The essential guide to evidence-based organisational change
This research briefing is part of The Essential Guide to Evidence-Based Practice
The rate of change
Organisational change is a continually 'hot topic' within both the organisational and research communities with very good reason, as the rate of the pace of change increases year-on-year (currently estimated[a] to be approximately 9% increase in change year-on-year). And this is just in terms of new knowledge, scientific discoveries and technological advancements. Added to this, there is an almost measurable amount of social, political and market change ongoing at any particular time. At the time of writing the Covid_19 pandemic is creating unprecedented organisational and social change around the world.
4 Organisational change states
The old organisational change continuum, which had as its poles continual change to infrequent episodic change, has itself changed to include four change states of:
- Episodic or planned change
- Continual incremental change
- Rapid responsive change
The necessity of organisational change
At an organisational level, change is considered to be a necessary part of doing business or supplying services in order for organisations to:
- Remain viable,
- Relevant and
No universal model or blueprint for organisational change
Additionally, there is no research evidence[i] of a generic or universal blueprint for organisational change, largely because the contextual and organisational variables themselves change. In other words every organisation, organisational culture, situation and context is different - there is no evidence that there is a one-size fits all model of organisational change
The Barriers to change
A recent systematic review[ii] of organisational change research found that there are 55 different barriers to change in five broad categories:
- Human resource barriers
- Strategic barriers
- Contextual barriers
- Procedural barriers
- Structural barriers
The 3 Primary Change Problems
These reduce to three main factors which cause problems for organisations having to deal with change:
- The use of ineffective or inappropriate models and tools.
- The use of inappropriate or ineffective implementation methods.
- Ill or misunderstood environmental factors and issues.
A 2020 study[iii] looked at whether the assumption that leaders and change practitioners (both within organisations and change/management consultants) understand which are the most appropriate and effective:
- Change models and tools
- Implementation methods
and whether they have an appropriate and effective set of perceptions and understanding of the internal and external environment.
In effect, the study was looking at, when it comes to organisational change, how evidence-based, organisations and practitioners are.
Evidence-based organisational change
The intention behind all evidence-based practice is to conscientiously, explicitly and judiciously use the best available evidence to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome[iv]. In terms of organisational change and organisational change management this means using a judicious mixture of:
- Properly conducted peer-reviewed research
- Properly conducted within organisation experimentation and trials
- Practitioner expertise
- Organisational and client/stakeholder data
Part of the problem is that many of the change models, theories, approaches and practices used in change management have little robust empirical evidence to back them up[v].
Lack of evidence for most change models
For example, a 2014 systematic review found only 10 pre-test / post-test randomised control studies of organisational change[vi]. They also found that 77% of the published evaluations of organisational change used poor to very poor interventions and evaluation methods. In other words, a significant proportion (2/3rds) of published studies/reports of organisational change are using measures that are unreliable and frequently invalid.
Additionally, a number of previous studies have found that many of the commonly used theoretical change models have very little, if any, direct empirical testing. For example, in studies in 2015[vii] and 2017[viii], Kotter’s eight stage change process was found not to adequately represent the reality and complexity of the change process in organisations.
Additionally, it has been found[ix] that many of the models, tools and techniques of change are derivatives of early work, for example Lewin’s 1947 change model and, therefore, overlap each other to such an extent that there is often very little clear distinction between them. For example, a 2013[x] study found that 13 of the most widely used change models and processes in use in organisations are based on, and in essence replicate, Lewin’s 3 step model, which itself has little empirical basis[xi].
One of the problems that exists in terms of organisational change models is that they tend to represent a rational approach of reasonably neat linear processes of how to organise and manage change. In reality, it has been found[xii] that organisational change is more of a complex, obscure and iterative process that involves extensive organisational politics, multiple and often competing narratives and histories, with multiple agendas, aims and goals, many of which are not aligned and often in direct competition with each other.
Organisations make little use of high-quality evidence
A number of recent studies[xiii] have shown that organisations make little use of high-quality evidence across the whole range of activities such as organisational change, human resource management, leadership and other operational activities.
