Process of Change: Theories on Change

There are two ways of interpreting what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that one can never step on the same river twice. One interpretation is that the river is always changing and when that person steps on it the second time, it is not anymore the same. Another interpretation is that the one who steps on the river is surely a changed person the next time around. The reasons for the change in people can be attributed to experience, whether positive or negative, environmental factors, and genetic make-up in humans. Scientific evidence has proven that people change over a course of time because of genetic considerations.

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This essay is concerned with defining change and the surrounding concepts and theories on change in people, organizations, business, and human relations. The subject of change is so broad that it encompasses various disciplines. Theories abound and sociologists have given their ideas to explain that change is constant and is consuming the ways and means of people and organizations.

Change occurs inside and outside organizations. Technological advances, political factors, laws, social and cultural influences all contribute to change and ambiguity in organizations. Strategists have devised all sorts of ways on how to manage change. As a matter of fact, the one and innovative way organizations have devised to counter change and ambiguity is to effect strategic change. This technique is a step-by-step process in business organizations that tends to define the circumstances, peoples and leaders, and various aspects of the business environment.

Sociologists have different, interesting theories on change. Some of the well renowned are Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber.

Max Weber believed the Enlightenment was in the growth of rationality which is “the basing of decisions not on tradition or other considerations but on a determination of the best and most efficient means of reaching a particular goal” (Willis, 1996, p. 6).

Rationality was used as a basis for change in authority. A display of democratic principles became the basis for placing authority on people. It was called legal-rational authority; for example elections. The popular election of a president was put in place of the monarchial way where monarchs were to rule because of bloodline.

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Frederick Taylor, an advocate of scientific management, argued that by “applying the science of measurement and efficiency, conditions would become safer and more pleasant for the worker, the product better for the customer, and the profits higher for the stakeholders” (Firth, 2002, p. 20).

The workplace is one that has been greatly affected by change. The situation of standardization and repetition, devaluing the talent and heart of the worker tended to be reversed with the advent of new technology, the information age, and the new style in management which is “people as the greatest asset”. This can be seen in various workplaces and organizations throughout the world. The new brand of management in global organizations now regards the workers and the ordinary employees as equal or co-partners.

Before, theorists concentrated their thoughts on the inside environment of the organization – this was known as the ‘closed system’. In the 1960s, their paradigms were more focused on external forces that shaped the inside of the organization. Then more industries were concentrated by multinational corporations, or the transnational corporations which were economically orientated, or those focused on profits and growth.

Other theories include McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y which explained the organizational change in the context of workers’ behavior in the workplace. Theory X assumes the worker’s dislike for job or work: workers regard job as distasteful. Managers in companies that accept Theory X build a top-heavy organization with many levels of managers who are planning, deciding, and policing what everyone is doing (Fournies, 1999, p. 33). This is the vertical setup most common in multinational corporations. Work was regarded as an obligation, a punishment (Firth, 2002, p. 16). Employees would work for the monetary reward and the higher the better. With the way people felt about work, the workplace was somewhat not conducive for creativity and advancement.

Theory Y assumes that when people are motivated, they accomplish goals. Workers become productive when they are motivated: to be a part of the team, to be a part-owner of the organization, and to be creative in their work. Money is not an aim or an objective, and work becomes a part of life, not distasteful. Managers in organizations that accept Theory Y push information and responsibility downward, explaining to workers the reasons why things should be done, assuming they have an interest in doing them and a willingness to do them. Theory X versus Theory Y could have a fascinating conclusion which should not be about workers but about managers: “Managers do what they do for or to workers because of what they believe about workers” (Fournies, 1999, p. 34). Theory Y is treating employees as if they make a difference to the company because they will really make a difference to that company.

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Another form of management distinct from McGregor’s Theory X is the Open System which recognizes that humans are social actors with inherent strengths and weaknesses; this theory allows the individual to evolve according to the environmental forces. Other theories involve mathematical formulations such as that of Ludwig won Bertalanffy which focused on cybernetics and the role of output-feedback-adjustment. Many believed the General Systems theory is the framework for other disciplines not just biology. Related to this is the evolutionary paradigm (Fivaz, 1989, cited in Skyttner, 2001) that expounds “spontaneous general evolution from the uncomplicated to the complex is universal; simple systems become differentiated and integrated, both within the system and with the environment outside of the system” (p. 51).

Organizations also have to deal with conflict. This is one change in new organizations that has to be dealt with – conflict can be a source of advancement. Ideas on conflict have far-reaching implications.

Conflict theories have a positive, optimistic view of human nature, while arguing that it has been perverted by social arrangements throughout most of history. “Society is seen as a corrupting influence because it in effect creates conditions under which individuals become greedy, exploitative, and uncooperative” (Willis, 1996, p. 119).

There are five approaches to conflict resolution which can be used by managers as change is introduced in the organization:

  • Competing: driven by an individual’s need for power, with concerns and goals pursued in competition with others, often at the expense of others. This can be used in situations when immediate decisions are needed, but when the individual is certain his/her position is correct.
  • Avoiding: This is applied in situations when some cooling period has to be applied because there is little chance of winning or some information has yet to be gathered.
  • Accommodating: The person accommodates or meets the needs of others at his expense, sometimes. This could be helpful at times when situations require open-mindedness.
  • Collaborating: This is helpful in situations where opposing individuals’ positions can be used in an integrated solution.
  • Compromising: When individuals compromise they find the middle ground. It is almost similar to collaboration but is used in short-term situations when situations demand an immediate resolution.

