No. WP-98-02

Conceiving IT-Enabled Organizational Change

Rob Kling
John Tillquist
Commerce and Business Administration
Indiana University
The University of British Columbia
Bloomington, IN 47405
Vancouver, British Columbia CANADA V6T 1Z2
Phone: 812-855-0954
Phone: 604-822-8392
FAX: 812-855-7955
Fax: 604-822-9574

October 2000 (revised)

Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University


Management models of IT-enabled organizational change like business process re-engineering, networking organizations, and complementary IT-to-business strategies, circulate broadly through the academic literature and popular business press. But h ow do these models carried within the management discourse influence the praxis of strategic planning? This study examines a strategic planning process as it is shaped by a popular IT-enabled change model. We found that popular cultural models of IT-ena bled change shape the organizational planning process by defining the mode of participant expression and pre-defining taken-for-granted assumptions of work and work organization. Our data show how models of IT-enabled change facilitate sense-making. We di fferentiate between socially-rich and socially-thin models, and argue that the latter, linked to popularized conceptions of management carried in the practitioner literature, are especially problematic for organizational participants and can undermine eff ective organizational action.

Acknowledgements: This research was funded, in part, by NSF Grant SRB-93-21375 and a grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. We owe special thanks to the managers at Coast Pharmaceutical who were very generous with the ir time in allowing us to conduct this study. We appreciate comments on earlier drafts from Blaise Cronin and Suzanne Iacono.


A growing league of mangers and professionals believe information technologies can drive organizational change. They see computer and communication technologies (IT) enabling their firms to streamline operations, exploiting new business opportunit ies, and globalizing production operations. They envision IT networking geographically distant work groups, distributing decision-making authority and engaging new product and service markets. These same organizational visionaries, however, find themselve s struggling to identify which forms of IT to use, and where. How can they effectively deploy their information technology investments? Planners are keenly interested in knowing how IT can be used to establish new forms of work and work organization.

Understanding the organizational implications of adopting information technologies is difficult for the non-technical organizational planner and IT professional alike. Even though planners have fairly robust methods and techniques to computerize existi ng work processes, there are few detailed guides available for conceiving IT deployments that enable new work processes and business structures to emerge. Planning IT-enabled change, it seems, has proven to be at least as challenging as the change itself .

There is no shortage of articles about the possibilities of IT and organizational change for practicing professionals in the mainstream business literature. For example, Hammer and Champy's (1993a) Re-engineering the Corporation, which makes br oad claims about how information technologies can "re-invent" the organization, has sold well over 1.5 million copies. In addition, mainstream business magazines (such as Forbes and Fortune), professional IT magazines (such as InformationWeek and ComputerWorld), and numerous consulting firm tout the possibilities of IT as organizationally transformative "in the right hands." (We wi ll return to this point, with examples, later in this paper.)

Prescriptions from these works, including some of the scholarly research, are highly abstracted and difficult for a typical managerial strategist to apply to their specific situation. While it appears that information technologies can have substantial influence on the form and operation of business organizations, there remains little reliable guidance about how organizations should best "leverage IT to create an appropriate organizational arrangement to support the business logic" (Venkatraman, 1994; 8 6).

Our research focuses on this important, relatively unexamined part of the processes by which organizations adopt and shape IT to change their processes, work practices, structures, and performance -- IT planning. How is organizational change throu gh IT deployment shaped in a planning process? How do expressions found in the literature of IT-enabled organizational change in turn influence the process of planning? To answer this, we turn to long-term, contemporaneous studies detailing the process o f strategic planning of IT and organizational practices. This paper examines how one popular management model of IT-enabled organizational change was adopted and imposed a form of conceptual ordering upon a strategic IT planning process.

The paper is structured as follows. The first section examines the phenomenon of IT-enabled change in organizations. In the next section, we discuss our observations of the business planning process at our research site, Coast Pharmaceuticals. Then we discuss how managers learn about the organizational possibilities of IT to help better understand our observations of the planning process at Coast. The conclusions from our study are then summarized and implications noted in the last section.


IT-enabled organizational change is the explicit arrangement of information technology for the purpose of enabling changes in the practices, processes or structures of an organization. IT-enabled change targets an organization's processes, s tructure, management, culture and competitive position for positive change.

At the point of production, rearrangements in the IT infrastructure can shift patterns of worker interaction, communication, and process workflow, thereby streamlining operations and increasing production efficiency. Organizationally, IT's unique capa city to expose and inform the work process diminishes the need for a supervisory middle-management role to coordinate work, and so flattens the organizational hierarchy and enables flexible process-oriented organizational structures to be implemented. An d industrially, information technologies extend the reach and influence of an organization outside of its traditional boundaries to establish strengthened linkages with external companies, consumer bases and electronic markets.

The promise of these IT-enabled transformations is a powerful lure for executives seeking more direct control over an organization and searching for the capability to impress a particular direction upon it. Successful IT-enabled change, however, hinge s upon unearthing opportunities to use IT strategically and applying these opportunities systematically. Managers who want to make major organizational changes can turn to several models that locate IT as strategic resource.

Models of IT-enabled organizational change circulate widely through the managerial discourse promising wholly new forms of organizational strategy through the deliberate and calculated deployment of IT. Media, such as popular business magazines and pr ofessional conferences, routinely extol the virtues of such topics as: business process re-engineering, telework and networked organizations, computer integrated manufacturing, IT/business complementaries, electronic integration, data warehousing, and vir tualization.

The specific IT and organizational changes to realize these visions differ: a virtual office would be very different from a manufacturing site that is organized around highly integrated systems and on-site fabrication of the products for sale. Each ap proach portrays a particular model of IT that depends on using IT to lead strategic change: reconceptualizing business relationships, creating value-added partnerships, redefining the scope of business by improving customer connectivity, increasing market channel service-based dependencies, or exploiting key features of IT technologies (Earl et al., 1995). The attraction of these models to management is their promise of a new way to conceptualize the organization of work and work processes structu red under IT.

Business Process Re-engineering

Business process re-engineering (BPR) is a particularly strong exemplar of an IT-enabled organizational change model that has been especially popular in the early 1990s. It gained rapid visibility after Hammer’s (1990) Harvard Business Review article claimed revolutionary potential in his approach to organizational change. Hammer followed on with a series of energetic conference talks that aggressively promoted BPR. His 1993 book with James Champy has sold an estimated 1.5 million copies by 1996.

Hammer and Champy (1993a) focused on information technology as "an essential enabler" for business process re-engineering. They advocate a vision that can be essentially summarized around five major precepts (Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Littlejoh n, 1996):

1. Radical transformation

Rewards to be targeted should be garnered in quantum leaps of change, not from the "low hanging fruit" of easily achieved incremental change.
2. Don't automate, obliterate
Change comes from a "clean slate" conceptualization of work arrangements.
3. Focus is process-based
Work processes are decomposed into component tasks and activities, which can then be re-engineered into work arrangements optimized for efficiency and effectiveness.
4. Top-down directed
Planning requires the global view and sweeping authority for change; re-engineered work is conceptually integrated and directed downward throughout the organization.
5. Information Technology is a critical enabler
Access to ubiquitous, seamless information powers the efficiencies and coordinates interactions within the newly engineered work processes.
These assumptions have helped galvanize many managers to choose BPR as a model for IT-enabled organizational change. They have sought to achieve what Taco Bell and Federal Express exemplify in Hammer and Champy’s (1993) characterizations of radical, quantum-leap business transformation.

