Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project

Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino,

IULM University of Milan


This article aims to investigate whether an intense exploratory listening phase at the beginning of the change process can enhance organizational readiness for change. It presents a study of a change process conducted with the action research approach and using qualitative methods. The study offered the opportunity to conduct a grounded research study based on a large amount of field evidence, which in turn made it possible to explore the implications for theory building.

The study is based on the experience of a leading Italian multinational company in the furniture industry, which was facing many challenges and decided to revisit its corporate values and management style.

The study demonstrates the utility of a listen- ing phase based on multiple qualitative meth- ods: this approach supports a comprehensive understanding of the specific situation, raising awareness of the inner elements at the root of the resistance to change.

From a practical point of view, the study shows that in order to put the change into action, people should be committed by means of an

explicit consensus and a mutual agreement with the company.

The main limitation is that the single case study cannot be generalized beyond the limits of the evidence that emerged. Further research in companies facing similar situations would be useful, to observe if similar dynamics are present or not.

The study adds to the debate about orga- nizational change, and contributes a clear understanding of the relevance of adopting a relationship-based approach from the begin- ning of the process.


Action research, grounded research, qualita- tive methods, relational approach to change, resistance/readiness to change, role of com- munication in change management.


The current debate about organizational change stresses the relevance of a relational approach to change management, as opposed to the linear and deterministic approach. The

Alessandra Mazzei is Associate Professor of Corporate Communication and Public Relations at IULM University, Milan, Italy. She is the Co-Director at IULM University of the Master in Intercultural Communication organized by the Geert Hofstede Consortium and a member of the Faculty of the Doc- toral School in Economics, Management and Communication for Creativity at IULM University. She has worked as a busi- ness consultant and management education trainer. Her primary research interests and publications focus inter- nal communication, internal crisis communication, corporate communication, reputation management, communication for credence goods, communication planning and evaluation. E-mail:

Luca Quaratino is a Assistant Professor in Organization Theory and Human Resource Management at IULM Univer- sity of Milan. He graduated in Law and completed his studies at the Industrial and Labour Relations Department at Cornell University (USA). For more than fifteen years he has worked as consultant/trainer in HRM and organizational development issues for major Italian companies. Today his research interests deal with “train the trainer” processes in transition economies, the relationship between organizational culture, business strat- egy and performance, and the evolution of HRM in Italian com- panies. E-mail:


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

relational approach calls for participation in order to facilitate successful transformation of the behaviours of members of the organiza- tion.

This study suggests an understanding of how an exploratory listening phase at the beginning of the change process might promote people’s involvement and participation, so enhancing the probability of a successful change.

The study is data driven and started from an actual experience of change management in a multinational company. This has been an opportunity to study an organizational change case using the action research approach, which involves investigating the process while implementing it.

The data driven nature of the study, in contrast with the hypothesis driven research strategy, implied a wide exploratory approach in the research design and data collection phases. The wide pool of data provided the research- ers with the basis for interpretation and con- ceptual insight.

The company in the study is an Italian multi- national operating in the furniture industry. It faced critical challenges and sought to resolve them through the definition of new corporate values and a style of management that was appropriate for the changing context, while remaining deeply grounded in its history and culture.

This article first describes the situation of the company at the beginning of the study. Then it discusses the conceptual background and research methods adopted in order to conduct the analysis of the situation. Thereafter, it pres- ents some of the most relevant findings emerg- ing from the diagnosis of the existing culture and the output of the design phase, aimed at defining new corporate values, a management code of conduct, and guidelines for translating the change into action. A discussion section elaborates on the evidence in order to interpret and generalize the findings. In conclusion, the

article brings together some managerial impli- cations and suggestions for future research.

The Starting Point

The company in the study is an Italian mul- tinational in the furniture industry. It was founded in the 1950s and is located in the south of Italy. It manufactures and sells sofas, armchairs and living room accessories all over the world, and has about 6,500 employees. The sofas and armchairs are designed in Italy and hand-made in 11 factories in Italy and abroad. The company sells its brands in both the flag- ship stores, galleries and retail chains (Com- pany profile, 2011).

