Change agent practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Organizational Change (later changed to Understanding Organizational Change) in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2009). The effectiveness of internal versus external change agents is context-dependent. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Drawing on relevant research and theory, evaluate the effectiveness of the change agent role during organizational change. What factors contribute to making change agents more or less effective?"
Of Internal versus External Change Agents
We will consider the issue of the effectiveness of change agents by briefly describing “effectiveness” and then weaving definitions, theory and evidence into three issues: 1) roles and expectations, 2) the internal-external change agent interface, 3) the implications of power dynamics. Ultimately, we will conclude that like managers, change agents will be more or less effective, depending on how well they understand and advantage themselves of the choices available in the context of their particular change initiative.
We will use the definition cited as useful by Burnes’ (1998). He references a 1978 dictionary definition of “effectiveness” as “the ability or power to have a desired effect.” By “desired effect,” we refer here to the outcomes that are desired by those who have set the objectives for the change initiative, mostly likely from a unitarist perspective.
#1: Issue: Role and Expectations
Limiting this issue to the role of the external change agent (CA) in organizational development (OD), a broad range of roles could be described, ranging from counseling, almost therapeutic approaches (e.g. Fordyce& Weil, 1971; Huse, 1975, Argyris, 1979) to catalysts (French & Bell, 1971) to the distinction that Schein (1988) makes between a process consultant versus an expert.
Leaning toward a practical view, we find appeal in Blake and Mouton’s (1974) five types of interventions: acceptant, catalytic, confrontational, prescriptive and theoretical – and their assertion that CAs should be able to diagnose when and how to use each of them or a mix of them. This is consistent with Lovelady’s (1984) interviewees, who rejected the change agent as neutral catalyst, preferring “doer” CAs who could analyze, model and solve problems.
Sub-conclusion: Change agents should not be constrained by a “one-best-way”role or approach.
#2: The internal–external change agent interface
While change agents are usually external to the client system (Bennis, 1969), they can more broadly be understood to be people “responsible for initiating and maintaining a change effort” (Kendra & Taplin, 2004). For example, Arrata et al (2007) identify internal change agents, defining them as "leaders who cut across the organization and its business units without regard to the traditional hierarchy."
Working together. Lippitt & Lippitt (1975) argue that the strengths of external and internal consultants can be leveraged when the two work as a team. This is a point not to be ignored because external and internal change agents are dependent upon one another in a number of ways.
1) The external CA relies on the internal CA for linkage with the organization (McLean, Sims et al, 1982).
2) The internal CA relies on the external CA to provide alternative theoretical frameworks, ideas and conceptual stimulation (McLean, Sims et al, 1982).
3) External CAs may rely on internal CAs for a view of the organization’s language and culture as well as the ability to seed new ideas.
4) The external CA may provide value in the form of prestige (Griener, 1967) as well imply the investment and commitment from top management, particularly when large-scale change is needed (Golembiewski et al, 1976; Porras & Silvers, 1991).
5)However, after the external CA leaves, the internal CA may be responsible for making sure that organizational learning continues and that change is seen as a continuous process of adaptation to flux in the environment.
Sub-conclusion: CA effectiveness should be enhanced when external and internal CAs work well as a team.
Issue #3: Power dynamics
How power can be characterized. We present the following descriptions of power as inter-related and context-dependent.
1) Power as authoritative, as with Robbins’ (1987) view, which can be compared to French & Raven’s (1957) legitimate power – i.e. the “right”to make decisions, though not necessarily the influence to make them happen.
2) Power as coercive, which subsumes Robbins’ (1987) influential power as well as the form of power referenced in Chin & Benne’s (1969) power-coercive approach to managing change.
3) Relational power, which allows for the remaining French & Raven (1957) distinctions, Foucault’s (1980) view of power as a machine as well as power as a neutral force that affects outcomes (Hardy, 1996) and power as hidden (French & Bell, 1971).
To this, we add Robbins’ (1987) description of politics as “the exercise of power”and Pfeffer’s (1981) view that power is most effective when it’s applied as unobtrusively as possible.
Hidden power. Many have written of this (e.g. Bacharach & Baratz, 1962), but French & Bell’s (1971) organizational iceberg will do nicely to illustrate the unseen magnitude of hidden power dynamics. This is consistent with Davey’s (2003) comment that issues of power flourish particularly in situations of ambiguity and uncertainty. The evidence reveals that hidden power dynamics can be ignored to the detriment of change initiatives or leveraged for their benefit.
For example, Arrata et al (2007) discuss how a change initiative failed when the entire change agent team was populated with new hires – and the plant managers, who held the real organizational power, resisted. Conversely, Toch (2008) writes of a case study in which excessive police-officer violence was successfully reduced by prominently involving the problem officers.
Sub-conclusion: Change agents cannot afford to ignore power dynamics – particularly the implications of hidden power.
In discussing the effectiveness of change agents, we have omitted Kanter’s change-masters (1985) and Hellers’ (1990) four levers in the interest of time. What we have done, however, is to examine three key issues and present the following conclusions: Change agents should not be constrained by a“one-best-way”role or approach, 2) Change-agent effectiveness should be enhanced when external and internal CAs work as a team, and 3) Change agents cannot afford to ignore power dynamics – particularly the implications of hidden power. Ultimately, we conclude that, like managers (Burnes, 2006), change agents will be more or less effective, depending on how well they understand and take advantage of the choices available in the context of their particular change initiative. As usual, “it depends.”
Exam performance: This essay was not used under exam conditions or submitted for evaluation as a practice essay. Therefore, how it might have been marked is unknown.