Since 1994, BPR has been subject to significant critique in the scholarly business literature. The content and influence of this critique is important to understand. We will discuss the impact of these critiques in detail after presenting our case at Coast Pharmaceutical.


We began to look at Coast Pharmaceutical in early 1994 to understand the process and implications of planning IT-enabled organizational change. We conducted an in-depth longitudinal study of a strategic planning process as it unfolded at Coast, a multinational pharmaceutical corporation referred to here psuedonymously. Coast was a particularly attractive research site; at the initiation of this study Coast was just beginning the planning phase for a large-scale organizational change, one that exp licitly focused on IT to create "order of magnitude" change opportunities. By selecting a research site with a record of successful managerial initiatives, worker participation in IT developments, strong consultant support and a vibrant organizational co ntext, we expected to uncover how a particularly popular IT-enabled change model -- business process re-engineering (BPR) in this case -- guided and shaped the planning process.

We followed the strategic and technical planning process at Coast's ROMP ("Re-engineering the Order Management Process") project over an eight month period, beginning with the inception of planning for the order management process in mid-1994 and endin g in early-1995 when the planning group disbanded after presenting their final recommendations to senior management.

Coast Pharmaceutical

Coast specializes in profitable pharmaceutical and medical products that it develops internally or acquires by merging with other firms. The high entry barriers to research and development in the pharmaceutical industry coupled with long periods o f patent protection have traditionally enabled high profitability with relatively little competition for Coast. Product and service innovations not developed internally are targets for acquisition and corporate merger, while matured product lines are div ested, spun off as separate entities or, more often, purchased in whole by other pharmaceutical conglomerates. Through its long history of corporate merger and divestiture, Coast Pharmaceuticals had evolved into a mosaic of loosely knit product and servi ce divisions.

By 1994, Coast was selling its products in heterogeneous markets including over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to drugstore chains, prescription products through doctors, and surgical products to hospitals. Each of these product markets had different conv entions for sales, shipping, and handling returned items. In support of these multiple distribution and product channels, Coast had several large-scale sales support information systems and five warehouse complexes in the U.S.

Paradoxically, the constant flux and churn that surrounds Coast Pharmaceutical fosters an organizational culture of familiarity. Employees know, and often have worked with, the staff of competing firms. Social and professional relationships are commo n across the fraternal ties between organizations. Tenured employees become highly sought-after as industrial specialists in their position. Customer service representatives know their market segments as well as the weaknesses of each company's customer order process; logistics managers share new trends in inventory management and strategic partnering with their competitive counter-parts; executive managers frequently court one another for the next acquisition. In this arena of high familiarity and ins ider knowledge, employees know which companies are doing well, who pays the best, and where the most desirable location is to work.

Coast Pharmaceutical traditionally attracted and retained employees by paying attention to their working conditions. Its high rise office towers in a landscaped industrial park offer a campus setting of cultured gardens, tennis courts, and picnic area s for the corporate staff. Coast's employees work in ergonomically designed cubicles and upper managers have offices of bright brass and polished wood. The company offers lunch-hour aerobics, fully staffed child-care facilities, and a diverse program of social events for employees. Most job positions have established career paths, and opportunities for advancement are not uncommon. Coast also grants leaves of absence, not only for maternity and child-rearing, but for time off to pursue personal intere sts as well. Overtime is voluntary for hourly employees and their wages are relatively high. In the southern California warehouses, supervisors accommodate work schedules to the workers' individual needs. In a transient industrial world, Coast's corpor ate policy of organizational beneficence attracts and holds a specialized professional and semi-professional workforce.

Coast’s financial situation in 1993 was not so benign, however. Its sales per employee were about 66% that of the average for its industry. Overhead from selling, general and administrative expenses was over 20% of gross sales, and growing. Coast’s 5-year annual revenue growth was near 60% that of its industry average, running less than 5% annually.

In 1993 in an effort to stem the bleeding, Coast made the uncharacteristic move of laying off a number of highly visible operational managers . These layoffs and Coasts continuing struggle to recover profitability were leading its upper managers to seek deeper structural reforms in 1994. With no new sales product leaders on the near horizon, Coast’s management turned to expense reductions through process and prod uctivity improvement programs. Re-engineering the sales and logistics business processes appeared a plausible way to streamline costly inefficiencies out of Coast’s fragmented mosaic of operations.

Research Design

To understand how Coast came to conceptualize information technologies as enabler of organizational change, we chose to study the planning process itself rather than the resulting implementation of computerization. Planning sessions define the poli cies, standards, and practices in using IT to change workplace behaviors, activities, and business operations. This is where the conceptions of IT as change agent are most visible, and most influential. We looked to these organizational planning sessions to reveal clues to understanding how conceptions of IT-enabled work effect the planning of work.

In practice, these planning sessions are systems of social action in complex, socially dynamic settings. We employed a qualitative research design (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) as the method to uncover the forces and elements in Coast’s strategic planning process. We were particularly interested in the interactions among the participants because careful analysis of these interactions could reveal much about the complex dynamics of the planning process. The qualitative research design allowed us to focus attention on these social systems in their natural setting, eliciting participant interpretations in order to gain a deep understanding of the process of planning IT-enabled organizational change (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Much of the data collection arose from direct observation of steering committee meetings, software selection committees, weekly ROMP work sessions, and workflow analysis sessions where the processes of planning took place. These planning groups ranged from six to twenty participants per meeting. We observed and recorded the participant discussions and their patterns of interaction in sixty-four hours of meetings. We would also take opportunities during meeting breaks to discuss points raised in the discussions and to clarify issues and terminology. ]

In addition to direct observation of managerial planning, we spent several days at warehouse and office field sites observing work-in-practice. I examined the work processes of a local warehouse oper ation, including the receipt, storage, and distribution of products. We observed customer service representatives as they answered telephone calls, took product orders, and responded to customer inquiries.

In addition to our direct observations, we conducted over twenty hours of in-depth, directed interviews with participants of the change process to probe individual perceptions, and to validate and deepen our growing understanding of the planning process at Coast. Interviews at Coast Pharmaceutical spanned the organizational hierarchy, from Executive Vice President of Operations to Customer Service Representatives, tapping a broad range of views held by the stakehold ers of change.

Field notes and observations were transcribed into electronic text and collated with the various handouts, overheads, reference materials made available to us from the meetings, and published reports about Coast’s market performance. The data were systematically examined to identify key themes, such as those discussed in this article.


The Early Stages of Change Planning

In the early stages of Coast's Order Management re-engineering project, we noted that the participants were excited by the organizational breadth of the change mandate. Most participants were first- through third-level general business and IS mana gers, all with full-time responsibilities in addition to the ROMP project. Despite being overloaded by their new responsibilities, they enthusiastically welcomed the senior management mandate for change and were looking forward to creating innovative org anizational change strategies. Excitement grew in these first meetings as participants began to see the opportunity to correct what they had long seen as problems in their workplace.

