Thursday, March 18, 2010

Overcoming Institutional Inertia

Change is difficult in large institutions.  In a previous post, I wrote:
I'm not even sure that it's that "people prefer the devil they know," as the old saying has it. It's just that it is dangerous to both the authors of the narrative and those subject to it to question the rules, to disturb the "collective illusion" that sustains the power structures. For better or for worse, power structures represent "the very fabric of society" and resistance to change should not be underestimated. 
There I argued that it would be technology that would inevitably drive changes. I was thinking, for example, that the Web 2.0 phenomenon that has emerged in recent years presents a platform for horizontal, collaborative, collegial and networked dialogue.  

But to get on board with these technologies to solve work related problems and issues, your heart just has to be in it. You have to care enough about doing things well, or creating an environment where people can be more effective, that you're willing to share your ideas and have them peer reviewed. Before you can do that, you have to be able to identify where changes and improvements are needed, and where people can make a difference.  But even before that, you need the hope that your individual or collective efforts can make a difference.  You have to believe that making a difference is possible.  

Employees can sidestep these risks by focusing on processes and tasks, rather than the broader purposes and the overall efficacy of these activities.   Managers can sidestep institutional roadblocks by behaving "Quantophrenically" or they can simply take roadblocks as natural and eternal aspects of the managerial landscape. In so doing, employees and managers contribute passively to institutional inertia.

These approaches are either products or results of cynicism, which is unfortunate.  Where does the root of the cynicism reside?  How can the tide be turned, now that we have such amazing opportunities to make changes?  

This may be much more about cultural ideology than about individuals. IMO, there has been massive oversimplification with rationalizing and standardizing over the history of business culture in general, and so much of a focus on means and methods (e.g., money, processes, perpetual "growth" in economic terms).  This means that we are cogs in a big economic machine that is, as Charles Taylor put it, "all dressed up with nowhere to go."  In order to make the changes we need now, we need to refocus on things that are intrinsically valuable (growing and sustaining mental, emotional and ecological well-being). The focus on means, methods and quantophrenics has in the past eclipsed discussion on the more intrinsically valuable objectives. 

I do think the tide is turning, however, and that a newer, richer understanding of the complexity of our natural and social systems is causing our more human values to surface, and new voices will increasingly be heard. 

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, it is not really about the technology. But sometimes, just sometimes a real change initiative can masquerade as a simple tool...