Accueil » 57-1 ( 2002) » Le changement dans les organisations : entre structures et interactions

Le changement dans les organisations : entre structures et interactions

Philippe Bernoux


L’analyse des organisations s’est-elle engagée dans une fausse voie depuis la première parution, il y a plus de quarante ans, de la revue Administrative Science Quarterly ? Il y aurait eu divorce entre la théorie et l’empirie, le lien aurait été perdu entre les deux. L’auteur montre que cette perte est due aux références à des ensembles théoriques structuraux, alors que les organisations, comme la société dans sa globalité, ne sont explicables qu’en partant des interactions entre acteurs, interactions qui permettent de comprendre comment se vivent les incertitudes de l’action. Des exemples précis montrent que le fondement de ces interactions est, dans les organisations productives, la relation des salariés aux objets techniques, la rationalité instrumentale. Elle leur permet d’entrer en relations et de gérer les incertitudes sans réifier ni contrôler ces relations.


Organizational Change : The Link Between Structures and Interactions

If we are to believe the contributors to a debate launched in the 40th anniversary issue of Administrative Science Quarterly (1996) and recently taken up in German and French publications, academic studies on organizations have long been committing a sin of omission by not linking theory and empiricism. As a result, we have not been able to understand organizational change. In this article, this shortcoming is attributed to the absence of references to action theories. Only through action theories can change be understood as an interaction. Drawing on concrete examples, this article shows that, in productive organizations, these interactions are born out of the meaning given to these changes by workers.

There is a fierce debate between those who maintain that socio-economic structures play a determining role and always impose changes, and those who think that changes only occur if they are appropriated in one way or another by social actors. While for the former, people are governed by economic logic; for the latter, including this author, the effectiveness of changes depends on the actors who have to implement them.

This article begins with a review of social action theories, which help us to understand the link between structures and actors. The author then analyzes how change is implemented today through the use of management tools, and shows that they are effective only if they are recognized as being fair and rational, which in turn gives rise to forms of co-operation. Change is always a particular response to particular situations.

One such theorist, Georg Simmel, who has been recently rediscovered in Europe, defines sociology as the study of socializing forms of interactions and the construction of society as a reciprocal action, that is, as a relation. According to Simmel, change originates in interaction, which produces micro-adjustments, the only ones that can regulate behaviour in organizations.

Parsons analyzes the role of values in forming a society in order to explain its equilibrium rather than its evolution and ability to change. To understand change, it must be acknowledged that the system is transformed through daily relationships—power relationships in the case of organizations—which, influenced by the global values of society and management tools, introduce a new logic for the actors. The meaning given by the actor to daily power relationships links societal values, management tools and interactions.

Goffman shows that even in the most controlled institutions (prisons and asylums), actors have room to manoeuvre and this can endanger and change the system. The forming and changing of society occur through exchanges between individuals, with interaction altering the elements that come into contact with each other. Reciprocity is thus linked with social construction. Members of the organization are subject to official standards and values defined by the organization, but its members, even in those controlling institutions, have enough autonomy to circumvent, transform and adapt these standards and values. Their interactions can provoke structural changes, depending on the meaning given to them by the actors. It is necessary to search for this meaning in order to understand the action. It is impossible to talk about human action without referring to the meanings that individuals give to their acts.

The debates resulting from the publication of Labor and Monopoly Capital by Braverman (1974) and the studies in the following period on workers’ behaviour in plants (Burawoy 1979; Bernoux 1982; Edwards 1986), have highlighted the importance of worker consent and work appropriation, and their role in the restructuring of work stations and organizational changes. Managers gradually abandoned Taylorism, not only because they found it less effective in a rapidly changing environment, but because worker resistance and work appropriation made the standards and values of this Taylorism seem counter-productive.

Studies on the new management tools, such as ISO standards or ERP (Enterprise Planning Resources), show that they do not in the least eliminate the autonomy of workers nor their capacity for resistance and transformation of the organization. These tools are quite constraining but do not eliminate the actors’ abilities to interpret them and make compromises, which give each firm and each national model a particular form. Moreover, firms now expect greater involvement on the part of their employees and give them greater autonomy to bring about, among other things, the innovation that is so necessary for the firm’s success. Why do employees accept this and contribute to change?

The main reason can be found in instrumental rationality or productive prestige. Production actors recognize the global effectiveness of techniques, the value of objects produced and that of the tools used to produce them. But they contest the organization and seek to change it. Studies conducted in the 1980s on quality circles, autonomous teams and worker participation had already demonstrated that workers were far from indifferent to the possibility of expressing their views on workshop operation for better management of work tools and organization of production tools. The organization of production, such as the operation of machines, has always generated attention and interest among production workers. Interest in work and the meaning given to it are key factors in the acceptance of the system. It is based on the following principles: equity—responsibilities and benefits are equitably shared; effectiveness—workers are proud to produce effectively and without supervision; and independence—the break with supervision is affirmed.

Organizations may be characterized by the formal structures imposed on them by management. However, this definition is inadequate. These structures are also produced in the interactions and the latter are the central element of organizational changes. From an epistemological perspective, structuralism does not explain how organizations operate and consequently change, because human relations are overlooked. Only an interactionist conception of human action will allow us to understand the meaning of change in organizations as well as in societies.

Practical observation shows that management cannot succeed in imposing changes, at least long-lasting changes, without appealing to worker acceptance, and this acceptance is created through interactions. This is especially true nowadays, when managers expect a great deal of workers, in particular in terms of innovations. Less motivated workers can produce but do not innovate.

Organizational change is possible if it is perceived as a joint production through daily interactions. For this reason, research studies on change based on this interactionist perspective should be developed further. This type of study will help respond to the concerns of the contributors to that special issue of Administrative Science Quarterly as well as bring to light the terms and conditions of change.


El cambio en las organizaciones: entre estructuras y interacciones

¿El análisis de las organizaciones habrá seguido una falsa pista despúes de la publicación, hace cuarenta años, de la Revista Administrative Science Quarterly? ¿Existe acaso un divorcio entre la teoría y lo empírico?, ¿se ha perdido el vinculo entre ambos? El autor muestra que esta perdida se debe a la utilización de referencias téoricas estructurales cuando las organizaciones así como la sociedad en su globalidad, no son explicables que a partir de las interacciones entre los actores, interacciones que permiten comprender cómo se viven las incertitudes de la acción. Ejemplos precisos muestran que el fundamento de estas interacciones, en las organizaciones productivas, es la relación de los asalariados a los objetos tecnicos, la racionalidad instrumental. Ello les permite entrar en relación y manejar las incertitudes sin anquilosar ni controlar esas relaciones.