Leslie Willcocks, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Earlier articles present approaches to automation and digital transformation. A key principle: business imperatives must drive technology investments. That makes sense both strategically and in operations. But the technological changes being attempted these days are large-scale, and even add up to something regularly called digital transformation. Many executives, if not in their plans, then in their actual behaviour, tend to fight shy of the inescapable corollary: digital transformation requires major organisational change. There are ways—difficult, time-consuming ways—of dealing with such change, but denial is not one of them.
It gets worse. Organisations and people in times of change are difficult to understand, let alone manage. As Kurt Lewin observed shrewdly many years ago—if you want to understand an organisation, try changing it. A major reason, also frequently the subject of denial or at least suppression, is organisational politics. These emerge all too soon. Stable organisations are politically configured but the politics are stable, and therefore even experienced as hardly existing. Change renders the politics unstable. In this article I want to examine the implications of this statement for handling change effectively.
Many in management commonly see the planning, designing, organising and controlling of technology projects as rational practices. But these activities are also inescapably political. One must ask: whose plans, whose designs and whose objectives? Furthermore, organisations are inevitably political arenas with individuals, groups and coalitions attempting to influence others and events to protect and meet their own needs, interests and goals. An organisation where members' goals, perceptions or interests do not conflict is a rare one indeed. 'Playing politics' may not always be the primary activity, it may not be a pretty activity either, but it is an ever-present one to some degree. Two important considerations arise from this.
Firstly, design and development of technological systems inevitably implies the ability to bring them into successful operation. However, while technology specialists may rarely be questioned in technical matters like analysis and design or hardware and software selection, such expertise and associated technical qualifications may form an insufficient power base these days for fulfilling the responsibility for seeing a project implemented. Unfortunately, technology professionals in particular too often ascribe a rationality and a common sense to their projects that is not shared by those directly affected by implementation outcomes. Likewise, historically, senior business executives! As a result, they fail to acquire and mobilise power and develop strategies to achieve objectives. The result? Technology systems flounder at the implementation stage, or are introduced but little used. Of course, faced with gathering signs of organisational hostility toward what they themselves regard as a technically high-quality product, technology professionals may well have fled from responsibility for project acceptance long before implementation. But of course, with some kinds of technology, for example robotic process automation, business operations may well have taken over the lead already, and of course that means a variety of stakeholders, and interests then enter the change arena.
Secondly, let’s extend that point. Actually today most technology projects of any size are seen as business not technology projects—that has become a commonplace statement to the point of cliché, but what does it mean? In our work we have suggested that such projects must be managed by a senior business manager, even the CEO who provides the vision (the ‘what’), resources, and protects the project. A senior credible, influential project champion is required who will spend 60 percent or more of keeping the project on track from a business perspective. Then there will be a credible, experienced project manager, and a project team of dedicated full time users, technology specialists, contractors and part-time user managers and subject matter experts. Such a project group is weighted heavily towards business imperatives, and providing business knowledge, but also, inevitably breeds its own politics (that need to be managed). Even before the project group starts its work, it become clear we need change agents on board who are sensitised to the politics of the intended changes.
Thirdly, what is true of the project group is also even truer of the wider stakeholders in the organisation, with their different perceptions, understandings, interests, and expectations. Organisational politics DO breed in times of technological change. The extent of political activity during technology implemen¬tation will depend on how far power has been mobilised behind the project, and whether other options and paths of resistance have been closed off. Political activity will rise with unclear goals and outcomes, different goals, the need to allocate limited resources, differing defin¬itions of organisational problems and differences in information made available. As Ian Mangham said many years ago:
“In circumstances in which people share power, differ about what must be done, and where these differences are of some consequence, decisions and actions will be the result of a political process.”
Just consider the implications of automation and digital technologies for an organisation. New technology will release political energy because of its anticipated and actual organisational and social impacts and the manner in which it is designed and implemented. A political approach may be more appropriate where the technological change impinges on core activities, will be pervasive and cut across departmental boundaries and will have numerous users. However, even in minor applications, the existing power structure will be disturbed in some way by new tech¬nology. It also represents a new organisational resource around which ownership' struggles will cluster. In this way, the implementation process will reproduce, but also amplify, existing strains in the organisation's political system. In the last three years we have seen many automation projects, good projects, die deaths, especially in risk averse cultures, for example insurance, because the change agency has been seriously lacking.
