Transform from the Bottom Up

Women Leading Research: M. Susan Taylor

M. Susan TaylorSMITH BRAIN TRUST – How best should companies seek to evolve? The Smith School’s M. Susan Taylor says continuous organizational change is likely to have its roots at lower “work unit” levels and wind its way upward. But there has been no clear explanation about why that is, says Taylor, the Smith Chair of Human Resource Management & Organizational Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In their recent research, Taylor and the University of Washington’s Elijah X. M. Wee sought to shed light on the frequent occurrence of continuous change that starts from the bottom, adopting a multilevel perspective to show how the change emanates from the lower level units and filters through the organization’s other layers. 

The researchers created a theoretical model of emergent continuous organizational change -- those dynamic, interactive, and bottom-up processes that involve work-unit members and managers in the amplification and accumulation of valuable changes that over time become substantial changes at the organizational level. And they built into the model the role of sensemaking among managers -- the way that managers look to create coherent meaning of emergent changes that take place over time. 

Overall, the model provides a simple explanation of why and how changes within those lower-level work-units might amplify and accumulate over time and add up to real organizational change, says Taylor, who is also co-director of the Smith School’s Center For Leadership, Innovation, & Change (CLIC).

“With our model, we offer a unique proposition for organizations to enable a change that originates from within,” Taylor says, “rather than a change that is precipitated by unpredictable external events.”

Sometimes, the researchers found, a lower-level work unit might create some better outcome by its actions and might then incorporate some change into the group’s established routine. For example, at a furniture design firm, a work unit came up with a new process to organize a color-filing system and then adopted a change to the way they do things.

“It’s that ongoing adjustment process of routine changes at the work-unit level that eventually leads to continuous change at the organizational level from the bottom up,” Taylor says.

Women Leading Research: M. Susan Taylor

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2018 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, starting with the seventh annual Women Leading Women forum on March 1, 2018.

Other fearless ideas from:  Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  T. Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Jessica M. Clark  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  |  Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Jennifer Carson Marr  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Rachelle Sampson  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang

Photo credit: freshidea



About the Expert(s)


Dr. Susan Taylor is Smith Chair of Human Resource Management & Organizational Change and Co-Director of the Center For Leadership, Innovation, & Technology (CLIC) at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, the University of Maryland, College Park. She earned her doctorate from Purdue University in I/O Psychology and has also been a visiting faculty member at the Amos Tuck School, Dartmouth College, University of Washington, Seattle, School of Administration at Bocconi University, Milan Italy, and the London Business School.

More In


Avoid Oversharing at Work

Self-disclosure in the workplace is becoming more popular and commonplace. But research by the Smith School's Jennifer Carson Marr indicates that sharing personal information is not always in an employee’s best interest. 

Mar 17, 2018
Find Your Team Voice

Team performance improves when individuals speak up and share opinions. But the type of progress made depends on what colleagues choose to emphasize when they find their collective voice. New research, co-authored by Smith School professor Hui Liao, suggests two distinct possibilities. "A speak up culture can lead to gains in either productivity or safety," Liao says.

Mar 16, 2018
Fix Pay Gaps to Boost R&D

Companies that want to boldly go into new knowledge domains should start by looking inward at compensation design. A working paper co-authored by Smith School professor Waverly W. Ding shows that large pay gaps among research and development professionals at the same job level within an organization can stifle exploratory innovation — the kind that leads to U.S. patent filings.

Mar 10, 2018