Organizational Change

What forces create these changes?

External forces are those changes that are part of an organization’s general and business environment. There are several kinds of external forces an organization might face:

  • Demographic. A changing work demographic might require an organizational change in culture. For instance, Avon built and grew their business around door-to-door cosmetic sales, with the stay-at-home wife and mother as their primary front line employee. When more women entered the workforce in 9-to-5 jobs, Avon had to shift gears and find new ways to get their products in front of their customers.
  • Social. Changing social trends can pressure organizations into making changes. Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, a trend which has pushed fast food restaurants to replace Styrofoam containers with paper. Manufacturers of cleaning products changed product formulas to omit phosphorus and other environmentally threatening chemicals. Tobacco companies have buckled under the changing image of smokers, the dangers of their products, and some have started looking into eCigarettes and other smoking alternatives to stay in business.
  • Political. Government restrictions often force change onto organizations. This can be something as simple as a change in minimum wage for employees, or as complex as rules and restrictions governing fair competition in business. For instance, when the Affordable Health Care act was put into place, businesses had to change their operations and put steps into place to confirm that all employees had healthcare coverage to comply with the new law.
  • Technology. Still have your VHS player? The founder of Blockbuster wishes you did. Technological changes can make or break a business. Whether new technology is introduced industry-wide, as when the laser was introduced to modern medicine, making surgeries easier and safer; or when it’s introduced to end users, as when consumers stopped renting videos to enjoy the cheaper, more convenient streaming services like Netflix, organizations must change to accommodate new technologies or suffer the consequences.
  • Economic. During the 2008 recession, consumers lost their jobs and cut back on their spending. These economic downturns had a major impact on businesses. Banks failed. General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. Survival meant adapting to change. Companies like Lego, who experienced stagnant U.S. sales during this time, took the opportunity to build their markets in Europe and Asia. Netflix realized the potential of providing in-home entertainment to families that had cut back their entertainment budgets and grew their subscriptions by 3 million subscribers in 2009 alone. Meanwhile, in the midst of spiking fuel prices, gas guzzling Hummers were no longer en vogue and quietly went out of business.
  • Poor Performance-Change can also occur if the company is performing poorly and if there is a perceived threat from the environment. In fact, poorly performing companies often find it easier to change compared with successful companies. Why? High performance actually leads to overconfidence and inertia. As a result, successful companies often keep doing what made them successful in the first place. When it comes to the relationship between company performance and organizational change, the saying “nothing fails like success” may be fitting. For example, Polaroid was the number one producer of instant films and cameras in 1994. Less than a decade later, the company filed for bankruptcy, unable to adapt to the rapid advances in one-hour photo development and digital photography technologies that were sweeping the market. Successful companies that manage to change have special practices in place to keep the organization open to changes. For example, Finnish cell phone maker Nokia finds that it is important to periodically change the perspective of key decision makers. For this purpose, they rotate heads of businesses to different posts to give them a fresh perspective. In addition to the success of a business, change in a company’s upper-level management is a motivator for change at the organization level. Research shows that long-tenured CEOs are unlikely to change  their formula for success. Instead, new CEOs and new top management teams create change in a company’s culture and structure.Barnett, W. P., & Carroll, G. R. (1995). Modeling internal organizational change. Annual Review of Sociology, 21, 217–236; Boeker, W. (1997). Strategic change: The influence of managerial characteristics and organizational growth. Academy of Management Journal, 40, 152–170; Deutschman, A. (2005, March). Building a better skunk works. Fast Company, 92, 68–73.
  • Growth-It is natural for once small start-up companies to grow if they are successful. An example of this growth is the evolution of the Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, which started as two brothers brewing beer in their garage to becoming the 11th largest brewery in the United States. This growth happened over time as the popularity of their key product—Hefeweizen—grew in popularity and the company had to expand to meet demand growing from the two founders to the 11th largest brewery in the United States by 2008. In 2007, Widmer Brothers merged with Redhook Ale Brewery. Anheuser-Busch continues to have a minority stake in both beer companies.
  • Globalization-Globalization is another threat and opportunity for organizations, depending on their ability to adapt to it. Because of differences in national economies and standards of living from one country to another, organizations in developed countries are finding that it is often cheaper to produce goods and deliver services in less developed countries. This has led many companies to outsource (or “offshore”) their manufacturing operations to countries such as China and Mexico. In the 1990s, knowledge work was thought to be safe from outsourcing, but in the 21st century we are also seeing many service operations moved to places with cheaper wages. For example, many companies have outsourced software development to India, with Indian companies such as Wipro and Infosys emerging as global giants. Given these changes, understanding how to manage a global workforce is a necessity. Many companies realize that outsourcing forces them to operate in an institutional environment that is radically different from what they are used to at home. Dealing with employee stress resulting from jobs being moved overseas, retraining the workforce, and learning to compete with a global workforce on a global scale are changes companies are trying to come to grips with.

Companies can also experience internal forces of change, which can often be related to external forces, but are significant enough to be considered separately. Internal forces of change arise from inside the organization and relate to the internal functioning of the organization. They might include low performance, low satisfaction, conflict, or the introduction of a new mission, new leadership. Low performance within an organization must obviously be addressed with change that facilitates higher performance. When low performance yields low quality or inefficiencies, customers complain and organizations need to change. More often than not, these forces of change are outside of an organization’s control, but, without exception, they all must be managed if an organization is going to be successful. In the next section, we’ll take these forces of change and dissect them a little bit more, so we can get a better understanding of how we can successfully manage them.


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Organizational Behavior by Icfai Business School is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.