 06/07 Managing Marketing Performance, (p.64) Emergent Approach.