After two decades of development in the Ital- ian market, in the 1980s the company began its expansion in the US. In the following years, the company continued to grow in other Euro- pean markets.

From the end of the 1990s the company experi- enced a drop in revenue and workforce redun- dancy due to decreasing demand and a loss of market share to increasing competition from emerging countries. The company faced these challenges by adopting new strategies: inter- nationalization of the manufacturing process, high positioning of its brands, direct retail- ing and strategic communication. In addi- tion, organizational development intensified through the rationalization of the production processes, the establishment of a managerial system, the development of professional com- petencies and the hiring of managers from other multinational companies. Despite these efforts, the company situation remained criti- cal and the company was looking for new solu- tions to re-launch the company.

The way identified by the management of the company was a major organizational change process, starting from the identification to the corporate values and ending into the redefini- tion of managerial culture and tools.


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

A previous attempt to redefine and deploy the corporate values failed. In the perception of the company this attempt was very well for- mally managed, following the golden rules set out by consultancy best practices. Neverthe- less, the set of values did not seem to belong to the company history: “They appeared very attractive, but somehow alien to the company because they came from an external process instead of stemming from our own history” [1].

The company defined this experience as “The ‘colonization’ model… management models that had shown their effectiveness in other companies were imported into our company”. In contrast, the new attempt was based on “The ‘enhancement’ model… the company’s best practices are selected and developed, looking for a unique model and a specific change path”.

So, the company decided to revisit its corpo- rate values and management style, looking at the roots of its success; going back to its original identity and values, understanding to what extent they had changed over 50 years of history and what steps were required to move the corporate identity and the company values forward.

The company decided to engage a university research team to ensure an accurate diagno- sis, the use of scientific research methods, the development of ad hoc solutions, and a unique route for change.

The main goal of the project was to define the New Corporate Values Chart and the New Management Style Code of Conduct. The expected advantages were the reinforcement and visibility of the entrepreneurial model of the company, a widespread awareness of the corporate values and unique success factors, the clear definition of the Corporate Values and the Management Style Code of the com- pany as stable points of reference for manage- ment, decision making and daily activities,

and, lastly, a company-specific framework for future human resource management practices.

Conceptual Background and Research Method: the Analysis

The research approach was chosen taking into account the relational paradigm of change management, based on a complex and adap- tive process stemming from participation. It is the opposite of the top-down, planned, linear step approach to change management (Stroh, 2007). The distinction between these two archetypes is deeply rooted in the litera- ture on change management, even if different theorists have different terms for them, for example Theory E and Theory O (Beer and Nohria, 2000) and hard systems models and soft systems models (Senior, 1997).

Furthermore, employees need to be involved in the changes to accept and implement them (Stroh, 2007). Nevertheless, the planned approach to change management should not be abandoned. It should instead be considered as a framework for participatory activities (Stroh, 2007). Change management is effective only when members’ behaviours change. A direct predictor of changing behaviours is supposed to be the readiness for change, including a low level of resistance and support for change (Elving, 2006).

In the attempt to explore how to enhance the design of an organizational change process, the research team designed a wide exploratory listening phase at the beginning of the change process, bearing the following question in mind:

RQ: Can an exploratory listening phase at the beginning of the change process enhance organizational readiness for change?

The study described in this article is an evi- dence based study, starting from a wide exploratory approach in the research design and data collection phases, as opposed to


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

the hypothesis driven research strategy that is usually employed, and which starts from a pre-defined theoretical background. Evi- dence gathered from the fieldwork offered the researchers the basis for new conceptual development. It consisted of an ethnographic oriented case study conducted using the action research approach and a multidisciplinary per- spective.

Studying an actual experience of change management in a multinational company has offered a unique opportunity to observe the change design phenomenon in the context where it takes place, and this is coherent with the case study approach (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 1994; Patton, 2002; Dubè and Parè, 2003).