The most important figure in conflict theory is Karl Marx whose work remains important to the social sciences in spite of attempts to discredit its relevance. His work remains important for understanding how capitalist and therefore modern society works.

Marx’s ideas were revolutionary and a source of great change in a rapidly changing social order; that was during the industrial revolution. It was known as a revolution within a revolution. But change occurs within changes. Marx’s ideas now are ordinary concepts of communism that are not anymore seriously taken.

Under the conflict theory are theories of frustration, aggression, and displacement whose common denominator is the stress on the intra-individual or interpersonal psychological processes leading to prejudiced attitudes or discriminatory behavior. Relative to this is the “realistic group conflict theory” (RCT) which is pioneered in social psychology by the Sheriffs (1953, cited in Tajfel & Turner, 2001). According to this theory, opposed group interests in obtaining scarce resources promote competition, and positively interdependent goals facilitate cooperation (Tajfel & Turner, 2001, p. 94).

Conflict helps individuals find solutions. CEOs realize the importance of conflict and competition; it helps them find ways to improve their business, although in a larger sense they tend to avoid conflict and competition. When the level of conflict is too low, this means the people in an organization tend to avoid conflict – they are content with how things are going on and how they appear to be. This should not be so, conflicts lead people to find new ways, or to be creative.

Technological innovations revolutionized almost every aspect of human activities. Society, business, governments, and countries of the world are continuously changing. In the workplace and out there in the marketplace of products and ideas, change is a common factor. Organizations employ all sorts of strategies to deal with change. Strategic management, participative management – are instruments to deal with complex change and ambiguity.

In business, it is a matter of always being active, always looking for improvement, and in pursuit of excellence to do the right things. This involves action or activities to get to the customers’ demands quickly, to answer their needs, to improve the business always, etc. Companies must be flexible to respond to constant changes, must benchmark continuously to achieve best practices, must outsource to gain efficiencies, and must nurture a few core competencies in the race to be on the lead (Porter, 1998, p. 39).

In the new global environment, patterns of complexity in organizations have changed tremendously because of the wider scope and the unpredictability of business activities. Managers have more challenges of increasing new knowledge; knowledge that is not of the traditional ways of looking at things or managing change. Managers and employees have to go on constant training, continuing education and lifelong learning.

This is because people are now living in what Cray and Mallory (1998) called “a larger and smaller world”. As a result of globalization, the world has expanded: suppliers, customers, competitors and personnel now move easily across national borders. Developments have been ignited by the integration of the EU with their new currency; there is the World Trade Organization, the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and more integrations and unions of countries the world over; where before, no one could think of such integrations. Then with the advent of the internet and Information Technology, various innovations have been introduced in the workplace to include outsourcing, in-sourcing, business process outsourcing, business operations being done by software, and so forth. Communication and the internet created another paradigm shift. More industries are emerging as a result of new tools, innovations, and inventions.

Dunphy and Stace (1988, cited in Wilson) state that ‘planned change can be managed along the lines of identifying key contingencies which give managers a choice of strategies for managing organizational change in different circumstances and for the training of change agents’ (p. 31).

Thomas (2002, p. 3) argues: “It is difficult to identify a product or service that is not somehow influenced by a cross-border transaction of some kind. Likewise, international responsibilities and contact with other cultures are commonplace and might not even involve leaving the office.”

People who have the chance of comparing changes in history are said to be lucky – they know how change has evolved.

In the 20th century, one of the leading exponents of what was then an evolving phenomenon, the guru industry, was Dr. Michael Hammer (cited in Firth, 2002) whose business process reengineering brought radical redesigns to organizations and their process and to great improvements in productivity and profit. This led to the laying-off of thousands of workers from all over the world. These were the years of downsizing, merging, or the time leading to now.

In the 21st century, concepts and theories on organizations have become more complex and wider in scope. The global company needs the support of all its stakeholders to survive in the competition. What was perceived as mere ideas before have now come out a reality – the so-called climate change and global warming. The business world has to take responsibility for the excessive use of fossil fuels and coal gas emissions. In the cities and countryside, businesses and people are now to look beyond their borders and see what has been going on – pollution, the deterioration of the environment, climate change, and so forth. The organization’s focus is on external environments and how to deal with those forces in order for the organization to triumph in the competition and acquire more profits.

Global organizations are more focused on systems and practices. Stakeholders and staff are enticed to commit to change, so that everyone is involved. But the organizational setup is still vertical, restricting power and decision on the top, while involving CEOs on their corporate social responsibility and the care for the environment. Organizations are global, huge, with challenges that surpass beyond local borders. The employees are urged to focus beyond their capabilities, to be innovative and creative. CEOs depend much on the abilities of their employees but they continue to be the sole decision-makers.

Change will be constant in business and human activities, sometimes repeating over and over.


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  2. Firth, D. (2002). Life and Work Express. Oxford: Capstone Express.
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  4. Fournies, F. (1999). Coaching for Improved Work Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Johnson G., Scholes K., and Whittington R. (2008). Exploring Corporate Strategy: Text & Cases. London, England: Prentice Hall.
  6. Skyttner, L. (2001). General Systems Theory: Ideas & Applications. London: World Scientific Publishing.
  7. Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. (2001). An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In M. Hogg & D. Abrams(Eds.). Intergroup Relations: Essential Readings, 94. Sussex: Psychology Press.
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  10. Wilson, D. (1992). A Strategy of Change: Concepts and Controversies in the Management of Change. London: Thomson Learning.
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