Management scholars lament the lack of understanding of how organisation change actually happens. Simple reductionist models that describe planned, step-wise linear processes of organisation change fail to do justice to the complex realities that characterise organisations in natural flux. Such mechanistic conceptions are based on research methodologies that provide snapshots of the change process. While researchers claim to acknowledge change as continuous, it gets studied as episodic.
Although progress in pursuit of an understanding of change has been made through alternative approaches, such as storytelling, sensemaking and complexity perspectives, a systematic review of the organisation change literature revealed seven theoretical gaps that confirm the need for further research to yield an in-depth process understanding of change. Building this deeper theoretical understanding of change processes, together with the required practical skills and behaviours, is termed the “dual challenge”. It represents both a theoretical and practical void requiring scholarly attention.
The purpose of the study was thus to contribute to the development of a non-linear, meso-level theoretical understanding of organisation change. To heed the call for empirically-rich longitudinal studies of change aimed at overcoming previous methodological limitations, an in-depth, real-time, single-case study was undertaken.
The unit of analysis selected for study was an instance of change in an industry-level financial services organisation, based nationally in South Africa. Data were collected continuously over 3 years and analysed to gain a meso-level understanding of how and why organisation change emerges. The researcher, an insider scholar-practitioner, amassed more than 3 500 pages of real-time qualitative data. These were analysed using process coding, to bracket a rich, “thick” narrative. Thereafter, balancing and reinforcing causal feedback loops were identified using system dynamics techniques. Insights based in cognitive dissonance and organisation complexity theories served as guides to aid interpretation. This provided an abstracted and theoretically meaningful account of a complex organisation change process at the meso level of analysis.