[Andy] I think it's important that Coast has finally stepped up to the bar and said you know we need to move on with some of these decisions; quit dilly-dallying with it.
Contract experience: The role of the consultant

Lacking experience in Business Process Re-engineering, Coast Pharmaceutical retained a world-renowned consulting firm to guide the ROMP planning process (referred to here as "International Consulting") on a fast-track 4-month schedule. The lead consultant ("Linda") played a key role as the BPR subject matter expert, and worked in conjunction with Coast's ROMP steering committee co-chairs to choose the appropriate elements of the BPR methodology and to direct the planning process.

These joint management duties, however, were not split evenly. Linda often dictated the pace and direction of the meetings in her attempt to produce her contract deliverables within the allotted time (Tables 1 graphically depicts one such interactive discussion).

Table 1. Group interactions - Discussion content
(Sample taken during brainstorming session from 9:23 to 9:40am, 8/22/95)

Topic One
Topic Two
Topic Three
() () + ? () () () + !! !! + ? + !!
1st Level Mgr
() () () () () () () !! !!  
2nd Level Mgr
() () + H !!
() + () + !! !! !!  
2nd Level Mgr
+ + +   !!
3rd Level Mgr
() () ?  
IO IO IO !! + !! !!
2nd Level Mgr
() Comment + New info: Question !! Exclamation H Humor
Table 2. Group interactions - Discussion & Coding
(Taken during session 10:21am, 8/22/95)
[Consultant] We need to guide this with a ‘to be’; what is our return vision?
[2nd Line Mgr] We retain prices with a seven year sales history, scanning the lots when they are returned.
[1st Line Mgr] Could we offer one percent off if we did not have a return policy?
[Co-Chair] That’s not clear; what should our return strategy be? We need to talk with [other managers].
[Consultant] What’s the cost of handling it today? We need to document the process and measure the current costs.
[Supervisor] What about other policies, like minimum order policy?
[2nd Line Mgr] Returns are a thorn in our side. We have been allowing returns without a return authorization, but we need to rescind this policy. We’re also hearing about poor satisfaction from the customer … [interrupted] …


[Consultant] We need to move on.
() Comment + New info ? Question !! Exclamation H Humor

Linda was continually prompting the group to "move on" whenever the discussion strayed from the BPR program. She kept the meeting pace brisk, even to the point of suggesting charging money from tardy arrivals to planning meetings. Participants were en couraged to "stay on track" with the International Consulting BPR methodology, even while Coast's managers apprehensively perceived their own goals diverging from Linda's.

[Katy] It's just a matter of you get it done. And [our executives] don't want to hear that you need to extend deadlines, because they're working with conflicting deadlines. And all the deadlines have to be met. So it's not something that people are real receptive to in terms of changing. I think in the BPR, International Consulting was probably less receptive to changes in timelines, understandably so, than anybody else.

By the second week, the initial excitement felt at the beginning of the project had by begun to give way to a growing sense of stress and fatigue. Before one meeting, a participant quietly told a colleague sitting next to us how she fell asleep at her kitchen table as she prepared slides for the next day's activities; she didn't have time to review them and hoped that they made sense.

This episode raises an issue echoed continuously by team members: participants were overwhelmed by increasing work responsibilities. "I feel like a jet pilot," said one, "We're flying fast and low. I don't have the time to think ahead because all of my attention is taken dodging the things right in front of me." Participants were feeling stretched between the full-time commitment of the ROMP project and the equally demanding responsibilities of their regular jobs. They felt that trying to meet thei r daily obligations left little or no time to address even the most substantive issues

The constant push to keep up with plan milestones and to achieve project deliverables did not allow participants time to slow down and evaluate the impacts of the planned changes:

[Katy] My output's not going to be worth anything if fifty percent, sixty percent of my time is dedicated to [another] project, the rest is supposed to be dedicated to BPR and then somewhere in-between there you fit the management responsibilities tha t you have on a daily basis, plus providing service to your customers.

But, lacking in BPR experience and expertise, the management team felt limited in their ability to modify the International Consulting's methodology, and were thus tied to its deadlines and deliverables. By default, Coast continued to follow Internati onal's methodology:

[Dottie] (to Linda) Tell us exactly what you want done for next week

[Lou] (to Linda) Yeah, is next week to be a comparison of "as is" to "to be" or a validation of the metrics?

[Linda] Try to come up with stretch targets for key areas. The whole point of the [job holder] interviews and summaries is to quantify the work.

[Katy, Co-chair] (to group) Well, we're agreed to do this, so the question is how can it get done? What do you need to reach a comfort level?

[Dottie] Well, we need time to analyze what [information] we have already.

We took special note of the way in which the group had relatively little time to prepare for each meeting. All the participants had on-going operational and administrative responsibilities, as well as involvement in one or two other major organizational initiatives at the time. The typical 2-4 hour meetings were themselves too short to discuss the teams analyses, and this further exacerbated the s ense of time pressure on the group. For example, the team had at one point identified about 200 job activities to measure, dozens of "As Is" current work practices and an equal number of "To Be" stretch goals for the re-engineered work practices. There w as too little time to discuss all of them in the next meeting, and during the meeting Linda directed the team members to select only a few of the most important for discussion.

As the study unfolded, it became clear that the change methodology was not working well for Coast. Despite assistance from International Consulting, there was a growing discontent among the participants with the perceived limitations of the Internation al's methodology, the time available to document Coast’s operations, and the resources to analyze the information and produce recommendations. Despite this discontent, however, Coast's executive management continued to support Linda and emphasized sticki ng to International Consulting's BPR methodology:

[Mary] Is International Consulting [the group] that we should be using?

[VP] Let me make it clear. It's this group's responsibility to make the process. I'm hearing we don't like International, but the problem ... (interrupted)

[Mary] It's not International, it's their method.

In off-line meetings and hallway conversations, Coast's managers shared concerns that critical workplace issues were not being addressed.

[Karrie] We spend too much time filling out forms and too little time thinking.

[Katy] Also you're not getting the information you need.

[VP] There is a process problem. People are pissed off. Let's get past that and change the process.

[Katy] [But] we don't have time, to really close on one assignment before starting another, before being pushed into another thing.

Participants of the strategic change meetings felt constrained in their choice of discussion topics. They were hesitant to offer up problems and potential alternatives for fear of challenging Linda's expertise. During one meeting, a junior planning p articipant became agitated about the planning method but quickly censured himself in front of Linda:
  [Dean] But we're lacking even a half-baked test for reasonableness! We're looking at the pieces but not at the steps or method. (After glancing at Linda) -- but we're trusting you that it will all work out.

At another point in the meeting, a participant defers to Linda's claim to expert knowledge:

[Dean] It seems to me that we should be spending more time on the 'to be' [planning], -- but then, I don't have fifteen years experience doing BPR's [as Linda had claimed earlier].

