Fifty years of organisational change: a story of process before people?

Blog posts

19 Jul 2018

Dan LucyDan Lucy, Principal Research Fellow

Writing in 1968, Warren Bennis, esteemed scholar of organisational behaviour and change, wrote that:

‘Change is the biggest story in the world today and we are not coping with it adequately; change in the size and movement of people; change in the nature, location and availability of jobs; changing relations between workers and employers, between generations.’

With shifting demographics, rapid advances in technology, changing social sensibilities, the gig economy and social media, Bennis’ words seem as true today as they were then, if not more so. It seems, then, a good time to reflect on how organisations have fared in adapting to change over the last 50 years and to think about what they can do to become more change-ready and change-capable in the future.

Whilst the last 50 years has seen the growth of the change management industry, this does not appear to have resulted in more successful change efforts. The failure rate of change initiatives has appeared to remain relatively constant over time. What could explain this apparent failure to learn from experience? One potential explanation is the relative success of consultancies selling linear change management models predicated on analysis and logic. The success of these models may, in part, be attributable to the illusion of control they offer to management, bypassing complex human dynamics and alleviating feelings of anxiety. In short, these approaches have failed to acknowledge or appreciate the ‘human dimension’ of change. This is the subject of my colleague Alison Carter’s new Perspectives on HR paper Change Capability in the Agile Organisation.

What perhaps is also true about change today, compared with that of 50 years ago, is its accelerating nature. Whilst it has become commonplace to hear people talk of change as a constant, it is the rapidly accelerating pace of change that is really striking. For example, it took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users; TV achieved the same achievement in 13 years; the Internet took four years and Facebook two to reach the same coverage.

Such rapid change makes a linear model of any kind fairly redundant. What is needed is the capability to continuously renew and reinvent; to learn, unlearn and relearn; and ultimately to build teams and organisations that are change-ready. The scene is set for a re-emergence of the importance of the learning organisation. It also seems the right time to be exploring new and innovative ways to deliver the mindsets and capabilities needed for change. IES is leading on many of these efforts. We are currently jointly leading a project with Cranfield University to explore the potential application of mindfulness in facilitating change within the Defence sector, and a health coaching intervention within the NHS. Alongside these novel approaches, traditional tools and techniques from the OD repertoire, such as action research and appreciative inquiry, are being used to enable teams to become reflective researchers themselves, inquiring into their own ways of working and seeking to facilitate the process of change.

As to what the next 50 years holds, who knows? Hopefully, it will see people, rather than process, prioritised in change efforts. We also hope to see more organisations taking steps to build the capacity and capability of their people and teams, to adapt and respond well to the changes ahead.


HR's role in creating organisation agility: becoming change-smart in a fast-moving world

Annual Conference 2018: HR's role in creating organisation agility: becoming change-smart in a fast-moving worldIES Annual Conference - 11 October 2018

Does your organisation respond effectively to change? Our 2018 conference explores the latest techniques on how to become change-smart, equipping organisations to address their collective capability for change in a complex operating environment.


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.