Continuous Organizational Change Starts at Grassroots Level
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 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Taylor and the University of Washington’s Elijah X. M. Wee seek 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.
Read more: Attention to change: A multilevel theory on the process of emergent continuous organizational change is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.