This book review considers the key arguments/messages discussed by David Collins in his text ‘Organisational Change — Sociological Perspectives’. By outlining and discussing Collins key points of analysis, this review aims to provide a summary of not only the content of the text, but its relevance to change management practitioners and students alike.
2. Purpose/Theme of Book
The book outlines and explains the need for explicit analysis of theory and context as applied to the study of organisational change and its management. The author, David Collins, proposes that current theory lets practitioners down, lacks substance and fails to provide intellectual tools to manage change effectively. He argues that theoretical models based on commonsense are often preferred as they seem less confusing and problematic, but that we, as change practitioners, need to challenge and question these common sense models and the assumptions that underlie our understanding. The book also provides comprehensive analysis of many theoretical frameworks used in the field of change management.
The book commences with Collins making a case for centrality of theoretical discussion, and analysing the nature of management as a prelude to the study of change. Collins then picks up and develops this theme by analysing a range of approaches, analyses undersocialised models of change by outlining them and considering them within the context of organisations, focusing on theoretical and methodological issues. Collins continues to develop a layered conceptual model for analysis of change and examines the variety of theoretical perspectives which may be used to analyse change.
3. Main Approaches and Key Messages
Collins makes a case for his discussion by initially considering the nature of management theory. He suggests that management theory, and its evolution, forms the prelude for study of change management.
Collins discusses that reflecting on theory and analysing its application is key to effective management. He points out that managers must be guided by tools and insights, and suggests that whilst they may not be perfect in their design and suggested applications, they do provide us with the frameworks and context to operate more effectively. He states that they challenge our mindset and enable us to consider other views outside our own.
When analysing Collins’ work, three main approaches or key messages are evident. The first of these is the key problem in the study of change management — that authors tend not to discuss the models that guide their analysis. By not challenging the theoretical assumptions made within models, Collins suggests that managers are discarding competitive theoretical alternatives, and thus limiting both their understanding and effectiveness of managing change.
He states that change management theory is an ‘evolutionary path of development’ (p 9), but continues to comment that students and managers alike need to challenge the theories and methodologies available, and consider them in the context of the objective they aim to satisfy. He suggests that the nature of management and management research is not neutral, and that to be effective practitioners we should challenge the basis and context of these methodologies, and consider issues in the context of the subject chosen, and the objectives which the theory/methodologies tries to satisfy. He establishes that it is only until then, the manager or student is confident that the methodology being applied is truly appropriate.
Collins discusses the many and varied management theories that have dominated the literature over the years, and reflects theoretically on their frameworks. He dominates the discussion with analysis of Taylorism or Scientific Management and considers the key assumptions in light of other theorists. From the discussion, Collins concludes that theorists have developed quite undersocialised models. He proceeds through further chapters to establish that the discussion of change management has been quite simple, and tends to ignore the complex social and cultural aspects of organisations in their design. This is the second key message presented by Collins, that change management models are undersocialised, as they fail to acknowledge change in social contexts.
Collins states ‘organisations are social phenomena’ (p 4), and feature human psychology and personality. He argues that effective change management models must consider the features of the organisations and how change management models influence and shape organisations. He adds that the model must also consider the features of society generally, and how the methodology and the changes will impact/inhibit/interact with the external environment. He states that practical models are based on commonsense, and often managers take a too simple approach and miss out on other theoretical concepts and challenges — thus not managing the change as effectively as they could.
Specifically, Collins argues that change models and frameworks are ‘limited, mechanistic and overly-rational views of organisations and of social interaction’ (p 82). He states that they fail to acknowledge social activity, culture, conflict and relationships within organisations. Collins labels these ‘undersocialised’ models as ‘n-step guides’. Common features of ‘n-step guides’ is that they are systematic approaches to change with discrete, manageable steps or phases. They are rational in analysis, planning and managing the change, and sequential in that the change has a beginning and an end. They are also prescriptive in that they argue that they are —tried and tested approaches, thus contributing to the first key message of Collins’ text, that managers assume methodologies are appropriate, and fail to challenge/analyse them.
