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Madness As Usual


  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 27. June 2024

Why It Is So Difficult to Establish the Quality of Change Management

Whether they work in businesses, public administrations, hospitals, universities, or police forces, change managers often find themselves accused of charlatanry. Employees complain, and accuse the change managers of unthinkingly propagating the latest management fashion and of ‘scorched earth’ tactics. But the change experts also bemoan the lack of agreed standards for the design, development, and safeguarding of change processes.

The reason behind this quality problem in change management is the fact that the implementation and support of change processes is a complex service that is not amenable to static methods of quality measurement and quality control. Because the customer is partly responsible for the success of a measure, consultancy processes in change management are subject to a high level of uncertainty. This uncertainty makes it impossible to measure, compare, and improve processes and results against fixed standards. 

Compared to producing a metal tool box, setting up a telephone sales campaign, serving customers in a restaurant, or coordinating logistical connections with suppliers, changing an organization involves processes that are difficult to plan, control, and predict. There are usually no ‘simple recipes’ for solving the client’s problems. The problems are so complex that a standardized process cannot be developed, and thus decisions must be taken on a case-by-case basis. 

The sorts of questions change managers receive reveal the uncertainty involved. What will the effects of the planned interventions be? How will the client system react to the analysis and interventions of the consultants? What undesirable side effects might arise during the reorganization process, and how might they be avoided? To what extent does the organization have a life of its own, and how does it influence my actions? Does the organization tend to immunize itself against change, and if so what can the consultant do about this? 

When activities are burdened by uncertainty in this way, sociologists speak of a ‘technology deficit’, meaning that an activity is so complex that it cannot be broken down into individual components. The technology deficit is responsible for a central problem of quality control. When an activity can be broken down into individual components, it is possible to define quality standards for each of these components and then to check whether the agreed standards have been met by looking at the product or process that results. It suffices to look at the production process in a tin can factory to recognize the role played by well-defined and controllable quality standards, for instance ISO norms. When it comes to activities that involve significant uncertainty, this kind of formalized quality control is not possible. There is no clear way of ascertaining that an intervention conforms to the guidelines. 

Established professions such as medicine, jurisprudence, or theology dealt with the technology deficit by creating formal standards. They founded universities with standardized, or at least partly standardized, training courses, which at the same time served to develop the academic foundations of these professions. Professional associations were created; these aimed not only to organize everyone active in particular fields but also – and very importantly – to control access to the profession. Binding professional standards were established, as were mechanisms for excluding individuals who did not follow these standards. 

There are not even the first signs of change management becoming a profession. Anyone – a 16-year-old high school student or an 80-year-old retired estate agent – can offer services in the area of organization development and call him- or herself a ‘change consultant’ or ‘organization developer’ on a business card. The only criterion for success is whether one is able to find a market for one’s services. 

It has to be admitted, however, that the existence of a profession does not preclude the presence of charlatans among the ranks. Striking malpractices occur even in the highly formalized professions of medicine, law, and theology. A patient wakes up after surgery with a pair of scissors in her stomach. A client receives inappropriate legal advice and loses a court case he should have won. A believer is given misguided advice by the priest and, despite following the advice to the letter, ends up in hell.  

The difference between profession and non-profession lies in the fact that, in the case of professions, any problems that arise are dealt with by the community of professionals. Having a formalized profession means that members of the profession itself, rather than the customer or the courts, can identify and sanction charlatanry and malpractice. The formation of a profession may not necessarily improve the work of its members, but members of a fully professionalized field of activities are better placed to handle any criticisms of their work. When there are complaints from the public or individual customers, they can point to the quality standards of their profession. This is not possible in the area of change management. 

Because of the absence of widely accepted indicators of quality in the area of change management, customers are forced to seek out proxies for quality standards. One example is the ‘grey hair factor’, very well known in the area of consultancy work. The grey-haired consultant is unconsciously seen as wiser and more professional, not least because in the absence of formalized standards there are hardly any other, more objective criteria on which one can rely. In the consultancy sector, there is also a strong emphasis on hand-sewn shoes and expensive flannel shirts and pinstriped suits as signals of competence. One would be prepared to be treated by a professionally recognized doctor who wore Birkenstocks, but would anyone ever accept advice from a sandal-shod consultant?

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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