Furthermore this situation made it possible to study an organizational change case using the action research approach (Lewin, 1946; White, 1989), a method that does not separate the investigation from the action needed to solve the problem. Therefore, the project was not just a research study or a consulting pro- cess. It employed research as a means for orga- nizational change and investigated the change management process while designing it.

This study is grounded in fieldwork in order to explain what has been observed. According to the grounded theory approach, the aim is to develop theories rather than test them, seeking for the meaning of phenomena (Glaser, 1978 and 2000; Strauss and Corbin, 1998).

In accordance with the nature of grounded study, the researchers adopted a wide range of data gathering methods. Following that, all collected data were rigorously described, ana- lysed and conceptually organized. Finally, the findings have been interpreted into an explan- atory scheme (Strauss and Corbin, 1998).

The research adopted a cross-disciplinary per- spective, drawing on organizational and com- munication backgrounds, following the idea that both the study and the practice of change management processes can benefit consider-

ably from transcending disciplinary barriers (By, Burnes et al., 2011).

In line with the ethnographically oriented (Van Maanen, 1988) and case study (Yin, 1994) research methods, the researchers used analysis of official corporate documents, semi-structured interviews (Daymon & Hollo- way, 2002; VanderStoep and Johnson, 2009), focus groups (Morgan, 1988) and direct obser- vation (Yin, 1994). The multiple data gather- ing bases supported the triangulation of data and the “development of converging lines of inquiry” (Yin, 1994: 92).

The analysis comprised a pilot phase aimed at understanding the organizational context, defining the areas of investigation, and pre- paring the data-gathering strategies and tools. It consisted of document analysis and inter- views with the CEO and with four company champions. The document analysis included the Company Profile, the company’s Annual Reports, the Industrial Plans, the Quality Manual, the organizational chart, documents about the company history, copies of the in- house newsletter, the intranet, web site, letters and audio-video messages from the CEO to all employees, video of the company’s con- vention, print clippings, the declaration of corporate values, the Corporate Ethical Code of Conduct, internal and external communica- tion documents, and books and articles about the company.

Following the pilot phase, the analysis con- sisted of:

a) semi-structured interviews with the 3 majority shareholders, belonging to the CEO’s family and in some cases having managerial responsibility;

b) semi-structured interviews with 29 manag- ers including all those who report to the CEO as well as their direct subordinates;

c) a focus group involving middle-managers and workers.


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

The research team chose both the interview- ees and the participants in the focus groups taking into account the aim of representing all the company’s areas, sub-cultures and points of view.

The interviews lasted one and a half hours and focused on personal professional biography, perceptions of the company, critical events in the company history, success factors, key people in the company’s development, unique features of the company, “the ideal” company, relationships with the local region, ideas about the future of the company, and open obser- vations. The researchers recorded and tran- scribed all the interviews and prepared a final report with anonymous quotations.

Four focus groups were organized; each lasted 4 hours and involved 8 to 12 participants with a moderator and an assistant. The aims were to understand the corporate values held by employees, their idea of “the ideal manager”, the most important motivational levers, “the ideal” company, and their perception of the most urgent issues faced by the company, through the use of metaphors and drawings. The researchers wrote a report for each focus group, and analysed the drawings and minutes of the brainstorming.

The interviews and meetings with the com- pany provided the occasion to visit the pro- duction and administrative sites and created the opportunity for direct observation (Yin, 1994). This was useful for gathering addi- tional information and impressions about the company’s habits, the organizational climate and the corporate values and features.

The multiple sources of evidence – document analysis, interviews, focus groups, direct observation – made it possible to broaden and articulate the data collection process, giving the researchers a better knowledge base. The adopted approach also has some weaknesses. Firstly, being based on a single case study and qualitative methods, the results, although valuable, cannot be considered valid in all

cases. Secondly, the research project included only the analysis, diagnosis and design pro- cess, while excluding the implementation step. The researchers could not observe and verify the success of the change implementation.

