Discourse and organizational change

David Grant and Grant Michelson
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Cliff Oswick
University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

Nick Wailes
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
This paper aims to examine the contribution that discourse analysis can make to
understanding organizational change.

In this paper we examine the contribution of discourse analysis to the study of
organizational change. In the first section we identify five specific features of analytic
approaches to the study of organizational discourse(s) that can contribute to the study
of organizational change. In the second section we illustrate the insights discourse
analysis can bring to the study of organization change by reviewing the five empirical
studies included in this special issue. We conclude by discussing the potential for
future discursive studies of organizational change phenomena and the implications of
this for the field of organizational change more generally.

Discourse and the study of organizational change: five key contributions
A number of commentators have suggested that our understanding of organizational
change would be better served if we were, for example, to “re-think” (Tsoukas and
Chia, 2002; Grant et al., 2002) or “re-conceptualise” (Pettigrew et al., 2001) the various
forms, processes and outcomes associated with it. Similarly, Collins (2003, p. v), has
argued that we need to: provoke a “re-imagined” world of change: A world where change is understood not as an
exception to the norm of stability; not as an outcome that is known in advance and discussed
in retrospect; not as something that can be made to unfold to the rhythm of “clock-time”; but
as the defining character of organization; a fuzzy and deeply ambiguous process, which
implicates both author and subject in the quest for new and different ways to understand one

We concur with Collins’ perspective. We are also sympathetic to his call to adopt an
approach to the study of organizational change guided by the work of C. Wright-Mills
(1973) on the sociological imagination. It is indeed important that scholars return to a
quest for knowledge that addresses the concerns and ambitions of the everyday people
affected by change (Collins, 2003, pp. v-vi). However, the key point for us, is that
answering Collins’ call to provoke a re-imagined world of change along the lines of the
above quote is best achieved used discourse analytic approaches. This is not
something Collins (2003) explicitly advocates, although as his paper (co-authored with
Rainwater) in this special issue indicates, it is an approach that he himself has elected
to adopt.

The purpose of this special issue is then to demonstrate that in order to fully
understand organizational change, one needs to engage with it as a discursively
constructed object. Where we refer to discourse and its occurrence in organizations, we
are referring to the practices of talking and writing, the visual representations, and the
cultural artifacts which bring organizational related objects into being through the
production, dissemination and consumption of texts (Phillips and Hardy, 2002; Grant
et al., 2004). These texts can be considered to be a discursive “unit” and a manifestation
of discourse (Chalaby, 1996) and discourse analysis involves their systematic study. It
is not, however, simply a collection of methods; it is “a related collection of approaches
to discourse, approaches that entail not only practices of data collection and analysis,
but also a set of meta-theoretical and theoretical assumptions” (Wood and Kroger,
2000, p. x).

If one accepts the above definition of discourse, discourse analytic approaches
might be expected to contribute to our understanding of organizational change in five
significant respects.

Organizational change as a socially constructed reality
First, discourse analysis allows the researcher to identify and analyse the key
discourses by which organizational change is formulated and articulated. More
specifically, and as all of the papers in this special issue show, taking a discourse
analytic approach demonstrates that for an organization’s members, discourse plays a
central role in the social construction of their reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1967;
Searle, 1995) As such, it brings an object (for example, an organizational change
initiative) into being so that it becomes a material reality in the form of the practices
that it invokes (Hardy, 2001, p. 27). As part of this process, discourse “rules in” certain
ways of talking about the change initiative that are deemed as acceptable, legitimate
and intelligible while also “ruling out”, limiting and restricting the way we talk about
or conduct ourselves in relation to this topic or constructing knowledge about it (Hall,
2001, p. 72). In this sense it “acts as a powerful ordering force” in the context of
effecting organizational change (Alvesson and Karreman, 2000a, p. 1127).
Organizational change as a negotiated meaning

Second, discourse analysis enables the researcher to show how, via a variety of
discursive interactions and practices, particular discourses go on to shape and
influence the attitudes and behaviour of an organization’s members in relation to
change (Alvesson and Karreman, 2000a, pp. 1126-27). As with any discourse,
organizational discourses related to change do not simply start out in possession of
“meaning”. Instead, and in line with their socially constructive effects, their meanings
are created, and supported via discursive interactions among organizational actors
(Alvesson and Karreman, 2000b). This constructive process involves the negotiation of
meaning (Mumby and Stohl, 1991) among different actors with different views and
interests and results in the emergence of a dominant meaning that can be seen as a
particular discourse. The emergence of this dominant meaning occurs as alternative
discourses are subverted or marginalized and is indicative of the power relationships
that may come into play. As Fairclough (1995, p. 2) explains, the “power to control
discourse is seen as the power to sustain particular discursive practices with particular
ideological investments in dominance over other alternative (including oppositional)
practices”. Discourse analytic studies, such as those in this special issue demonstrate
that, although some discourses related to change may dominate, “their dominance is
secured as part of an ongoing struggle among competing discourses that are
continually reproduced or transformed through day-to-day communicative practices”
(Hardy, 2001, p. 28). More specifically, they can also be seen to demonstrate that
dominant meanings emerge from the context under which they are negotiated. This
brings us on to the third contribution of discourse analysis to understanding
organizational change.

