Dimensions of Organizational Change

Change management Graphics courtesy of Maryville UniversityOpens in new window

In today’s complex and competitive global business environment, organizations must adapt to changing environmental conditions by continuously initiating changes in order to remain competitive and profitable. Thus, there is a growing need for organizations to understand how change occurs so that they can better manage the change process to improve their organizational effectiveness.

What Is Change?

Over the last four decades, organizational change has been studied a great deal in various disciplines such as psychology, sociology, management and organizational studies, and as a consequence, the literature is filled with legion definitions of change.

  1.     Cohen et al.

According to their definition, organizational change involves ‘moving from the known to the unknown, from relative certainty to relative uncertainty, from the familiar to the unfamiliar’ (Cohen, Fink, Gadon & Willits, 1995, p.396).

  1.     Van de Ven and Poole

Change, one type of event, is an empirical observation of difference in form, quality, or state over time in an organizational entity (Van de Ven and Poole, 1995, p.512).

  1.     Ferdig and Ludema

Change is ‘characterized as a process that unfolds over time, revealing periods of greater and lesser instability, in which the restlessness of a system is an instinctive response survival in a continually changing environment’ (Ferdig and Ludema, 2003, p.8).

  1.     Nadler and Tushman

Nadler and Tushman (1989) offered a broader definition of change in which Change can involve one or several components of an organizational system, or a realignment of the entire system, affecting all key sub-systems such as strategy, work, people, and formal and informal processes and structures.

When the change impacts a large part of the organization, the change is considered to be strategic in nature, but when the change is limited to specific organizational components, with the aim of maintaining or regaining congruence, it is treated as incremental.

According to these authors, the main problem of change deals with how to maintain congruence of the organizational components in the system during change implementation.

  1.     Mezias and Glyn

Mezias and Glyn (1993, p.78) consider innovation as organizational change, with innovation defined as “non-routine, significant, and discontinuous organizational change that embodies a new idea that is not consistent with the current concept of the organization’s business.” Accordingly, an innovative organization is one that is characterized by the following features:

  • that is intelligent and creative,
  • that is capable of learning effectively, and
  • that is capable of creating new knowledge (Lam, 2004).

For Hage (1999), the subject of organizational innovation is relevant for studying the most basic problems of society.

In summary, a common theme found in these definitions is that change represents a movement from the present state of the organization to a desired future state.

Types of Organizational Change

Ackerman (1997) distinguishes three types of organizational change:

  • developmental,
  • transitional;and
  • transformational.
  1.     Developmental Change

Developmental change deals with enhancing or improving an existing situation in an organization, often focusing on improving skills or processes.

  1.     Transitional Change

Transitional change is about moving from the current state to a desired state in which management of the interim transition state occurs over a controlled period of time.

  1.     Transformational Change

Transformational change, which is radical in nature, requires a shift in assumptions on the part of the organization and its members. In this type of change, a new state develops, which is unknown until it emerges, from the chaotic death of the old state, and the time period of transition from the old state to the new state cannot be easily controlled.

Other Types of Change

Smith and Tranfield (1991) offered a distinction between two forms of change:

  • morphostatic; and
  • morphogenic.

Whereas morphostatic change is concerned with adapting to a status quo position and where the issue is about deciding which parameters need adjustment to bring things back to a steady state; morphogenic change is concerned with finding new and more appropriate organizational forms.

In addition, DeWit and Meyer (1998) differentiate between operational change and strategic change.

  • Operational change, which is the common type of change found in organizations, focuses on enhancing the organization’s performance within the limits of the current system in order to align it with the environment.
  • Strategic change, by contrast, aims to alter the organization’s alignment with its environment (Rajagopalan and Spreitzer, 1996). It is increasingly viewed as a shift in structures and processes as well as a reorientation of an organization’s mission and purpose (Fiss and Zajac, 2006).

In sum, “while operational changes are necessary to maintain the business and organizational systems, strategic changes are directed at renewing them” (DeWit and Meyer, 1998, p.163). Finally, Nadler and Tushman (1995) propose the following typology to understand change:

  • incremental; and
  • discontinuous.
  • Incremental change, or first-order change, is defined as a series of initiatives, each of which “attempts to build on the work that has already been accomplished and improves the functioning of the enterprise in relatively small increments” (Nadler and Tushman, 1995, p.22).
  • Discontinuous or revolutionary change, which is second-order change, on the other hand, involves fundamental transformation of the system. “It is change that is major in scope, discontinuous with the past and generally irreversible. The (revolutionary) change effort distorts existing patterns of action and involves taking risks” (Quinn, 1996, p.3).

Incremental change in firms is concerned with those periods when the industry is in equilibrium and the focus for change is doing things better through a process of continuous tinkering, adaptation and modification (Hayes, 2002, p.6). Firms that tend to follow discontinuous change aim at realigning the organization with the environment and the change occurs during periods of disequilibrium.

Change Dimensions

It is essential to first understand the magnitude and pace of change in order to properly explain organizational change.

DeWit and Meyer (1998) describe the magnitude of change as consisting of two dimensions, scope of change and amplitude of change, and

  • The scope of change may be comprehensive or narrowly focused, with comprehensive changes affecting the organization at large and different organizational functions, while narrowly focused changes are limited to specific parts of an organization or organizational functions.
  • The amplitude of change varies from high to low, with low amplitude denoting incremental changes to the current state of the organization, and high amplitude signifying radical changes to organizational structure Opens in new window, culture Opens in new window, processes or people.

The pace of change depends on the point in time during which changes are introduced and the time span over which changes occur and is described as as having two components, timing of change and speed of change.

  • The timing of change ranges from intermittent to constant. In intermittent changes, the organization selects the appropriate time to introduce changes and thus distributes change activities over time, while in constant changes, the timing for introducing changes is unimportant so long as there is no peak at any given point in time.

    Dawson adds that researchers often employ some combination of these four dimensions to define and classify organizational change.
  • The speed of change differs between high and low. The change speed is high when a significant change is implemented within a short duration, and the change speed is low when a minor change is implemented gradually over a longer duration (DeWit & Meyer, 1998).

Dawson (2003a) takes a slightly different view on change dimensions and states that the change process consists of four dimensions:

  • movement over time from a present state to a future state of the organization;
  • the scale or scope of change focusing on permanent, influential, large-scale operational and strategic changes;
  • the political dimension indicating the varying degrees of political intensity depending on the settings and types of change initiatives; and
  • the substantive element of change, which refers to the essential nature and content of the change in question.
  1. By T. R. Ramanathan, The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing ..., (p.20-22) Nature and Dimensions of Change