people, technology, and change

Big Fish Flip Flop: Organisational change in Australia

old-wine-in-new-bottles“We are like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in.  In such a condition the fish never asks where the next flip or flop will bring it.  It senses only that its present position is intolerable and that something else must be tried” Anonymous Chinese saying

Australian businesses have experienced unprecedented change over the past decade and we struggle to keep up. From matrix management structures, to learning organisations, from 360 degree feedback systems to self-organising teams; from employee engagement programs to collaborative workspaces: we’ve re-engineered and re-organised and re-structured our businesses within an inch of their life. And there’s no shortage of emerging management trends, and no sign of a slow-down.

But is it just change for changes sake?  And more importantly, do they work?

Is there really a difference between Business Process Reengineering and the Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor at the beginning of last century? One study offers a critical evaluation of the apparent radical nature of BPR: “Despite its stated departure from Taylorism, its ends are the same as many previous fads – the development (and imposition) of organizational control systems to secure compliance” (Blair et al, 1997)

Elton Mayo (an Australian), in 1952 made a stunning discovery: that human relationships had a stronger effect on productivity than either economic benefits or the organisation’s physical environment. Is this really any different to an empowerment program, or an employee engagement program?

Shapiro, in her book Fad Surfing in The Boardroom defined Fad Surfing thus: “The practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organisations”. She argues that the business world is full of “breakthroughs” to achieve “world-class” results. “The hard truth is that there are no panaceas. What is new is the sheer number of techniques, some new and some newly repackaged versions of older methods that are now positioned as panaceas.”

Is it all really old wine in new bottles?


Whether or not Australian organisations are “flopping” from one fad to another, one thing is certain: techniques to help organisations discern between the army of different methods are lacking, and empirical evidence to support their efficacy is in short supply.

And evidence to support whether they work in an Australian context is even more scarce.

My thesis for my Master’s degree examined the efficacy of change in Australian organisations. Using a meta-analysis of case studies across 6079 Australian organisations, it sought to discover whether organisational change and development in Australia actually works; whether some change methods work better than others in an Australian context; and whether some methods work better in some industry sectors than others.

The findings were, at best, disquieting. More than half the change initiatives studied did not achieve their objectives. Many were abject failures. And there was no magic bullet: failure was equivalent across all methods, and across all industries.

But there was one significant finding.

The least successful methods were those that were aligned with scientific management theory (processes matter) and a universalist (one best way) approach. These were top-down, prescriptive, structured methods such as TQM, BPR, and ISO9000 certification programs that dicated that if you did certain things in a certain way with a strict scientific approach, good things would happen. These types of change technique had a more than 50% failure rate in Australia.

The most  successful methods were those that aligned with contingency theory (no one best way, it all depends on the circumstances) and aligned with behavioural management theory (people matter). In an Australian context, change initiatives based on empowerment, hearts and minds, and that are not prescriptive in their nature are significantly more successful in achieving their objectives.

The framework below provides a useful reference.

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Blair, H. et al. (1997), A Pernicious Panacea. A Critical Evaluation of Business Reengineering,
paper presented at the 15th Annual International Labour Process Conference, University of
Edinburgh, March 25

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