Findings: the Diagnosis

The diagnosis phase of the field research involved the identification of the desired corporate values, expressed by the majority shareholders, and the level of their alignment with the actual values held by managers and employees.

The research team identified the desired cor- porate values from the interviews with the CEO and the other majority shareholders, and then confirmed them by the analysis of docu- ments. “Desired values” express the strategic orientation of the company, are part of the distinctive corporate identity and are vital for company success.

The researchers grouped the desired values into four areas. A first area of values refers to “responsibility” and includes ethics, social mission, focus on the region, and foresight. According to the CEO, “My company has always had a social mission. We can grow cre- ating wealth for the region and today we want to stay here”.

A second area focuses on “relationships” and includes family, dialogue, and direct contact. In the words of one shareholder, “Our CEO likes to see his employees around him, as a father with his family during the Sunday meal”.

A third area is related to the “working style”, involving passion, understanding before acting, simplifying complexity and innova- tion. The founder declared, “I put my heart and soul into my job and everybody knows that”.

A fourth area deals with competition in the “market”, with the customer being the most


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

valuable asset, along with quality, and eco- nomic sustainability. The CEO has it clear in his mind that in each decision it is very impor- tant “to evaluate the resources required. Prob- ably we have learned this type of discipline over the last few years. Traditionally we were used to thinking that if you did your best on the job, the results would follow”.

Each of these desired corporate values was compared with findings from interviews and focus groups in order to identify the level of alignment with the actual values spread among managers and employees. The diag- nosis benefited from the AC2ID framework (Balmer and Greiser, 2002) to analyse and diagnose corporate values. In particular, the researchers adapted the theoretical model to the specific situation – using the categories of “identity”, “known” and “out of awareness” values – in order to check the level of align- ment between the values desired by the owner and those expressed and embodied by manag- ers and the employees.

The researchers diagnosed three distinct cat- egories of corporate values, reflecting a differ- ent level of alignment.

a) Identity values (high level of alignment): desired values consciously described by man- agers and employees as part of the spirit of the company and translated into everyday actions. In this case, the company is expected to maintain them. They were ethics, a sense of family, passion, social mission, and focus on the region. For example, most of the trees, representing the company, drawn during the focus groups had a lot of roots described as a symbol of how much the company is embed- ded in the local region.

b) Known values (medium level of alignment): desired values mentioned by the interviewees and formally appreciated, but according to the overall findings of the research, not put into action. The company should foster them. They were dialogue, direct contact, simplify- ing complexity, understanding before acting,

innovation and quality. Interviewees high- lighted quite opposite behaviours and practices referring to their daily working experience. For example, one said, “We work as separate islands… Our bosses do not listen, they do not talk with us, they just give us orders”.

c) Out-of-awareness values (low level of alignment): desired values neither known nor acted upon by managers and employees. In this case the company should cultivate them and make people aware of their relevance. They were that the customer is the most valu- able asset, economic sustainability and fore- sight. For example: “We made some decisions ‘off the cuff’ and then later we evaluated the economic implications”.

This distinction underlines the different inten- sity of the necessary effort to be put into each value during the process of changing the orga- nizational culture.

The diagnosis was presented and discussed inside the Steering Committee whose mem- bers were the owner, the 3 majority sharehold- ers, the Human Resources (HR) Director and the person in charge of Internal Communica- tion.

The knowledge gained during the research in the field, further enhanced through the dis- cussion with the Steering Committee, helped in the process of designing the possible evo- lution of the corporate values. Concerning the values related to responsibility, it seemed important to harmonize the social mission of the company with its economic responsibility and to reinforce the long term orientation of all the people in the company in their decision- making processes. Regarding the values in the area of relationships, it seemed important to modify the concept of ‘family’, which is very Italian and traditional, to that of ‘community’, more understandable at an international level and also related to the notions of cooperation and membership. Moreover, the managerial relationships needed to evolve from hierarchy to coaching. With regards to the working style


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

area of values, it was felt important to include the quality of working life in addition to work- ing very hard, to develop personal account- ability and creativity, and to change the search for simplicity to the management of complex- ity. Finally, the values related to market needed to be centred on attention to the efficient use of resources and profitability. Moreover, a sig- nificant shift was perceived as crucial, moving from product quality to consumer orientation/ satisfaction.