Collins argues that ‘n-step guides’ gloss over the change process and oversimplify the process. This argument is supported by Corning (1995) who suggests that theory tends to simplify and overgeneralise.
Stickland (1998) supports Collins’ view that the management of change is an active and creative process. Stickland argues that without social relationships and conflict/resistance to change, managers are unable to harness and utilise innovation and creativity. Elements such as relationships, conflict, personality and cultures need to be considered, managed and observed throughout the change process, and organisations should be not only viewed by theorists as complex and diverse entities, but managed with the necessary flexibility and ingenuity. The social dimensions of change are critical to the effective management of change.
The third key message presented by Collins is that in reaction to these oversimplified and undersocialised models, managers have swung to dependence on oversocialised models for change. In pursuit of the ‘magic’ answer, theorists are now too generalised and continue to capture the complexities of the objectives they set out to achieve. Collins suggests that oversocialised views of change management actually compound and reinforce the errors of the ‘n-step guides’. His view is consistent with Bordow and More (1991) who discusses that many theoretical paradigms view organisations as concrete structures with consistently and/or similar types of issues to address. They continue to argue that many paradigms assume this continuity too readily and that the differing nature of organisations need to be considered when developing strategies to improve operation.
Collins considers HRM in its effort to re-organise organisations to become more competitive and how they restructure and remodel to more strategically utilise their human resources. He continues to introduce the elements of culture, values, power, individualism and collectivism amongst other uncertain and variable dimensions, demonstrating the need to consider these in change methodology. He continues to discuss how oversocialised models simply ‘mirror’ the lack of attention that ‘n-step guides’ or undersocialised models place on these elements by glossing over and generalising them.
He successfully argues that in a time of organisations characterised by social interactions and complexity, change management models need to be focusing on human interaction. He states that ‘understanding change can only stem from an appreciation of competing definitions of organisation’s effectiveness and organisational needs, rather than a simple assertion of the nature of these’ (p 194).
Collins continues to review further social theory and discusses theories for analysis of change and the diversity of available frameworks.
4. Implications/Learning for Managers
Drawing on the conclusions of Collins, there are two main implications/learning for change management practitioners and students in the field.
First, change managers must critically analyse the literature and model they are applying in light of the objective it aims to achieve. There is no benefit to the organisation if the model or methodology being applied is not suitable, or too generalised, and does not meet the needs of the organisation. Collins develops a convincing argument that without this critical analysis, change managers are not effectively managing change.
The second main implication/learning for change managers is the failure of current change models and methodology to be targeted. On one hand the ‘n-step guides’ ignore the social elements of an organisation and, therefore, fail to provide the focus that may be needed by a change program. On the other hand, oversocialised models tend to over-generalise and over-simplify the social elements, assuming that key features of relationships, power, culture and interaction are common regardless of the organisation. Both fail to provide the change manager with a tailor-made and targeted model to meet the needs of the organisation. The challenge for change managers is to consider these social elements in more detail.
Collins does not deny that theory provides managers with tools and insights that provide frameworks and context to operate more effectively. However, he suggests that change managers must be more critical and analytical in their choice of approach, rather than assuming their credibility and applicability.
Collins’ text is an informative source of information on contemporary change management models and approaches, and provides a comprehensive analysis of their application within organisations. His discussion challenges the mindset of many, in that he suggests the way we have applied change models over the years has lacked critical analysis and examination.
Collins examination of change models and approaches will assist change managers and students to consider why these models have been developed, the assumptions they have been based on, and how they can be applied or indeed improved in their application within modern day organisations. His point regarding the social relationships/interactions that exist within organisations, and the inherent lack of analysis of these elements in change models, stimulates readers to consider areas to value add to the field of literature.
The text is a useful source of information and provides a refreshing look at change management theory. Change managers and students should include this resource in their tool kits.
Collins, D. 1998, Organisational Change — Sociological Perspectives, Routledge, New York.
Bordow, A., & More, E. 1991, Managing Organisational Communication, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne.
Stickland, F. 1998, Building Blocks of Change — Dynamics of Change, Routledge, London.