As a result, many issues of critical relevance to implementation feasibility were being sidelined or tabled from the discussion. Managers were becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to express themselves in the planning meetings. Surpr isingly little of these compounding frustrations were voiced in public discussions. An unspoken taboo on questioning the appropriateness and implementability of the BPR process permeated the meetings. What was happening?

Learning to Talk the Talk

It was in the initial meetings that Coast's chief architects of organizational change learned the BPR model. They had no direct experiences to a BPR process and little more than scant knowledge of basic BPR principles. A short two hour presentati on and lecture by International Consulting introduced the meeting participants to BPR; most of their learning, however, came later through interaction with the planning methodology through Linda. Through repeated use of prepared workbooks, forms, and pla nning guides, participants learned what was to be considered important, meaningful, and pertinent in the planning discussions. Their collective concentration focused in on the methodology's key measures, goals, and deliverables as they worked to make sen se of the BPR planning process.

A shared perception of the legitimacy of the BPR change process implied by Coast's executive decision to adopt the methodology was re-enforced through snippets of BPR knowledge garnered from the popular press. These snippets frequently depicted broad popular support with claims of spectacular success. Planning meetings became peppered with stories of corporate innovation and colorful allegories of "best practice" firms. Within a few weeks, the meeting participants had acquired an operating knowledge of the BPR process and, as a group, had understood the mainstream BPR catechism.

During this time the planning group's vocabulary had begun to converge. Key phrases and catch-words -- resonant with the high-risk, high-reward rhetoric of BPR -- became embraced as shorthand monikers. These shared a vivid imagery emphasizing energize d, heroic conceptions of management united in the face of relentless business competition. Phrases like "process ownership", "quantum leap improvement", "breakthrough ideas", and "worker empowerment" appeared in meeting discussions and personal interacti ons among the managers. These words and phrases became important markers for the BPR cognoscenti -- having command of the BPR vocabulary meant the ability to express ideas with greater legitimacy and social weight than ideas expressed in the pedestrian t alk of the workplace. Members "in the know" were commonly attributed higher status and greater discussion time in strategy meetings.

Low Hanging Fruit

One of these terms, "low hanging fruit," diffused quickly throughout Coast's managerial discourse. Low hanging fruit is a visual metaphor for the low-effort, high-payoff changes that could be made easily in the workplace -- "low hanging" be cause it was seen as being easily within reach, and "fruit" because it referred to a tangible reward. The term was introduced to Coast in the ROMP kick-off meeting by International Consulting. It inspired managers to think of quick returns on the road t o substantive and rewarding organizational change. It re-enforced management's expectations for "order of magnitude" changes along a path where even the collateral issues would yield valuable organizational returns.

"Low hanging fruit" quickly became a mainstay catch-phrase within the ROMP core team. It was repeated frequently in meetings and in personal discussions among the change planners. But as Linda revealed, the metaphor also carried a deeper significance :

[Linda] Low hanging fruit [means] quick wins ... it's the way we do things and why [we're] not going further in a particular area. The "low hanging fruit" metaphor defined, focused, and prescribed issues of the planning process. As with other catch phrases and idioms learned by the planning team, "low hanging fruit" impressed a particular vision of work organization and change on to the group. This happened in several ways. First, it homogenized vision. While connoting easy gains, "low hanging fruit" defined the terms on which the planning process was erected. Second, it defined relevance. Tied to themes of time, cost, and qu ality, "low hanging fruit" pushed the group to conceptualize work in specific terms. Third, it inculcated a normative compliance mechanism. Supported by pronouncements of executive support and implemented at the continued insistence of Linda, a group no rm of adherence to the BPR methodology emerged to regulate the group's planning activities.

1. Homogenizing vision. The "low hanging fruit" metaphor implicitly communicated a central theme of the BPR planning model to Coast's planning group. Along the road to "quantum leap" changes, rewards so taken-for-granted that they were not appr opriate for debate and discussion were deemed "low hanging fruit". This trope impressed values onto the group regarding the appropriateness and legitimacy of discussion topics. "Low hanging fruit" topics vying for the group's attention were by definitio n undeserving of discussion time. A discursive boundary had been created, separating legitimate ROMP discussion topics from superfluous "low hanging fruit" issues.

In effect, labeling an issue or idea as "low hanging fruit" during the planning meetings discounted it as immaterial to the ROMP planning process, and by implication, to the immediate planning discussion. In this way, an evaluative sense -- a "yardsti ck" for assaying topical value -- had been created, demarcating the boundaries of group discourse. An evaluative criteria of discursive worthiness had emerged, a categorization which would come to constrain planning behaviors and lead to the emergence of a norm ensuring group self-censorship of "low hanging fruit" ideas.

2. Defining Relevant Behavior. From this basic distinction between "low hanging fruit" and "real" issues, the "low hanging fruit" metaphor came to proscribe the activities considered inappropriate to the group. Acting upon an idea branded as "low hanging fruit" was not only a waste of time, but worse, it was considered a distraction to real change planning:

[Katy] [Low hanging fruit] is where we were getting bogged down ... Don't get bogged down in all the details; don't get so bogged down in it that you never get out.

Only the "order of magnitude" returns warranted substantive discussion and analysis in the ROMP forum. Discussions of "low hanging fruit" opportunities were cut short. In adopting a new metaphor for conceptualizing the planning process, the group had also implicitly adopted prescriptions for defining legitimate planning activities. "Low hanging fruit" had become an imperative shaping the behavior of the group in a very real way.

3. Creating a Norm of Compliance. A norm of tacit compliance emerged early on to enforce adherence to the BPR methodology and conformance to rules of group discussion. Participants were encouraged to "stay on track" with the BPR agenda and we re admonished to "move on" whenever the discussion varied from the planning methodology. Led by Linda at first, the entire group ultimately adopted these self-regulating behaviors as the pressure to produce tangible results increased for everyone. This new norm ensured individuals' public compliance with the BPR vision and the "appropriate" planning behaviors.

Job Holder Interview Worksheets

Another example of how the BPR model impressed itself onto the planning process can be seen from a tool introduced to capture the existing work organization. Following International’s established methodology, Linda charged the core BPR planning te am with identifying and recording each of Coast's major business processes. Sub-teams were formed, each assigned to capture a current snapshot of the work activities performed by one of Coast's many operational work-groups. Sub-teams consisted of a core team member, as team-leader, and up to six subordinates from the member's home workplace. Interviews of key informants ("job holders") were held for each major business process by these sub-teams. These sub-teams dutifully recorded workplace activities a nd tasks onto pre-formatted worksheets provided by International Consulting. These worksheets included columns for job activities with quantitative performance metrics, estimates of the current level of accomplishment, and "stretch targets," challenging but attainable performance goals associated with individual activities. The resulting "job holder interviews" were presented at the ROMP core meetings.

Figure 1. Simplified Job Holder Worksheet



Interviewer: _________________________

Job Holder: _________________________

Date: _________________________

Task / Activity
Metric Used

(time, quality, cost)

Current Level
Stretch Target
Answer phones
Num of rings
80% answered in 3 rings 95% answered in 3 rings




These worksheets did more than facilitate data collection. Committed to using the worksheets to gather information about work, Coast's managers were implicitly organizing work through the characterizations of work depicted by the worksheets. In this way the worksheets imposed a particular view of work onto the planning process. The worksheets pushed the group to conceptualize work as activity-based business processes expressed in terms of time, cost, and quality. This tacit depiction of work promot ed and re-enforced the centrality of measurement metrics, the top-down planning and control, and the industrial engineering emphasis of the BPR model.

