Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Michael Beer on Change Management

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Michael Beer on Change Management
June 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Michael Beer
Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration,
Emeritus at the Harvard Business School,
Chairman and co-founder of TruePoint a research based consultancy.

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  • To make a mark for oneself in the field of management (where fads are fashionable), it takes decades. All the more so in an abstract field like Change Management. Congratulations professor for having provided such a remarkable intellectual leadership in the field of change management. Your work on change management is an indispensable citation in any work related to change management. What was the trigger for embarking upon a holistic and thorough research on the topic? What were the antecedents?
    The antecedents for the change research were a decision I made after receiving my

    Ph.D. I decided to go into practice a job at Corning Inc., instead of taking an academic job. I always had a bent to the practical and knew that to understand organizations, one had to be close to the phenomena. Corning hired me as a researcher and I initially thought that my job would be to do studies of various problems for the human resource function. The trigger for my change research was a call for help I received from a small start-up manufacturing plant in the company. Its management had read Douglas McGregors book Human Side of Enterprise. They wanted to become a participative "Theory Y" plant to avoid unionization and to improve productivity . I knew little about organization change though I had read McGregor's book. I took the assignment and for 4 years I worked with management as a consultant and action researcher. This introduced me to the problem of change. Based on initial positive results and evaluations by management of my work, I received a call from a division manager about inter functional conflict in his business unit (marketing, manufacturing and product development were at each other's throats) and the negative impact of this on new product development a strategic imperative for his business. This let to a 5 year long change effort and a program of action research around the effort.
    After I became an academic at Harvard Business School I continued to respond to requests for help from executives as a way of learning. I have responded to the following requests for help.

    Plant Manager and HR Manager
    Can you help us become a participative Theory Y plant?

    Business Unit Manager
    Can you help me understand the root of conflict between marketing, manufacturing and product development and help me change the organization to eliminate these problems?

    CEO and VP for Strategy and HR
    We have great strategy but cannot implement it effectively. Can you help us become a company capable of implementing strategy?

    General Manager HR Manager
    My organization is implementing a new strategy and is having great difficulty doing it. Can you help us?

    Questions like these are broad and lead one into a systemic/holistic examination of the organization. They provide an opportunity to develop new insights about organizations and the problem of changing them. If qualitative and quantitative data (wherever appropriate) is collected and participant observations are made, it is possible to develop a coherent body of knowledge about organizations and organization change. One needs to do this with the knowledge of existing theory and research and connect one's own action research to the literature.

  • Unlike other subjects, wasn't change management an abstract one? Its very nature is sublime and represents the "softer" side of management. How difficult was it to theorize and put the research findings in an understandable and applicable manner?
    Change management, I hate the word because it implies that change is managed according to the leaders' preconceived ideas about what changes they want to make and then selling them (I prefer organization development and change). Phenomena observed in a changing organization are actually neither abstract nor soft. Effective change requires the leader to embrace the paradox of top-down (hard) direction about strategy, values and organizational imperatives while at the same time involving relevant stakeholders in the shaping change (soft?).

1. Change Management Case Studies
2. ICMR Case Collection
3. Case Study Volumes

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