5. The New Corporate Values Chart and the New Management Code of Conduct: the Design

After the diagnosis of corporate values and its discussion with the Steering Committee, the researchers prepared a proposal for the New Corporate Values Chart and Management Style of Conduct. This was a process com- posed of many working sessions with the CEO and the Steering Committee, taking fully into account what people had said during the work in the field.

The New Corporate Values Chart

Each proposed value really belongs to the company, because they were all identified on the basis of in-depth research. They are the expression of the company history and, at the same time, they are future oriented.

The focal point of the new set of corporate values is the concept of responsibility, a unique common thread in the spirit of the company. Thus the company feels responsible towards:

customers, offering them a unique buyer experience, excellent furnishings and service matching their expectations;

commercial partners, building relationships with them based on cooperation, respect of rules, ethics, and transparency in the interest of customers;

shareholders, with the mission of achieving economic success, paying attention to finan- cial resources and looking for market oppor- tunities;

employees, showing personal respect and cre- ating professional opportunities;

society, with the duty of operating for the development of the region, looking after the environment, and integrating social solidarity with economic sustainability.

The Managerial Style Code of Conduct

The Code of Conduct approved by the com- pany states that each “company manager” is expected to share the spirit of the company. He/she interprets the company vision, imparts the corporate values, gives value to all expe- riences, resources, competencies, looks for innovation, acts as an integrator of different organizational areas, is a talent scout and seeks his/her employees’ professional development.

The Code of Conduct is very important for the company because it specifies how to involve and engage managers in translating the new corporate values into action. Instead of prescribing certain abstract behaviours, the company wants to come to an agreement with its managers about the distinctive corporate values, share them and, after that, expects that managerial principles, coherent with the cor- porate values, will be put into practice.

To drive a major cultural change, it is crucial to reach an agreement on corporate values at all organizational levels, through a participa- tory bottom-up approach, that the company was only partially able to realize, for reasons that were both logistic and cultural.


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

The Guidelines for Organizational Development, HR Systems and Training

Based on the main results of the research and on the on-going discussion with the Steering Committee, some guidelines about organiza- tional development, human resource manage- ment and training processes were drawn up. They represent the final step of the design phase and build a bridge towards future devel- opment in line with the revised corporate values and managerial style of conduct.

With regard to human resource management (HRM), the guidelines focus on ensuring the highest level of coherence between HRM systems and the new values and manage- ment style. Moreover, each phase of the HRM cycle should also take into account the fact that a flexible organizational model has been adopted.

Firstly, recruitment of both young and expe- rienced staff has to be based on a “person- nel specification” deeply grounded in the new values and managerial styles, in order to ensure alignment with the company culture. Secondly, the performance appraisal pro- cess should include the evaluation of results and behaviours directly drawn from the new values and management style of conduct, in order to ensure their translation into prac- tice. Thirdly, a significant investment should be made in evaluating the potential of young people and middle-managers with the aim of supporting internal career development. This choice appears to be consistent with the strong need for personal and professional recognition expressed during both interviews and focus groups. It is likely to improve both individual motivation and the organizational climate and, consequently, avoid the dangerous level of turnover in managerial positions experi- enced over the last ten years. Finally, the flex- ible organizational model also recommended the creation of horizontal development paths, based on job rotation, inter-functional and international mobility and assignment to tem- porary projects.

The guidelines regarding training were con- ceived starting from the multiple functions that training can play in a cultural change process. First of all, training was thought of as one of the main ways to communicate to all employees about the transformation of the cor- porate values, discussing with them not only the practical implications of change, but also the importance of adopting a different mind- set, from the perspective of “dialogic change” (Bushe and Marshak, 2009). As a matter of fact, the training setting potentially repre- sents, from an anthropological point of view, a “neutral space” where interests and meanings can be more easily negotiated.