At the same time, other types of work-related information were systematically made unavailable to the group in any organized form. Skill and resource requirements, work pacing and intensity, and patterns of worker interdependencies, for example, were not collected. Issues of worker incentives, job status, workforce demographics and concerns for interesting and meaningful work were marginalized by the emphasis on time, cost, and quality metrics. By pre-defining the type and amount of information gath ered about work, the worksheets implicitly constrained the group's conceptualization of how people actually work. Workplace issues and worker input to the planning process were systematically under-represented by limiting the scope and type of informa tion collected. This was an important step in the adoption of the BPR model, since all subsequent analysis and planning would come to be shaped by the nature of the information available to the group.

By treating work as a limited subset of concisely identifiable tasks and activities, work could be rationally "engineered." Because the methodology did not account for many social and material complexities of workplace, work was conceptually separable from its context and from the worker. Workers in this vision were relegated to the role of "job holders," malleable agents tacitly assumed to be qualified and compliant in their assigned tasks and organizationally responsible for their work context. In this way, workforce management issues were conceptually negated, simplifying the planning process by narrowing the fundamental definition of work. Portrayed simply as identifiable tasks and activities, work could then be "re-engineered" to optimize orga nizational performance and imposed downward from a centralized planning authority. It is this step of task rationalization and process optimization that is the heart of "quantum leap change" in International Consulting's model of work organization.

When the discussions in the planning meetings strayed from the worksheet categorizations, the issues raised were generally treated dismissively, as if potentially derailing to the planning process. The norm of "sticking to the subject" kept the focus o f attention on the consensually narrowed view of work. Themes central to the BPR philosophy – most notably, cost-reduction or value-added service provisioning – initiated lengthy discussion and debate during the planning sessions. Issues of technical fea sibility and detailed business praxis, however, were avoided and even discouraged as peripheral or even counter to the goals of the planning process. The technical benefits of converting Coast's decades-old legacy mainframe systems to a client-server arc hitecture, for instance, was deemed "low hanging fruit" on the way to the quantum leaps of ubiquitous information accessibility and order of magnitude customer service improvements. As "low hanging fruit", the daunting technical complexity of such a conv ersion was not raised during the planning meetings.

Making the Best with What You've Got

While the ROMP committee, as a whole, internalized the BPR philosophy and accepted International Consulting's methodology, most Coast managers felt obligated to treat the rules, procedures and activities of BPR planning as a new, taken-for-granted way of planning work change. They personally internalized only certain component elements of change philosophy, those that were consistent with their own held world-view, while judiciously entertaining the rest in the public group setting. In huddled g roups during meeting breaks, people would talk lively about their own visions for change, about ideas to resolve their workplace problems, and about the polity of organizational change:

[Andy] My chief concern is management commitment. We have the right people, the question is if we'll have them to do it.

[Howie] You don't see any exec's stepping up to the bar. This is a global project, no longer just [project] and [project], but the executive committee is not saying that.

[Gould] In their rush to empower, upper management has just washed their hands of it.
Outside of another meeting:
[Kim] The [finance division] is very dogmatic: 'this is how it was, and this is how it will stay' -- You can't report against payroll detail because they don't believe you should do that. It's one of their strong beliefs.

[Susie] This is more of a vision problem – the sales force needs to get a common vision [about how orders are to be entered].

Upon returning to the meeting, however, the participants reverted back to a vocabulary of strategic change and quantum leap improvements.
[Thomas] (restarting the meeting) Our primary focus is to (1) set achievable expectations, (2) map software functionality with the re-engineering vision, (3) define functional business processes and flows, and (4) develop a 'best practice' business mod el.
Managerial planners balanced the public face of the committed team player with their private set of interests and beliefs. In public settings, they followed the emerging norms of compliance and enthusiasm for the engineering rationality of the change model. In private, they shared frustrations and fashioned agreements to work around the planning process.

But working within the BPR methodology created serious problems for the planners. Many felt that they could not articulate important issues under the BPR rubric. Complaints about a perception of limited progress were frequent during breaks and betwe en meetings, and began to spill over into the meetings themselves. An inability to discuss certain aspects of work believed important was becoming problematic for the participants. They began to point to the BPR methodology as constraining the planning process:

[Dean] The interview guide is not useful - just the first sheet.

[Karrie] [It's not our job to be] going through the books. Linda's job is to fit the method to the current process.

[Joan] The [method] binder, as good as Linda think's it is, is inadequate for our function.

A New Management Style

While Coast's senior management was particularly adept at managing mergers and acquisitions, historically much of the strategic and operational planning responsibilities had been the responsibility of the middle management. Motivated by the front- line organizational ranks in reaction to changes in the industry or the appearance of a new opportunity for doing business, planning was typically a process of consensus-driven collaborations among mid- and low-level operational managers. Ideas on improv ing operating performance traditionally appeared bottom-up, with the front-line workers being invited to discuss problems, offer opinions, and propose solutions. Coast's culture encouraged front-line workers to express a comparatively high degree of voic e in their work. It was not uncommon for workers to adapt work practices to change or in capitalizing on opportunity:

[Susan, CSR] The process runs the procedures, the procedure doesn't run the process. So if the process changes, then the procedures changes. It's not the other way around. Uh, if the procedure's wrong, and it's not what you're doing, then the proce dure needs to change to reflect what you are doing ... And if that is the best way to do it, we want everybody to be doing it that way. And then we change our procedures to reflect that.
So it was not surprising that, recruited as BPR planners, Coast's managers had difficulty in working within the top-down mandate for change. Most managers had traditionally held an open repertoire with their subordinates, which made the shift to forma l "job holder interviews" awkward and unnatural. The top-down imposition of work change was a different style of managing change for these planners. The direction of dialogue had to be reversed -- it was now the managers asking questions and dictating p lanning rather than the employees offering solutions.

Unmet Expectations and a Return to the Drawing Board

In their final recommendation, the ROMP core team presented seven "quantum leap" opportunities to senior management. The executives were unhappy with the proposals and asked the planning leaders to re-assess their recommendations and to provide fu rther justification for their implementation plans:

[Katy] [The executive steering committee] have asked us to go back to the drawing board and tie in some additional numbers and recommendations of individuals that could champion those quantum leaps and bring it back to them. We think probably they'll buy into two or three, if we're lucky.
Despite the best efforts of many, the outcome of this planning process had not brought about the radical changes that had been eagerly anticipated at the project outset. Even though the Coast ROMP would not be considered a failure, it was not clear to the participants why it had not been a success. The official explanation was that the recommendations focused too much on streamlining existing operations and too little on creating competitive opportunity:
[Katy] The steering committee [was] saying this is not strategic enough. This is not quantum leap enough. If you are going to do a BPR, the incremental things you can do along the way -- you're empowered, make them happen. But we would like recomme ndations on things that are going to put us where we need to be and give us a competitive edge. So they actually sent us back and said, 'Umm, beef this up. You need to really do some more strategic type things.'
The ROMP participants themselves blamed the foreshortened planning schedule, their double-duties as planners and operational managers, poor consultant support, and a stodgy organizational hierarchy for the disappointing outcome. Despite these reservat ions, Katy and other ROMP participants saw important gains in some incremental changes as well as major structural changes. However, Coast’s upper managers, cued to expect far reaching "quantum-leap" changes that ROMP did not yet propose, did no t agree; BPR was supposed to be "radical."


