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An Improvisational Model for Change Management: The Case of Groupware Technologies

Each member of a jazz band embellishes and improvises on the same rhythmic structure. Similarly, a model for managing technological change recognizes the need to improvise in response to unexpected opportunities. According to Orlikowski and Hofman, traditional models, in which an organization plans for change, implements change, and tries to become stable again, no longer work in an environment that is turbulent, particularly when the technology involved can be customized. The authors propose that the changes associated with technology implementation, rather than having a beginning and an end, are ongoing. Managers cannot anticipate all the changes made during the process.

Orlikowski and Hofman's alternative model recognizes three types of change. Anticipated changes occur as intended. Emergent changes arise during the process. And opportunity-based changes are introduced during the process in response to an opportunity, event, or breakdown. The three build on each other iteratively over time, much like the jazz band members improvise on the original structure of a musical composition.

In a customer service department at Zeta, a large U.S. software company, the authors follow the implementation of Lotus Notes in developing a tracking system to log calls and record customers' problems. While the company anticipated some changes before introducing the technology, other changes emerged as specialists and managers began working in new ways. The department built on the anticipated and emergent changes to introduce opportunity-based changes. Zeta learned from practical experience to respond to unexpected outcomes and adapt the new technology to its needs.

Not all companies are currently suited to an improvisational model. Two enabling conditions necessary are (1) alignment of the change model, the technology, and the organization and (2) resources dedicated to adapting the organization and the technology to changing conditions. Companies need to recognize the discrepancy between the way people think about technological change and the way they implement it.

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