One particular factor that exacerbates this situation is the divide between academic researchers and practitioners and the fact that there are few processes that “translate current research into a format that is usable by practitioners"[xiv], like
OR briefings. As a result, it is rare for practitioners to have access to high quality research in order to inform their practice and decision-making. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that many practitioners are not aware of the extent of high-quality research available and tend to operate within their own knowledge models and bubble.
The advent of open science or publication of research in open journals is to some limited extent helping this situation, however, there is the problem of translation in that academic researchers tend to write in the language of scientific disambiguation, which is not often understood by practitioners with little or no experience of academia.
In particular, a 2020 study [xv] found that organisations and practitioners that acknowledge the lack of robust evidence within their practice are significantly more likely to move towards evidence-based practice. Additionally, adopting open science practices whereby research conducted within organisations and the methods used to measure change interventions are more openly shared between organisations, and open to peer-review/critique, will help to increase the use of evidence-based practice in organisational change, rather than the often low grade attempts to measure and describe/model change that currently exists.
[a] Bornmann, L., & Mutz, R. (2015). Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(11), 2215-2222.
[i] Burnes, B. and Jackson, P. (2011), “Success and failure in organizational change: an exploration of the role of values”, Journal of Change Management, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 133-162
[ii] Mosadeghrad, A.M. and Ansarian, M. (2014), “Why do organisational change programmes fail?”, International Journal of Strategic Change Management, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 189-218
[iii] Evans, T. R. (2020). Improving evidence quality for organisational change management through open science. Journal of Organizational Change Management.
[iv] Barends, E., Rousseau, D.M. and Briner, R.B. (2014), Evidence-Based Management: The Basic Principles, Center for Evidence-Based Management, Amsterdam
[v] Kepes, S., Bennett, A.A. and McDaniel, M.A. (2014), “Evidence-based management and the trustworthiness of our cumulative scientific knowledge: implications for teaching, research, and practice”, The Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol. 13 No. 3,pp. 446-466.
Barends, E., Villanueva, J., Rousseau, D.M., Briner, R.B., Jepsen, D.M., Houghton, E. and ten Have, S. (2017), “Managerial attitudes and perceived barriers regarding evidence-based practice: an international survey”, PloS One, Vol. 12, e0184594.
Barends, E., Janssen, B., ten Have, W. and ten Have, S. (2014a), “Effects of change interventions: what kind of evidence do we really have?”, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 50 No. 1, pp. 5-27.
[vi] Barends, E., Janssen, B., ten Have, W. and ten Have, S. (2014a), “Effects of change interventions: what kind of evidence do we really have?”, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 50 No. 1, pp. 5-27.
[vii] Pollack, J. and Pollack, R. (2015), “Using Kotter’s eight stage process to manage an organisational change program: presentation and practice”, Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 51-66
[viii] Hackman, T. (2017), “Leading change in action: reorganizing an academic library department using Kotter’s eight stage change model”, Library Leadership and Management, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 1-27.
[ix] Rosenbaum, D., More, E. and Steane, P. (2018), “Planned organisational change management: forward to the past? An exploratory literature review”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 286-303.
[x] Rosenbaum, D., More, E. and Steane, P. (2018), “Planned organisational change management: forward to the past? An exploratory literature review”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 286-303.
[xi] Miner, J. B. (1984). The validity and usefulness of theories in an emerging organizational science. Academy of Management Review, 9(2), 296-306.
[xii] Appelbaum, S.H., Habashy, S., Malo, J.L. and Shafiq, H. (2012), “Back to the future: revisiting Kotter’s 1996 change model”, The Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 No. 8, pp. 764-782.
[xiii] Barends, E., Villanueva, J., Rousseau, D.M., Briner, R.B., Jepsen, D.M., Houghton, E. and ten Have, S.(2017), “Managerial attitudes and perceived barriers regarding evidence-based practice: an international survey”, PloS One, Vol. 12, e0184594.
[xiv] Dawson, P. (2003), “Organisational change stories and management research: facts or fiction”, Journal of Management and Organization, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 37-49.
[xv] Evans, T. R. (2020). Improving evidence quality for organisational change management through open science. Journal of Organizational Change Management.
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