In practice, political activity may well reach its highest throughout implementation as people's fears become realised. This can be a function of people avoiding facing up to the implications of computerisation, and now automation and digitalisation, at earlier stages. Also, failure to participate in change will be rational behaviour where the rewards from change do not seem commensurate with the efforts necessary, where there is a good chance of feeling manipulated and where the cultural norms of the organisation do not encourage trust and openness in interpersonal relations. It also may be a function of the implementation approach. Historically, IT has been implemented with the minimum of participation, the output of selective and reassuring information, and little regard for the labour implications.
In summary, it is crucial to understand a particular organisation's political structure and how different types and levels of IT, automation and digitalisation relate to political activity. Such understanding is the first step in moving to becoming a digital business. A political perspective implies the possibility of resistance and the need to gain organisational acceptance for technology. This is where contingency comes in, that is, being prepared to adapt the technology and systems to the political circumstances prevailing, while also being willing and able to operate in and change those circumstances. This brings us to the widely misrepresented concept of power.
Politics In Organisations
Power is inherent in organisational relations. Its exercise both creates and arises from societal and organisational context. Matters such as how labour is divided, how the organisation is departmentalised, and how different categories of worker are rewarded are all products of political activity. In turn, these results give for different people various degrees of control over information, decision-making, resources, punishments, and the access of others to these. Power may also arise on an individual basis. For example, in terms of expertise, personal qualities and ability to be liked and persuade others. As a social relation within an organisation, power becomes expressed as people pursue aspirations through action to try to achieve outcomes. It is an interdependence relating to how skilfully people mobilise or deploy resources (power bases) and how important and scarce those resources are perceived or experienced to be by the parties in the relationship.
Power implies influence, control over resources and sanction. How¬ever, there is power in the threat of sanctions, in the potential of power. As Andrew Pettigrew once put it:
“Control ... may not be enough; there is also the issue of skilful use of resources. The most effective strategy may not always be to pull the trigger.”
Power is exercised not only by those who are in the senior management but also by, as well as through, lower-level stakeholders in the organisation. Participants in a power relationship are rarely on equal terms but always have some influence over each other, because power relationships imply some degree of mutual dependence for all parties. As far as computers are concerned, even low-level operators in com-puter systems can corrupt data, modify software in unrecognisable ways and damage the system in serious and costly ways. Modern systems are so interconnected they can be easily disrupted by quite small events that can have seriously large consequences. Switching off a major system at London Heathrow airport for ten minutes once disrupted west European air traffic for over 14 hours.
But as digital technologies become strategically important to organisations, so they hand over an important power resource to certain individuals and groups, not least technology professionals. This highlights the importance of gaining the acceptance and support of key personnel once the technology is up and running. It may also be wise to gain acceptance by those involved at and affected by the introduction stage of an automation or digital transformation project. How can these two objectives be achieved? An important power resource lies in the establishment of the legitimacy of change and subsequent operation. Establishing legitimacy is tied in with politics as the management of meaning. This involves developing amongst employees shared norms and internalised values and beliefs that elicit their co-operation and commitment in system introduction and operation. Given the vul¬nerability of technology systems to low-level participant activity, it has not been surprising over the years to find hi-tech companies like Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard developing cultures based on high rewards, attractive personnel policies, encouragement of initiative and pleasant work conditions. In some hi-tech companies, computer technology for home-working and tele¬working has developed further this marriage between enhanced business performance through cost reductions, labour flexibility and 'putting people first' personnel policies. The development not just of power bases but also of an organisational culture that will support and sustain technological change lies at the heart of what I call a ‘political-cultural contingencies’ approach to introducing IT systems, automation and digital technologies into organisations. What becomes a crucial determinant of system success becomes system compatibility with, and its use and acceptance by, the emergent political and cultural structure. How to analyse dynamically, and arrive at this structure is the subject of Part 2 of this article.