How should we interpret these events at Coast Pharmaceutical? The easiest interpretations would be to blame the managers for relative incompetence or to blame the lack of time, resources, and the quality of consulting direction available to the gr oup. We don’t share this view. In fact, Coast was in a sufficiently good cash position in 1995 and 1996 that it’s managers were able to acquire six other firms and still show modest profit levels. And the other projects engaging our manager’s time, like a concomitant ISO9000 certification project and a large-scale system implementation, were successful despite the equally constraining time and resource limitations. Instead we offer an alternative and more troubling explanation, which requires that intro duce two key concepts: cultural models and institutional circuits.

Cultural Models

Cultural models are abstractions that represent our conceptual knowledge. Anthropologists have successfully used the concept of cultural models to understand the constructs through which people experience their worlds (Holland, 1992; D'Andra de & Strauss, 1981). They are cognitive structures in memory that represent stereotypical concepts. Schemata structure our knowledge of objects and situations, events and actions, and sequences of events and actions. Cognitive anthropologists have gai ned some empirical leverage by studying cultural models of specific behaviors rather than the much more encompassing, diffuse and elusive concept of culture.

One can ask, for example, what are the schemata that faculty in major business schools employ in evaluating a new MBA course? The question requires empirical data to answer definitively. But, we believe that in the U.S., the cultural model of a valid M BA course requires (at minimum) a brief description, syllabus, sample textbooks or readings, identifiable prerequisites, and an explanation of the course’s placement in the overall curriculum. If the members of a curriculum committee received a proposal t hat included only a brief description and a note that indicated that "readings, activities, and the frequency and duration of class meetings depend upon the mix of students and interests of the instructor that week of the term," we suspect that it would be not taken seriously. Whether it would be derided with hostility or laughed off as a joke could depend upon who proposed it. The main point is that business school faculty (a social group) are likely to share tacit criteria for what constitutes a valid course. We would refer to such tacitly organized criteria as a "cultural model of an MBA course." If the faculty at most major business schools were have such models, we can refer to a "mainstream model of an MBA course." It i s possible, and even likely, that there are some universities where the local cultural model of an MBA course differs from the mainstream model.

Cultural models are usually tacit; they help people organize their lifeworlds and motivate people to act and feel in specific ways (Tillquist & Kling, 1997). The concept of cultural models is more focused and empirically accessible than that of the more diffuse and common concept of culture or even organizational culture. One can, for example, examine the extent to which there are similarities and differences in the cultural model of "the MBA course" at universities with considerably diff erent overall cultures (say, Harvard and Rutgers). To the extent that there is strong consensus about the cultural models of the MBA course in a university, one can ask how the model mobilizes faculty and students to teach and learn (including their level of effort in preparing for a class, dress, concern with attendance, etc.).

Cultural models help people, such as managers, make sense of the complex realities in which they find themselves. Swanson and Raimiller (1997) use the conceptually similar term "organizational vision" for schemata about organizational change that helps organizational participants make sense of ambiguous situations. One important contribution of their argument is the claim that cultural models can help organizational participants make sense of innovations within a localized context. Their posi tion contrasts with that of standard institutional theory (March & Olsen, 1989; Powell & DiMaggio, 1991) which would hold that cultural models would congeal as a practice becomes widespread.

When researchers try to abstract the key common features of an organization reform, such as BPR, they are identifying the mainstream cultural model for that practice. For example, we discussed earlier the five elements of the mainstream cultural model of BPR identified by Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Littlejohn (1996):

1. Radical transformation

2. Don't automate, obliterate

3. Focus is process-based

4. Top-down directed

5. Information Technology is a critical enabler

These make convenient summary of the essential elements of the mainstream BPR cultural model for the sake of our discussion.

Institutional Circuits

But how do managers learn this mainstream cultural model of BPR? We find the answer hinges on another concept, that of Institutional Circuitry. Agre (1995) abstractly characterized institutional circuitry as "the forms and pathways that specific social formations maintain for the movement of their own categories of communicative practice."

He went on to amplify this conception in these terms:

"The institutional circuitry of academia ... includes the production and distribution of scholarly books and journals, but it also includes the circulation of draft papers, the ritualized explanation of one's research to others at conferences, the accelerating chatter of electronic mail, and the promotion of keywords." (from Agre, 1995) In a similar way, we observe that the institutional circuitry of mainstream managerial discourse in the U.S. includes the distribution channels for making management books, articles and talks accessible to practicing managers. These channels inc lude newsstands (for magazines such as Forbes, Fortune and Business Week and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal), public libraries, chain bookstores that promote popular management books (i.e., B. Dalton, Borders), and workshops for managers organized by trade and professional associations. They also include less formalized channels such as the company-specific circulation lists for subscriptions to trade and business publications.

In contrast, we also identify an institutional circuitry of scholarly managerial discourse. In the U.S., this includes distribution channels such as university libraries (for journals such as Organizational Science and Administrative Science Quarterly), research conferences, and university-based seminars. These serve as forum for the construction and interpretation of scholarly critique and debate about managerial practice, and as channels through which conceptualizations about w ork and work organization circulate.

These characterizations are brief sketches. Each set of institutional circuits is much more elaborate and complex. The messages carried within these institutional circuits are shaped and reformed to match the nature of the circuit. For example, the institutional circuitry of mainstream managerial discourse found in airplanes and frequent flyer clubs where traveling managers can readily find popular business magazines (but not scholarly management journals) often focus on short, attention-gr abbing topics that a particular pith to the traveling professional. In contrast, messages carried within the institutional circuitry of scholarly managerial discourse funneled through the assigned readings for graduate management courses and the i nformal circulation of pre-published manuscripts among scholars follows the prescriptive traditions of appropriateness and style for academic reporting expected in that circuit.

These circuits and the ideas that flow through them overlap at some points. It would take a different study to map out these institutional circuits in detail, as well as their relative influence for different constituencies. We can see, however, that some sophisticated mainstream business magazines, such as the Harvard Business Review, can be found on major newsstands and in both public and university libraries. But this is a relatively rare kind of example: journals that are supposed to appeal to both scholars and managers, such as the Sloan Management Review, the California Management Review, and MIS Quarterly, circulate infrequently in the locations that characterize the institutional circuitry of mainstream managerial discourse.

It is important to keep the relative size of these intersecting flows in mind. Cross-over journals, such as the Sloan Management Review, circulate fewer than 10,000 copies an issue, while there are approximately 15 million managers in the Unite d States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992: Table 629). These crossover journals are typically found in only the largest magazine stands. In contrast, mainstream business magazines such as Business Week circulate hundreds of thousands of copies an d are readily found in the small newsstands, at airports, street corners and urban supermarkets.

