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Organisational change

Book cover

by Barbara Senior, Pearson Education, 2002

A copy of this book can be ordered online via the Ashridge e-bookshop.


This book is an omnibus guide to the main writers and ideas on organisational change. For someone requiring to get a basic foundation on which to build it has some use, though in-depth debate is not part of the intention of the author. However the lists, brief summaries, diagrams and tables could point those who want to go deeper into the issues in the right direction. It is the kind of book that could be in an organisation’s library for reference to lead people to deeper considerations elsewhere. As a stimulant to original thought and innovation it is limited. One should approach it for what it is and not expect it to be what it was never designed to be.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in April 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

The purpose of the book

If you want a general acquaintance with standard theories, frameworks and models to help you understand and manage change in your organisation, whether generated by external circumstances or the need to improve internal efficiency, then this book could be useful to you. But it is not intended to provide you with an in-depth consideration of difficult issues or enter into debates which may help you to develop new insights and to initiate creative steps to give your company competitive advantage in the business or industry sector it serves.

The book, reviewed by request, is well referenced and can therefore lead you into deeper study from which you may come up with new ideas. And innovative ideas are what businesses need to stay ahead and, indeed, in some cases to survive in a changing world. Many of the books we review aim to stimulate new ideas, or new versions of old ones. We seek to encourage managers in business to wrestle with new ideas and so develop a deeper understanding of their chosen profession.

However, without a good grasp of the basic foundations there is little scope for original thinking in any area of thought and action, little on which to build success. And some books like this one by Barbara Senior aim to give such a foundation or to remind more experienced managers of those foundation concepts so that they can move forward. All the key models of change will be found in this book, with a word on the academics or practitioners who developed them. Many of them are simply a way of categorising thought, of putting ideas into “buckets” to make them easy to use.

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Models useful in change management

So you will find in this book various categorisations of what triggers change: you will meet Henry Mintzberg’s ten management roles, Michael Porter’s five force competitive analysis of a business or industry, Ansoff’s analysis of turbulence factors, Hofstede’s characteristics of national cultures, Lewin’s force field analysis and his “freeze-unfreeze-refreeze” theory, the Blake Mouton leadership grid, the Hersey Blanchard situational leadership chart, Handy’s six types of power, and many others, all drafted in to help define and manage change situations.

For ease of understanding, many of them are expressed in terms of four of this, or six of that, or four by four quadrants based on vertical and horizontal axes for ease of comparison. These should be used as tools, not as scientific axioms. They are useful in helping you to marshal your thoughts, but they should not be substitutes for thought to be committed to rote memory and churned out as solutions, or to enable you to write your MBA dissertation. I have marked many papers where the students on an MBA programme have simply churned out what the text book says without much inner perception of the implications and applications of the theory. On the other hand, I have given high marks to students who have dared to disagree with a well respected model and have given good reason for not using it in their own situation.

The other thing to bear in mind about categorising situations, people, organisational structures, cultures and so on, is that they are not laws of nature, they are simply useful ways of seeing things.

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A starting point

Thus you can use a book like Barbara Senior’s as a ladder to enable you to climb into higher regions of thought and action or it can become an impediment to progress if you look to it to tell you the answers and think you can apply the theories without debate and development of ideas. And she does give you some hints on applying her teaching in a relevant way, but that is not her main object. Use her book as a starting point, or a reminder of what you thought you had forgotten, but don’t disappoint her intentions by thinking you are now fully equipped to deal with change. Of course, sometimes a foundation text like this book may spark off an idea which will change your business life: “I had never thought of it like that” you might be constrained to say.

There are some significant principles of an overall character that emerge in this book. One is that while there are specific disciplines, like marketing, finance, production, human resources, information technology, yet change is not a separate discipline; it spans the whole range of business disciplines. In fact, because most activities of business sooner or later run up against a need for change of some kind, change itself helps to prevent these separate disciplines from operating in isolation from each other (silo management as it is often called). Every change situation is likely to involve people, money, markets, customers, processes in a holistic way. Senior stresses this need to think in terms of the whole organisations when she deals with the multidimensional nature of organisational change.

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External triggers for change

Senior pays a great deal of attention to the factors which create the need for change. Most of them originate out there in the world at large, not because someone inside the firm thought it would be a good idea to have a change and try a different structure. That does happen, for example a new CEO has been used to doing things a certain way and he imposes that way on his new company instead of trying to understand what makes his new company tick and work within its rhythms and to be sure of the purpose of any changes to be introduced. It could be useful to test out in your own experience and that of your company whether it could be true to say that all change should originate externally in response to a perceived need or want of customers. One wonders whether the third chapter of the book on the structure of change could have given a greater emphasis on the external factors, such as customers, which cause us to be concerned whether to have a divisional structure, or a geographical or departmental or matrix one. The eye should never stray from the market in such discussions.

