Academic Organizational Change

Whatever Happened to Sustaining Organizational Change?

A debate just over a decade ago spoke to sustaining organizational change but was never sustained.

Post in 54 words

Managers/leaders initiate organizational changes such as service delivery improvements in the expectation that such service improvements will be sustained. But what do we know about how and if such organizational changes are sustained?  A debate sparked just over a decade ago spoke to this question, but for various reasons, this debate was never sustained.


Effectively overcoming resistance to change and communicating change have been recurrent themes in discussions amongst organizational change practitioners and amongst academics.  Today, they may be perceived as old chestnuts, yet they appear to have been sustained over time, possibly even after their shelf-life has been exceeded. My own lived experience confirmed a tendency towards the influence of management fashion.

The implication was that the organizational change everyone was talking about today, nobody might be talking about in six months and vice versa. Whilst such management fashions go far beyond organizational change they have significant implications for organizational change.  Imagine quality circles being in vogue as a participative means of managing quality you invest human and financial resources in developing these quality circles and in developing the skills to make them effective.  Then the world moves on, quality circles are no longer in vogue and the debate has moved on to a different means of managing quality, yet you are left with your infrastructure of quality circles.

Organizational change after the launch party

My concern is not with the transitory or fashion orientated nature of organizational life, but with what happens to an organizational change after the launch party is a distant memory. I draw on my lived experience inside organizations again.  These changes for a time appear to capture the imagination of individuals and organizations.  Discussions about these changes are very prominent in written and spoken communications, it can be as dramatic as if you are not discussing the particular change you are not ‘on message’. Ideally, the new way of working becomes the norm, the ‘normal’ if you like.  I can think of many examples of this happening.

Some changes stick whilst others drift away

I used to assess paper-based student assignments, rocking away merrily in my rocking chair.  Then everything went digital and students submitted their work digitally online, I assessed it online via an intranet site. I do not envisage us returning to paper-based assignments, it was an outcome of a process of change which was sustained.  Alternatively, our university departments used to be clustered into Faculties, a change initiative was initiated in which departments would be clustered into Colleges rather than Faculties and there would be fewer of these new clusters. In this instance, the College organizational structure didn’t really work and after a few years, the Colleges and their supporting infrastructure were abandoned.  In reflecting on both these examples the organizational change I experienced may be ‘stepping stones’ to further organizational change with changes along the way embedded or abandoned.

David Buchanan and the National Health Service (NHS)

I want to introduce the writings of David Buchanan and his colleagues which were particularly grounded in experiences of change in the NHS.  Anyone interested in reading more about sustaining organizational change should check out Buchanan et al’s (2005) review of this literature. They offered reasons why this area of study received only limited attention, which may today explain why the debate was not sustained.

  • Organizational change theories in emphasizing adaptation and constant change, negate the need to sustain organizational change outcomes.
  • Next, implementation can be studied over a short time horizon, whereas sustainability requires a longer time horizon.
  • Researching change may be more appealing than researching stability and sustainability which may be regarded as a condition to be achieved, not as a problem to be solved.

Modernizing the organizational change lexicon

Buchanan et al (2007) based on their research into the Modernization Agency implementation of the NHS Plan introduced four useful and informative terms into the organizational change lexicon.

Sustainability – The process through which new working methods, performance enhancements, and continuous improvements are maintained for a period appropriate to a given context.

Do we want to ensure the enhancements of this change initiative are maintained?

Decay – The opposite of sustainability, where change is not maintained and benefits are lost.

Is it best if what we were seeking in this instance is not maintained and allowed to decay?

Spread – The process through which new working methods developed in one setting are adopted, perhaps with appropriate modifications, in other contexts.

Do we want these new working methods to be adopted elsewhere?

Containment – The opposite of spread, where changes at one site are not adapted and adopted by others.

Do we want to actively avoid rolling out what we attempted here elsewhere?

This lexicon appears to me to be useful in discussing organizational change within a single organization and between organizations. In studying or practically engaging with an organizational change it raises questions which I have couched in practical terms in italics beneath each term.

Returning to my earlier reflections, the shift from paper-based marking to online marking spread through my university, it is a change that has been sustained.  The shift to Colleges decayed, it was not sustained.  However, we now have a flatter organization structure without either Faculties or Colleges, in this sense Colleges may have provided a stepping stone towards a new organization structure, only time will tell if this structure is sustained.


Buchanan, D., L. Fitzgerald., D. Ketley., R. Gollop., J.L. Jones., S.S. Lamont., A. Neath., and E. Whitby. (2005) No Going Back: A Review of the Literature on Sustaining Organizational ChangeInternational Journal of Management Reviews 7 (3):189-205.

Buchanan, D.A., L. Fitzgerald and D. Ketley. (Eds). (2007). The Sustainability and Spread of Organizational Change: Modernizing Healthcare. London: Routledge.

Hughes, M. (2019) Sustaining Organizational Change.  In Hughes, M. (2019) Managing and Leading Organizational Change. London: Routledge.