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

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In her discussion of technology design, Suchman refers to two different approaches to open sea navigation — the European and the Trukese:

“The European navigator begins with a plan — a course — which he has charted according to certain universal principles, and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining ‘on course.’ If unexpected events occur, he must first alter the plan, then respond accordingly. The Trukese navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly. His effort is directed to doing whatever is necessary to reach the objective.”1

Like Suchman, we too find this contrast in approaches instructive and use it here to motivate our discussion of managing technological change. In particular, we suggest that how people think about managing change in organizations most often resembles the European approach to navigation. That is, they believe they need to start with a plan for the change, charted according to certain general organizational principles, and that they need to relate their actions to that plan, ensuring throughout that the change remains on course.

However, when we examine how change occurs in practice, we find that it much more closely resembles the voyage of the Trukese. That is, people end up responding to conditions as they arise, often in an ad hoc fashion, doing whatever is necessary to implement change. In a manner similar to Argyris and Schön’s contrast between espoused theories and theories-in-use, we suggest that there is a discrepancy between how people think about technological change and how they implement it.2 Moreover, we suggest that this discrepancy significantly contributes to the difficulties and challenges that contemporary organizations face as they attempt to introduce and effectively implement technology-based change.

Traditional ways of thinking about technological change have their roots in Lewin’s three-stage change model of “unfreezing,” “change,” and “refreezing.”3 According to this model, the organization prepares for change, implements the change, and then strives to regain stability as soon as possible.

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1. Berreman (1996, p. 347) as cited in:

L. Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human Machine Communication (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. vii.

2. C. Argyris and D.A. Schön, Organizational Learning (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley, 1978).

3. K. Lewin, “Group Decision and Social Change,” in E. Newcombe and R. Harley, eds., Readings in Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1952), pp. 459–473; and

T.K. Kwon and R.W. Zmud, “Unifying the Fragmented Models of Information Systems Implementation,” in R.J. Boland, Jr., and R.A. Hirschheim, eds., Critical Issues in Information Systems Research (New York: John Wiley, 1987), pp. 227–251.

4. A.M. Pettigrew, The Awakening Giant (Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1985).

5. Not all groupware technologies are flexible and customizable (e.g., fixed-function e-mail systems). We are interested here only in those that are (e.g., Lotus Notes).

6. D. DeJean and S.B. DeJean, Lotus Notes at Work (New York: Lotus Books, 1991); and

T.W. Malone, K.Y. Lai, and C. Fry, “Experiments with OVAL: A Radically Tailorable Tool for Cooperative Work (Toronto, Canada: Proceedings of the Third Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, November 1992), pp. 289–297.

7. H. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” Harvard Business Review, volume 73, January–February 1994, pp. 107–114; and

R.G. McGrath and I.C. MacMillan, “Discovery-Driven Planning,” Harvard Business Review, volume 73, July–August 1995, pp. 44–54.

8. H. Mintzberg, “Crafting Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, volume 65, July–August 1987, pp. 66–75.

9. W.J. Orlikowski, “Improvising Organizational Transformation over Time: A Situated Change Perspective,” Information Systems Research, volume 7, March 1996, pp. 63–92.

10. W.J. Orlikowski, “Evolving with Notes: Organizational Change around Groupware Technology” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, working paper 3823, 1995).

11. M.J. Gallivan, J.D. Hofman, and W.J. Orlikowski, “Implementing Radical Change: Gradual Versus Rapid Pace” (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Proceedings of the Fifteenth International Conference on Information Systems, 14–17 December 1994, pp. 325–339).

12. W.J. Orlikowski, “Learning from Notes: Organizational Issues in Groupware Implementation” (Toronto, Canada: Proceedings of the Third Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, November 1992, pp. 362–369).

13. W.J. Orlikowski, J. Yates, K. Okamura, and M. Fujimoto, “Shaping Electronic Communication: The Metastructuring of Technology in Use,” Organization Science, volume 6, July–August 1995, pp. 423–444.

14. S. Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

15. Suchman (1987).

16. T.W. Malone, informal conversation, 1996.


We would like to thank the editor and reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We gratefully appreciate the research support of MIT’s Center for Coordination Science and Center for Information Systems Research.

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