Monday, February 6, 2017

Since the Roman Empire: Organizations Engage History to Make Changes

How to change an organization? The answer to this question is made surprisingly difficult by all those who think that change is unnecessary, change is risky, and in any case it should be change that favors their favorite option; nothing else will do. Using history to promote a change effort is an old trick that makes a lot of sense, because it is a way of claiming that change is actually a return to a golden age. And history can be edited in many ways, so it is a very flexible trick. Managers use it.

But can it be more than a managerial trick to manipulate the organization? New research by Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz in Administrative Science Quarterly shows how change can be created in a more autonomous fashion by employees reaching back into the organizational history. The research follows two distinct and independent occasions that Carlsberg brewery used its old motto, the latin phrase semper ardens (always burning) to foster change. In each case the users were different and the change was different, but the old and flexible motto proved a way to successfully make changes with less controversy. In one case, a group of master brewers working on their own used it to formulate, gain acceptance for, and launch a craft beer line, in stark contrast to the industrial beer that was the core of Carlsberg. In the other, it was proposed by consultants seeking to create a unifying statement for Carlsberg, which had become large and diverse through recent mergers,and then promoted internally in the organization.

Even though these processes were unrelated, they followed a remarkably similar sequence.  The steps are described in detail in the paper, but here I want to focus on the two final ones: renewing and re-embedding. Renewing is central when history is used to motivate change, because the new activities are never exact equivalents of the historical record. Indeed, the historical record can be unclear or even contradictory, so renewal is needed. Semper ardens was a phrase favored by the second generation Carlsberg owner, but did not have any concrete brewing practices associated with it. But the master brewer team reached back into the brewing recipes from that time period, and combined these with the passion for improvement expressed through the “always burning” meaning to create beers that were distinct in taste and packaging.  

Re-embedding is actions taken to give the referral to history endurance in the organization. This is needed because the change attempts are frequent and often override previous ones, including those backed by history, so without embedding changes may become temporary. The master brewer team were able to embed semper ardens into the organization well enough that it lived on in a new craft brewery project even after the beer using it as a label was discontinued, and as a marker of distinction used when announcing extraordinary team efforts or noteworthy events. Thus the motto lived on in its renewed form of encouraging a passion for improvement at Carlsberg. And passion for improvement is, we might agree, useful both for organizations in general and for beer brewers specifically.