Secondly, training was seen as crucial in order to recognize and reward commitment and performance from employees, to foster their motivation and enhance their engagement in the organizational change. Lastly, training had a less symbolic and much more practical end: to fill the gap of managerial skills – in a typi- cally entrepreneurial and artisanal company – which the recruitment of managers from other companies during the last ten years had not been able to solve.

Guidelines for Change Communication

The need for communication was also very high in this organization because the previ- ous, failed attempt to make an organizational- cultural change was a strong influence on people’s attitudes and commitment toward change. As a consequence, a special effort was needed in communication.

Communication must be credible. To this end the CEO should communicate directly and openly to guarantee that the “talk will be walked”; the managers should genuinely share the values, and practice and promote them in order to be “cultural leaders” (McAleese, Hargie, 2004).

In order to have managers as allies in the change management process, the company


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

should sign an agreement with them in order to build their commitment towards all employ- ees in the deployment process. To this end a prior communication should be devoted to them. This kind of privileged communication should imply the discussion of what the role of management could be in the deployment pro- cess. Management should be also involved in direct communication about the new values to their employees.

The researchers recommended some princi- ples for communication in this situation. Com- munication should reach all employees, be interactive, transparent and complete, without avoiding the mention of difficulties. It should also be continuous, supported by actions, future oriented and centred on the values as the starting point of a new era. Internal com- munication supporting the change process should spread clear information and involve employees emotionally in order to facilitate the change path through awareness, under- standing, acceptance and action (Linke and Zerfass, 2011).


After the presentation of the analysis, diagno- sis and design phases of this action research project, the current section elaborates on the field evidence in order to contribute to the knowledge of organizational change pro- cesses. This study investigated how an explor- atory listening phase at the beginning of the change management process could enhance the organizational readiness for change. In particular, the expectations of the research- ers was that such an initial step would create room for real participation and the growth of a sense of ownership of the change by the people involved. Evidence from the field in this case study offers several insights from this per- spective.

Firstly, this study demonstrates that a listening exploratory phase based on qualitative meth- ods of analysis is suitable to fuel participation

in a process of major organizational change. The adoption of a wide array of methods used to collect data supported a comprehensive understanding of which cultures and relational conditions had to be respected in order to get everyone’s support and make organizational change effective.

Secondly, the ethnographic orientation sought to delve more deeply into the observed culture and capture the socially constructed reality recounted by employees, thus producing a “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). Going to the origins and grasping the causes behind people’s beliefs and behaviours is crucial for carefully defining a feasible scope for the cul- tural shift. In fact, the possibility of breaking with the past in an organizational change pro- cess is limited, because culture cannot easily be forgotten or reinvented and, at the same time, organizational memory plays a resisting and a facilitating role (McCabe, 2010).

Thirdly, the continuous interaction among researchers, employees and Steering Commit- tee, made it possible to share an overall story of the company, starting from many individual stories collected through interviews and focus groups, ranging from the company’s origin to the present, but also open to the future. Sto- ries can play a catalytic role in the change pro- cess, indicating how the story can evolve into specific changes (Briody, Pester et alt., 2012). Furthermore they represent a powerful device to make change meaningful (Reissner, 2011). In addition, the adoption of a historical per- spective helps to build a bridge between the past and the desired future, through a process of rejuvenating and revisiting the old values relating to the internal and external environ- ment (Karsten et al., 2009). And this sort of mediation between the traditional and the new identity contributes to lessening the resistance to change.

It is worth highlighting that qualitative meth- ods require expertise, a more complex process of data collection and analysis, and an extended period of time for data collection and inter-


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

pretation. A qualitative study produces “soft data” and top managers “do not collect soft data” (Gherardi and Turner, 1987), because they are not thought to create a sound base for decision-making. In this study, data collection was successful, above all, because of the solid commitment from the top management. The continuous interaction and dialogue with the Steering Committee allowed the researchers to hone their interpretation of the data, putting it into the specific context of the company’s history, culture and way of thinking.