Cultural Models of BPR in the Institutional Circuits of Managerial Discourse

In 1998, the scholarly community has access to a number of compelling critiques of the mainstream cultural model of BPR (i.e., Davenport, 1994; Galliers, and Galliers & Baker, 1995; Jackson, 1996; Robey et. al, 1995; Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Li ttlejohn, 1996; Wilmott, 1994). Circulating in the institutional circuitry of scholarly managerial discourse, these articles differ in the details of their diagnoses but they are all based on "socially rich" conceptions of organizations a nd the implementation of IT. By "socially rich" we mean they conceptualize organization as settings in which the participants have complex social relationships characterized by subtle interdependencies, periodic conflicts, and multiple interpre tations.

The earliest of these articles, Tom Davenport’s "Reengineering: Business change of mythic proportions?" was published in the June 1994 issue MIS Quarterly. It appeared after Coast Pharmaceutical’s ROMP had been commissioned with International Co nsulting and about a month before the kickoff meeting in August 1994. Coast’s managers would have had to be aggressive readers of the MIS research literature to find t his article, let alone find it to be a compelling basis cause for stopping or re-conceptualizing ROMP.

In contrast, the institutional circuitry of mainstream managerial discourse contained numerous articles between 1991 and 1995 that almost uniformly praised BPR. The title of Thomas Stewart’s "Welcome to the revolution." published in a December 1993 issue of Fortune and John Byrne’s "Belt-tightening the smart way" in an October 1993 issue of Business Week illustrates the generally buoyant tone of this popular literature.

More specifically, Fortune and Business Week published 37 articles that discussed reengineering before or during Coast’s ROMP project, while Forbes published 11 articles. Forbes and Fortune both published long sympathetic interviews with Michael Hammer, and Business Week identified Reengineering the Corporation as one of the three best business books of 1993 (Demong , 1993).

This mainstream managerial literature did not portray BPR as easy or painless. Business journalists emphasized the heroism of "transformational managers" who lead these projects against the opposition of other managers and under conditions wh ere employees were often fearful of being fired. In this period, the mainstream business press published some modest criticisms of BPR. For example, consultant Charles Handy was featured briefly in an October 1994 Fortune article, and was quoted a s saying:

"The trouble with reengineering when it is done badly -- which it mostly is -- is that it leaves people shattered, even the people left behind. They begin to realize they could be reengineered next and begin thinking about looking for a better place to work. So, in sum, good concept, bad practice. By now, it's probably damaged beyond repair. I say to hell with reengineering." (Fortune Magazine, 1994). Despite his slam of BPR, Handy still refers to it as a "good concept." We could not find any articles in the institutional circuits of the mainstream business literature that offer the kind of fundamental critical analysis that appears in the research based business literature.

Institutional Circuits of Scholarly Business Publications

The mainstream business magazines circulate through subscriptions to individuals and organizations, various libraries and newsstands. In contrast, scholarly business journals, such as Organizational Science or Accounting Management and In formation Technology, circulate many fewer copies and through different circuits – primarily individual subscriptions and academic libraries. The research-based narratives are often more complex and contingent than those that appear in the mainstream business media.

In the early 1990s, articles in the scholarly business literature seemed supportive of BPR. As an extreme example, Caron, Jarvenpaa, and Stoddard (1994) published an article about Cigna Insurance company’s successes with BPR in Management Informati on Systems Quarterly. The article, partly a testimonial to heroic and forward-looking managers at Cigna, was awarded a first prize in 1994 by the journals’ sponsoring society, the Society for Information Management. However, in 1994, a set of articles that systematically analyzed and criticized BPR’s social assumptions began to appear in the scholarly managerial journals (Davenport, 1994; Jackson, 1996; Robey et. al, 1995; Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Littlejohn, 1996; Wilmott, 1994). These five articles appeared in the MIS Quarterly; Journal of Management Studies; Accounting, Management and Information Technology; California Management Review, and the Personnel Review.

The title of Davenport’s (1994) MISQ article, "Reengineering: Business change of mythic proportions?" indicates the less reverential tone of this emerging stream of critical discourse. But these articles do not simply bash BPR. For example, Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Littlejohn, (1996) are sympathetic to some of the aims of BPR, but critique some of the key assumptions, such as those that emphasize quantum leaps in organizational performance. Through a careful study of a BPR at Pacific Telephone, they found that about 50% of the organizational gains came from incremental change and the kind of "low hanging fruit" that was disparaged by International Consulting at Coast Pharmaceutical.

In summary, we identify two major institutional circuits in which business practices are a central topic – mainstream and scholarly. Managers and professionals who carefully read articles that circulate in either circuit would have found that BPR was treated enthusiastically in both circuits through 1994, and that there was some criticism to be found afterwards. However, the cultural models of BPR and organizational change differ in these two circuits. Articles in the mainstream circuits portrayed organizational change as a set of loosely defined practices that could be reshaped by heroic managers. In contrast, the cultural models in the scholarly literature tend to identify specific practices, and treat organizations as complex social systems in which learning, trust, power, and incentives structure matter in specific ways. The criticisms of BPR that appeared in the scholarly circuit were more critical in analytica lly examining key assumptions and contrasting them with fine-grained organizational behavior.

We don’t believe that managers would normally study either literature in depth. In fact, the way that people interpret images and themes "in the news" can be extremely complex and indirect (Neuman, Just, and Crigler, 1992).  However, the range of ideas and their treatments can influence readers’ perceptions of which ideas are ascendant (as in new business practices), and give important cues about their legitimacy and workability.


How did managers at Coast tap into these two institutional circuits of business discourse? Based on our interviews and observations in the planning meetings, we found Coast's Managers to be familiar with the popular management literature. The firm dist ributed daily copies of the Wall Street Journal to several dozen managers, and popular managerial magazines as well as trade magazines were visible in offices around the firm. Managers indicated a general familiarity with these articles from these news sources. However, we did not find evidence that Coast's managers were exposed to the socially rich organizational analyses found in the research-based practitioner literature — journals such as MIS Quarterly or the Sloan Management Review . Even the Harvard Business Review seemed to be read infrequently, and then only selectively by a few upper managers.

We believe that the a major effect of the mainstream business literature at Coast was not the informational content of the articles. It was, instead, the appearance of widespread acceptance and legitimization of the BPR and IT-enabled change portrayed by these trade magazines and management newspapers. To learn about the weaknesses of BPR when their project was taking shape in the Spring of 1994, a Coast manager w ould have had to be reading the Sloan Management Review and found Tom Davenport’s June 1994 article or reading other journals in the scholarly institutional circuits. We found no evidence of any access to scholarly management literature at Coast. I n order to reshape the BPR or abandon it, managers would have also had to find such articles compelling, and use them as part of an effort to confront International Consulting’s consultants. This would have been heroic, indeed.

