Thinking through change and time in educational organisations
Whilst change is a natural consequence of activity, to undertake considered and ‘formal’ change is actually a difficult task. There are many barriers to coherent and sustained change (for a discussion see here), which might in part be due to a lack of critical and deep understanding of the processes of change themselves. What follows is in large part based on the excellent discussion about organisational change in Iveroth and Hallencreutz (2016) (a brief review can be found here) who consider the dynamics and complexity of change in organisations.
When undertaking a change process, how often do we think consciously about the type of change we are instigating? It is very easy to see change as simply something we need to plan for and execute without really considering the dynamics which will be at play. Iveroth and Hallencreutz offer a simple set of contrasting change processes, shown below. They identify rate of occurrence and scope and scale of the change as being important variables which need to be reflected upon as a change process is planned and undertaken. The process of change involved in small-scale, continuous change (fine tuning) may be embedded within pre-existing work practices, and it may even be possible to subsume any change activity into the core work of the organisation. Here, there may be very little resistance to change, as the cultural norms of the organisation may not be disturbed. However, at the other end of the spectrum, those large scale, dramatic changes which lead to major transformations may require a much longer period for planning, process and embedding. However, how often do organisations and those who lead them consider these dynamics in detail?
Another aspect of change which is crucial is the way the process is understood both in the planning phase and through the process itself. There are many different ‘steps to success’ style change frameworks. Such models see change as being something which can be successfully managed and led by following instructions which take the leaders through a set of well-established stages. If these are followed carefully, they will lead to ‘success’. This approach to change sees it as something which can be planned ahead of time in fine detail, before being executed.
Iveroth and Hallencreutz contrast the ‘planned’ approach to change with that of ‘emergent’ change (further going on to argue that a good approach to change actually requires a variable mixture of the two). The predominant paradigm of change in organisations is that of planned change. This form of change is characterised as linear in nature, and is driven by ‘change agents’, in educational settings often being part of a leadership group. Ford and Ford (1995, cited in Iveroth and Hallencreutz, 2016: 20), state that planned change,
‘occurs when a change agent deliberately and consciously sets out to establish conditions and circumstances that are different from what they are now and then accomplishes that through some set or series of actions and interventions either singularly or in collaboration with other people. The change is produced with intent, and the change agent is at cause in the matter of making the change.’
This is the perception of change developed in improvement plans, with senior leaders having personal or collective responsibility for driving forward an agenda decided within the leadership team. The process of change is then understood and carried out through a number of linear ‘stages’, and relative movement towards a predefined end point can be tracked, often using some form of traffic light system which reductively boils down the complexity of a change process to ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green’.
An alternative view sees change as emerging out of the activity of individuals and groups, occurring in the everyday work of those in the organisation. This emergent view characterises change as coming about through often loosely associated activities which can become linked and increasingly coherent over time. Change is an ongoing process which includes improvisation and experimentation by those involved in day-to-day practice; this is change as created at the ‘front-line’. Whereas planned change is often characterised as linear in character, emergent change is cyclical, and hence, temporally, very different.
Therefore, planned and emergent change can therefore be summarised as shown below.
Because much of the change in schools is planned and tracked in detail, change often becomes a heavily bureaucratic exercise, with a great deal of monitoring (often led by quantitative measures), and fixed timelines. Time is seen as a quantitative resource, with so many hours being audited into the work. This leads to a linear, reductive and stage-driven view of instigating a new practice. But, much of the change in schools is not of this form. It requires a cyclic understanding of time, with practitioners attempting to both understand the dictated change agenda, whilst also attempting to embed it in everyday practices. These very different understandings of time and magnitude can lead to serious problems when it comes to successfully ‘delivering’ the desired outcomes. Add to this the possibility that the rate, scope and scale of a change project might not have been carefully considered, and a series of dissonances can occur between the leaders who may see the world through a strategic, managerial and planned view of change, and teachers and others who may understand and experience change through a practice-driven, emergent view of change. The final issue that may then need to be confronted is that often leaders will be given a number of change agendas to drive forward at the same time. When this occurs, the temporal aspect of change agendas becomes turbo-driven, and can overload the practice of others to the extent that they begin to suffer under a form of high ‘temporal density’ (Wajcman, 2013) where so many agendas appear at once, and who’s rhythms clash, that there are a number of agendas which need to be attended to at once, resulting in an ‘arrhythmia’ in the workload and processes of teachers and others. This can lead to feelings of an acceleration of expectations and workload, and ultimately may lead to ‘hyper-accelerated standstill’ (Rosa, 2014: 38), a context where apparent fast change is actually underlain by a stalling of change and a development of inertia.
What the work of Iveroth and Hallencreutz (2016) offers us is a pause for thought. That perhaps we need to spend more time reflecting on why we want change, the type of change we might be embarking on, the nature of the process involved, and the ceiling at which change becomes inefficient, and leads to increasing amounts of work for little impact. It also begs the question as to the degree to which change agendas need to be shared processes across an organisation, considered, debated and agreed upon from both the top and the bottom of the organisation so as to allow for a meaningful mix of both planned and emergent approaches to change. By doing this, change might be attempted less, and that which is focused on might allow for more positive and sustainable movement across the whole organisation.