The cross-disciplinary approach employing a diverse research team made up of different backgrounds and expertise proved to be very helpful. During the diagnosis phase, it per- mitted a deeper and broader understanding. In fact, “the problem with studying change is that it parades across many subject domains under numerous guises” (Stickland, 1998: 14). Cross-disciplinarity helped to avoid a partial reconstruction of the phenomena, like the six Indian men attempting to describe an elephant in the well known John Godfrey Saxe poem. During the design phase, the team was able to provide an integrated contribution on all the required levels of intervention: internal communication, organizational development, human resource management and training.

This field grounded and action research study also provides valuable insights for the design of the organizational change process. Firstly, in order to drive a major organizational change, it is crucial to create an agreement at all orga- nizational levels, through a participatory bottom-up approach. This is a critical point according to this study. In this experience, the company should adopt a set of organizational and managerial practices, the managers should follow a coherent style of management, and the employees should translate the values into operative decisions and actions. The consen- sus of managers and employees is crucial, in particular for radical changes, when in the past there was resistance to similar change, when employees’ approval and expertise is critical and when cooperation is needed to maintain

the change (Llewellyn and Harrison, 2006). In these circumstances organizational change needs a consensus-building strategy to secure employees’ and managers’ commitment (Cor- nelissen, 2008).

Secondly, in order to obtain a wide and deep involvement and commitment from employ- ees, communication plays a crucial role. From the beginning of the change process, com- munication helps to overcome resistance to change. In particular, initial change communi- cation is problematic, given that if employees experience a lack of communication, they tend to react with a constructivist communication approach in order to manage the implications of change for their daily working routines (Frahm and Brown, 2007).

Afterwards the nature and the quality of communication continues to be critical for effectively managing “organizational change cynicism: frustration, disillusionment, and negative feelings toward an organization” (Brown and Cregan, 2008). Organizational change cynicism develops from experience in relation with the mixed record of successful or unsuccessful changes people have expe- rienced in the past (Reicher, Wanous et. alt. 1997). In the case of this study, the previous failed attempt was in important influence on people’s attitudes toward change. Information sharing and involvement in decision making are effective strategies to manage organiza- tional change cynicism (Brown and Cregan, 2008).

Communication represents a key lever to build a relationship between the organization and its various stakeholders, in particular its employ- ees. Building and managing a relationship produces “trust, relational satisfaction and relational commitment” (Stroh, 2007: 125). A relational approach to change communication is based on true participation in a “process of dialogic communication where meaning is not created through influence but through partici- pation” (Stroh, 2007: 132). Thus, people have the possibility of sharing a common point of


Designing Organizational Change: Learning from a Grounded Research Project JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

reference when the uncertainty of change has to be faced.

Thirdly, a deployment process that pays atten- tion to both concrete phenomena and cultural aspects is highly relevant. In order to translate the agreement on corporate values into prac- tice, a specific process of deployment was defined through the design of guidelines con- cerning the organizational model, the human resource management systems, a training pro- gram and an internal communication plan. It is worth underlining two aspects: the guidelines were conceived from an integrated perspec- tive, carefully working on the mutual impacts among the areas of intervention, and they were continuously revised inside the Steering Com- mittee, where all the managers in charge of the specific processes were involved.

The process aimed at enhancing the “organi- zational change capacity” (Soparnot, 2011). In doing this, the focus was probably too much on changing concrete phenomena, such as organizational structures and HRM processes, and not enough on changing the mind-set of various stakeholders (By, Burnes et alt., 2011). The professional backgrounds of the research- ers and some pressures from the company spurred the project toward a problem-centred approach, focusing on tangible processes. It would probably have needed a greater effort in “facilitating change conversation in the moment and on a largely improvised and unscripted basis rather than engaging in more established forms of planned change” (By, Burnes et alt., 2011: 3). Focusing more on the company mind-set would have meant helping the system to acquire a long-term capacity to adapt to changing conditions by itself on the basis of previous experience.