The assumption of BPR's widespread legitimacy made it easier to mobilize support and garner organizational resources at Coast. Despite a surprisingly low level of active reading of the popular literature, key knowledgeable subject matter experts were able to sell Coast's executive management on undertaking the large-scale, multimillion dollar ROMP project with little explicit justification. The broad popular support of BPR, complemented by claims of spectacular success in "best practice" organization s, pre-disposed Coast's management to adopt the BPR strategy without a detailed examination of the project's feasibility and without substantial evidence indicating the probability for a successful outcome.

But the limited amount of research and reading about BPR and the diffuse perception of BPR as a viable change strategy do not explain how the BPR model penetrated Coast's organizational boundaries. How do businesses detailed and applicable approaches from highly generalized business models such as BPR's IT-enabled change?

At Coast, that transport mechanism was International Consulting. We found that the business consultants, with a specific methodology, terminology and templates, played a large role in translating the relatively abstract BPR strategic change model into planning practice at Coast. General BPR model imperatives were introduced t o Coast's planning process through International's methodological tools and techniques — International's job holder worksheets, "best practice" examples, and tutorial exercises. Their methodology elaborated upon the basic premises of the BPR model of org anizational change, binding the model constraints to the reality of Coast's planning process. Through International's methodology, the abstract BPR model was given form and substance; through that form, the methodology bound thinking about work and organ izations, portraying and privileging certain views and beliefs in their application.

This methodology shaped and defined the organizational planning process by focusing attention on particular aspects and characterizations of work. These planning activities defined by the methodology served notice as to what was to be considered impor tant and relevant. Operationalizations of key model constructs, such as "low hanging fruit", framed the planning discourse and shaped the planning process. The selection and arrangement of elements from the workplace shaped the definitive and evaluative context of work within the closed calculus of the BPR methodology. Norms of adherence to the methodology and its tenets re-enforced the centrality of the model's key themes as the group encouraged pro-model thinking and discouraged conceptual deviance. The consultant-provided methodology translated highly abstracted organizational change models into concrete tools and techniques that inculcated Coast's planning participants to the BPR model paradigm.

The often socially thin characterizations of organizational change represented by the consultant’s "one-size-fits-all" methodology shaped and constrained the process and content of planning sessions to the neglect of essential elements of work and the workplace. The model of organizational functioning at Coast de-emphasized the role of incentives, status, power, and the functional and social interrelationships among the workers. The planning processes discounted concerns for work intensity, pacing, a nd workplace routineity. Work was, in effect, re-defined to fit the BPR model. A divide formed between "work" as discussed in planning sessions and "work" as executed in the workplace. Planning participants recognized that what they were talking about was clearly different from their own daily experience. Even so, they were unable to discuss work concerns, even their own. Their private discussions of an overwhelming workload and vanishing job security did not make it into the publ ic forum of Coast's planning meetings.

As the rank-and-file at Coast were implicitly expected to be compliant with organizational change plans, the organizational planners themselves were tacitly expected to embrace the organizational change model and accept the underlying assumptions of wo rk organization it implied. Managers at Coast found themselves either unwilling or unable to express their concerns and opinions which did not closely follow the BPR model.

Individually, planners had not completely "bought into" the dominant BPR planning discourse adopted by the group. Most felt constrained in expressing alternative solutions and workplace concerns for fear of being branded as rogue and uncooperative. T hey sensed it politically dangerous to run against the pre-disposed organizational support of the BPR model. Basic elements of the BPR model as presented by the consultants went unchallenged for fear of being perceived as ignorant of popular management t rends. Managerial planners felt compelled to "go along," sufficing to recast and reformulate problems and issues in terms of the BPR imperatives and complementary to goals of process efficiency and customer service.

Largely insulated from the critical discourse of fine-grained organizational research, Coast's managers were not exposed to socially rich ideas about IT planning that engage in substantive discussions about computerization and work. They remained unde r-armed in contesting or adapting popularly held conceptions of organizational change. Planning participants sufficed to garner most of their working understanding o f management models through the concrete interpretations expressed in consultant methodologies and through the sound-bites of the popular literature. They acquired information about organizational change models through "best case" anecdote and highly sum marized interpretations from these sources. Their vocabulary coalesced around catch phrases and idioms as they compliantly re-framed expression and solution of problems under the new central organizing principles of the change model. These catch phrases and idioms identified the in-group of BPR planners, creating a hierarchy of social status and power within the planning process. These buzzwords and catch phrasings also constrained the expression of some forms of talk, marginalizing opportunities incon sistent with the fundamental BPR imperatives and downplaying issues incompatible with the BPR vision.


This case study illustrates how cultural models influence the planning for a specific organizational reform. It also examines the ways that managers come to understand specific cultural models and try to act in accord with them.

In a way that is congruent with Swanson and Ramiller (1997), we examined the ways that the mainstream cultural model of BPR ("organizing visions," in the ir argot) helped Coast Pharmaceutical’s managers to make sense of organizational opportunities. The specific organizational opportunity was an effort to transform parts of their sales and logistics organization through a BPR; BPR is itself an example of a broader family of reform programs – IT enabled organizational changes.

This study goes beyond Swanson and Ramiller’s conceptual essay in two major ways:

1. Swanson and Ramiller conceptualizations did not indicate in detail how o rganizational participants learn about specific cultural models. We have discussed the institutional circuits of mainstream managerial discourse as an important conduit, and have empirical data about the role of a high-status consulting firm as a specific cultural communicator, in the Coast Pharmeceutical case. There are other stud ies that also examine managerial discourse (see Thompson and O’Connor, 1995; Garnsey and Rees, 1996), but which don’t examine how such discourse influences behavior inside organizations. Kling and Iacono (1988) identifies the role of consultants and industry workshops as important change agents (with some data about material requirements planning systems). The Coast study makes linkages between the circuits of managerial discourses and organizational practices much more explicit.

2. Swanson and Ramiller treat cultural models as fundamentally good cognitive structures because they facilitate sense-making. In contrast, we differentiate between socially rich models of BPR and socially-thin models of BPR and argue that the latter are especially problematic for organizational participants. Both kinds of cultural models help participants make sense of organizational opportunities. However, as we h ave found in this case, the socially thin cultural models can undermine effective organizational action and frustrate participants.

This study raises important questions about practicing managers access to socially rich accounts of IT and organizational change implementation. Practicing managers are likely to "tune in" to the institutional circuitry of mainstream manag erial discourse. Unfortunately, the socially rich cultural models that are more likely to be found in institutional circuitry of scholarly managerial discourse are not readily intelligible to or actionable by most practicing managers. In the c ase of BPR, critiques like those of Davenport (1994) and Willmott (1994) help managers avoid using socially thin cultural models, but do not replace them with actionable alternatives. Case studies, like that of Stoddard, Jarvenpaa, and Littlejohn (1996) c an help managers to organize their expectations based on socially rich conceptions of organizational change. The managers who sift through diffuse literatures like this can become reflexive agents of organizational change, but we are not sure they will be able to initiate substantial changes for which there does not seem to be broad support in the larger culture.

This kind of organizational discourse also depends upon an ethos that encourages inquiry and a serious airing of different views. This kind of open discussion may be rare in organizations whose upper managers are committed to massive top-down directed change programs.


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