This might be a somewhat small point, but a point nevertheless: there is a parallel between change in politics and change in business. Recent events in political changes offer a glimpse to general dynamics of change. In more ‘normal’ conditions it is perhaps unsurprising that change requires longitudinal effort. One of the most extraordinary analysts of international politics, Noam Chomsky, recounts in one of his latest interview audiobooks how the large and transformative social movements, like the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement or opposition to the Vietnam War, tend to take years and years of persistent activism and work in order to achieve change (Chomsky and Barsamian, What We Say Goes, 2010). These changes, at least the first two, were successful in bringing about change, but it did not happen quickly, because change tends not to.
The Arab Spring of 2010-11 offers evidence for change effort in different conditions, i.e. conditions of revolutionary action, which is trying to bring about a specific type of change in a shortest possible time – but even there change is slow. A series of events has brought about quick changes at the apex of the political systems in Tunisia and Egypt, but from the perspective of lasting change, post-revolutionary unrest in these two countries (Financial Times, July 30, page 4), suggests that much remains to be resolved. The conclusion is that quick combat victories tend to be just the beginning, and that lasting change is a complicated, time-consuming affair.
In the field of management and organisation sciences these processes have been studied, i.e. how changes that embed e.g. new technology, along with new practices, organisational relationships and thinking, become stable part of existing social systems. To begin with, there is a popular tendency to approach new innovations through iconic personalities or companies. A good example is the most recent one, where the ‘smartphone-revolution’ is by and large seen as the work of Steve Jobs and Apple. This approach is problematic in many ways, but for one thing it is analytically unhelpful as it does not tell us much about where the next great transformation will come from – unless we can recognise genius in advance in some ways. What can be more helpful is to consider such transformations through a different kind of imagery which takes into account all that is needed for these changes to happen. This is a view from economic sociology that puts all the economic activity into its social context and recognises the importance of all social contacts and activities. When analysed this way, change efforts start looking different from the heroic accounts: change takes time, it is incremental, and it requires effort from a diverse set of actors, involves politics between actors, tends to be dependent on and built on existing systems, but eventually have a more solid foundation as a result of these features. This view would then recognise the long-term efforts of Apple internally in developing thinking, organisational practices and technology but especially externally, as relationships in related industries (e.g. Universal in music industry, Disney in entertainment, Qualcomm in chip manufacturing) by which an iPod and its offering (i.e. the device, the iTunes store and all content there) becomes a package that is stable, lasting part of our lives.
In their critical analysis of innovation as a change project Lucy Suchman and Libby Bishop put this same message this way:
‘The premium placed on discrete, discontinuous change events, and the generally negative value attributed to processes of ‘incremental’ change are part of a form of wishful thinking that aims to bring about desired transformations without the associated costs in time and human effort.’ (Suchman and Bishop, 2000)
Consequently, in order to understand change, whether in politics or in business, we ought to track the underlying micro-changes that are accomplished by a variety of actors, through putting in place permanent or emerging structural elements or add-ons to extisting structures. This is by no means an easy and uncomplicated task, but the efforts take time and therefore do not require us to be hasty in our analysis. The usefulness of this argument here relates to a question on the general feature of change: Is all change slow? At least in politics and business it is.
PS. Suchman and Bishop’s actual point is, however, less about the question of incremental vs. radical in innovation but more about innovation as automatically positive. Quite interestingly, Suchman and Bishop suggest at the end of their article that it is in fact resistance to change that may be the source of long-term and lasting innovation: Along their thinking, change has become another keyword covering the maintenance of the established distributions of ‘symbolic and material rewards’. Thus resistance to the underlying premises of change, i.e. of making cosmetic rearrangements while keeping the basic conditions and distributions in the social system the same, may be the beginning of a transformation in those premises. Interesting point, although, unfortunately they end their article before they elaborate much further on the point of what is the theory of change of this resistance.
SUCHMAN, LUCY & BISHOP, LIBBY. “Problematising ‘Innovation’ as a Critical Project.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 12.3 (2000)
Saleh, Heba. “Islamist show of force deepens rift in Egyptian revolution.”
Financial Times (London) 30 July 2011: 4.
Chomsky, Noam and Barsamian, David. “What we say goes: Conversations on U.S. power in a changing world.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007
Doctoral research at the University of Oxford (Oxford Internet Institute), with earlier academic background in organisational and management science (Said Business School), as well as political science. My earlier professional background consists of (largely implementation) work relating to novel organisational and societal systems in transportation and regional economy, as well as entrepreneurship. In my current research project I am investigating on a broader level how social change begins to happen, which at a lower level means to study how innovations begin to take shape within a specific area of social activity. The empirical case is the emergence of mobile communication technology in health care, which I am making a comparison in Finland and the UK (- or just England, actually). The theoretical framework I am using is one of the core constructs in sociology, 'institutional theory' and within that 'institutional work'. This work has a home in economic sociology.