Finally, this experience shows that organi- zational change should adopt a relationship- based and participatory approach. In this case study, even if many people were involved throughout the process, by various means control was mainly retained at the top. For example the communication process was not

sufficiently focused on building and maintain- ing relationships. In fact, “participation cannot be about merely seeking agreement, resolution of conflicts, or feedback […] participation goes further than merely being heard, and implies actually being represented in the final decision-making process” (Stroh, 2007: 132). A broad participation gives “the voice to dif- ferences, negotiation of values and decisional premises, and the production of new integra- tive positions” (Deetz, 1995: 100). So employ- ees’ energy was probably not fully valued, and at the same time a level of resistance remained.

To summarize, the experience of the organi- zational change in the present study highlights two main points. On the one hand, it under- lines the relevance of qualitative listening, particularly of using organizational history and stories, and of a cross-disciplinary per- spective in setting up the proper conditions for organizational change. On the other hand, it highlights the importance of adopting a change management approach based on com- plex adaptive processes that use relationships and participation.

Conclusions: Lessons for Future Research and Managerial Practice

The effectiveness of organizational change is a central topic at a time when companies have to manage turmoil and instability. Usually man- aged through deterministic and linear pro- cesses, today change more and more needs the commitment and adaptive capacity of all orga- nizational stakeholders. This article presents a study of an organizational change process conducted with the action research approach and using multiple qualitative methods. It has been the opportunity to conduct a grounded research, based on a large amount on field evidence, that in turn allowed open reasoning about the implications for theory building.

The aim has been to investigate whether an intense exploratory listening phase at the beginning of the change process could enhance


Alessandra Mazzei, Luca Quaratino JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT AND CHANGE No 30/31 2013

the organizational readiness for change. The study demonstrates the utility of a listening phase based on multiple qualitative meth- ods, because they support a comprehensive understanding of the specific organizational, cultural and relational situation. Furthermore, because they delve into the socially con- structed reality, they raise awareness of the inner aspects, which are most likely to be the origin of resistance to change. Finally, they facilitate the gathering and sharing of personal stories that can suggest how the overall com- pany’s story can evolve into organizational change. The analysis phase, based on qualita- tive methods, activates people and brings them to an active role in the change process.

The action research approach adopted requires considerable expertise, an extended period of time for data gathering, and a cross-disci- plinary team. The action research approach provides unique opportunities to apply theo- ries and models to the organizational context, opening opportunities to interpret reality from unusual perspectives and to build robust theo- ries.

The second kind of understanding stemming from the present study is linked to the pro- cess of organizational change. The fieldwork shows that in order to put the change into action, people should be committed by means of an explicit consensus and a mutual agree- ment between the company and its employees. Communication plays a key role on building commitment, especially in terms of meaning making. In the meaning making process prac- tical and cultural aspects require a balanced attention.

Although providing many insights about change management, this study has some limitations. First of all, the single case study cannot be generalized beyond the limits of the evidence that emerged. Second, the study was limited to the analysis, diagnosis and design phases of the change process, making it impossible to draw firm conclusions about the extent to which the readiness for change

actually contributes to the success of the proj- ect. Future research with the same company should be of great utility to monitor the effec- tiveness of the intervention. Further research in companies facing similar situations would be useful, to observe if similar dynamics are present or not.

To conclude, this study adds to the debate about organizational change, and contributes a clear understanding of the relational nature that should be cherished, from the very ear- liest moment of a change process through an exploratory analysis (what we called “listen- ing phase”). Furthermore the study clarifies the relevance of theories and models for the management of organizational processes.


[1] In brackets phrases taken from official documents and transcripts from interviews and focus groups

HR: Human Resources HRM: Human Resource Management CEO: Chief Executive Officer


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