Organisation structure should be changed when the change could give a better product or service to customers. This would obviously impact on financial and human resource matters and many of the other things a company has to do. If a change has no benefit for customers it needs looking at with great care; even benefit for shareholders stems ultimately from customers. This comes out indirectly in Senior’s section on “value oriented time”.

The PEST analysis (or PETS as she prefers) is duly discussed. Some specific issues probably need to be highlighted more definitely to discourage students from simply putting down all the political, economic, social and technological factors in the world outside, with insufficient focus on how they affect the purposes of their company.

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Predictable surprises

Senior’s suggestion that greater focus would be beneficial could be extended to many writings of a general nature on change. Too often, change becomes an abstraction – something which has an existence in its own right, instead of being of the essence of management to proceed all the time on the assumption that there may be a better way. Senior acknowledges this when she says that organisations have continually to achieve “external adaptation and internal integration”. She also discusses the need to look ahead and try to avoid “unpredictable surprises”. Things will often be unpredictable, but perhaps surprises should not hit us. Perhaps that thought is a permitted abstraction about change. But there are no four or six or ten rules for avoiding surprises.

Senior considers that change management cannot be just a matter of applying common sense. There has to be a readiness to engage in frame-breaking and in being clear about the scale of change. Does the situation merely require fine tuning, or incremental adjustment? Or is it a matter of modular transformation or even of corporate transformation? Change cannot always, or even often, be planned. Like strategy, it often emerges and you have to be ready for whatever comes and work with the grain of it as events determine. Of course, it is likely that any organisation will go through life cycles as it seeks to provide for its customers efficiently and effectively. Greiner’s model of organisational life cycles, first introduced in the Harvard Business Review in 1972 (July/August number) is given a fair wind in the book.

Probably one of the most useful contributions the book makes is the extended case study of Selfridges, the London based department store as it developed to meet varying circumstances which are traced throughout the twentieth century.

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Culture, politics and leadership

There is a chapter on different kinds of culture in organisations, such as the Harrison/Handy four fold selection, (power-task-role-person cultures), but one would have to turn to people like Schein and Deal and Kennedy to get an in-depth discussion which could help you decide how to set about changing a deep rooted culture. Senior gives a useful list of authors who have addressed the issue of changing a culture, but she has not space to enable you to make much progress in determining what combination of their views to follow. Similarly there is not enough in-depth discussion of organisational politics to do much more than give a quick run through the names and theories of people who have looked in some depth at power and the role of conflict in an organisation.

When you have read the 40 pages on leadership of change you will know some of the names of those who have written on the topic, and you will be aware of the headlines appropriate to their work. There is some emphasis on the hard and soft approaches to leadership. On the one hand, there is the economic, shareholder value approach which is evident in lay-offs, downsizing, economic incentives and restructuring. On the other hand, there is the organisational capability approach which is more concerned with developing people’s capacity and the corporate culture through “individual and organisational learning in a process of collaboration with others at all levels of the organisation”.

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Practical methodologies

Part three of the book is about strategies for managing change, contrasting the essentially rational, logical approach with the flexibility of a more people oriented approach. Specific lists of the steps to be followed in hard and soft systems methodologies of change are given, with a warning that you may have to adapt them. It is a good thing she says that, because otherwise I could imagine some people using the tables of steps as if they were an instruction leaflet for putting together some IKEA furniture. Some will anyway try to use the book like this. It is the danger that all broad brush texts are liable to. They have to make the reader aware of what is on offer, rather than enter into the nuances, difficulties and possibilities of each issue.

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Limitations of the book

The last chapter of the book is about a changing future, but 15 pages can’t really take you far in such a broad theme. There are small sections on demographic changes, lifestyle changes, changes in the world of work, particularly in relation to the psychological contract that employees are motivated or demotivated by.

If we are talking about the future, one would have expected some discussion of globalisation, environmental threats, the state of the least developed countries, the excessive use of earth’s resources and the worldwide environment which will mean that the companies that don’t innovate in the search for new products, new services, new customers, new partners, new technologies and new mindsets, may well find themselves bankrupt, even if the worst fears about the environment, climate change, terrorism and civil wars etc. are not well founded. One would also expect more on the role of information technology and the Internet.

The last paragraph in the book tells us that change is about nothing if it is not about persistence, that people can be difficult, and nothing is perfect. The final two sentences read: “Change is not easy but it can be interesting. It is certainly worth the journey even if the place of arrival is surprising” – hardly a memorable conclusion to a book.

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