Organizational change as an intertexual phenomenom
To understand how and why particular discourses and their meanings are produced,
as well as their effects, it is important to understand the context in which they arise.
This has led to the application of “intertextual” (Bakhtin, 1986; Fairclough, 1995; Kress
and Threadgold, 1988) analyses of organizational discourses. Such studies identify and
analyse specific, micro-level instances of discursive action and then locate them in the

context of other macro-level, “meta” or “grand” discourses (Alvesson and Karreman,
2000a). As Fairclough and Wodak (1997, p. 277) have pointed out:
Discourse is not produced without context and cannot be understood without taking context
into consideration. . . Discourses are always connected to other discourses which were
produced earlier, as well as those which are produced synchronically and subsequently.
Fairclough and Wodak’s observation demonstrates that the negotiation of meaning
surrounding an instance of organizational change unfolds through the complex
interplay of both socially and historically produced texts (Alvesson and Karreman,
2000a; Keenoy and Oswick, 2004) that are part of a continuous, iterative and recursive
process (Taylor et al., 1996; Grant and Hardy, 2004). In short, any text is seen as “a link
in a chain of texts, reacting to, drawing in and transforming other texts” (Fairclough
and Wodak, 1997, p. 262). The value of this approach is that it takes us beyond simple
examinations of verbal and written interaction and allows us to appreciate the
importance of “who uses language, how, why and when” (van Dijk, 1997, p. 2). More
specifically, it means that when studying a particular discursive interaction,
organizational change researchers ought to consider other discursive interactions
operating at different levels and at different times, which are linked to, and inform,
their interpretations of the immediate instance of change under scrutiny (Keenoy and
Oswick, 2004; O’Connor, 2000). The papers in this special issue – all of which could be
seen as intertextual – can be seen to contribute to our understanding of these

A multi-disciplinary perspective of organizational change
Fourth, discourse analysis is multi-disciplinary in origin – it is informed by a variety
of sociological, socio-psychological, anthropological, linguistic, philosophical,
communications and literary based studies and approaches (Alvesson and
Karreman, 2000b; Grant et al., 2004). This means that those researching discourses
of change draw on a variety of methodological approaches involving, for example,
metaphorical analysis (Morgan, 1997; Oswick et al. 2004), narrative analysis, (Boje,
2001; Czarniawska, 1998; Gabriel, 2004) rhetorical analysis (Cheney et al., 2004) and
conversation analysis (Boden, 1994; Fairhurst and Cooreen, 2004; Woodilla, 1998). The
range of methodologies available to the researcher wishing to conduct empirical
studies of discourse within organizational settings can be seen as a virtue (Phillips and
Hardy, 2002). It assists discourse focused research into organizational change to study
a variety of issues at the individual, group and organizational levels (Grant et al., 2004)
It can also mean that the parameters of a research question are delimited by the array
of methodologies available with which to test it. Further, the extensive choice of
methodologies available facilitates analysis of an enormous range of data types (Grant
et al., 2004; Phillips and Hardy, 2002). The papers presented in this issue illustrate
several empirically strong methodologies that may be employed in order to study
organizational change related discourses. These include narrative, and storytelling
analysis, conversation analysis and the analysis of the metaphors and rhetorical
devices used by key actors involved in organizational change.
An alternative approach to the study of a variety of organizational change related issues
Discourse analysis is seen to offer an alternative approach to the research of a wide
variety of organizational change related issues thereby generating new insights.
Guest editorial
The increasing interest in, and use of, discourse analytic approaches among
organizational change researchers has led to studies that add to our knowledge and
understanding of change in relation to a wide range of phenomena such as
organizational culture (Alvesson, 1996; Beech, 2000; Oswick and Montgomery, 1999),
information technology (Heath et al., 2004; Heracleous and Barrett, 2001; O’Connor,
2000), new media (Boczkowski and Orlikowski, 2004), TQM (Du Gay and Salaman,
1992), downsizing (Palmer and Dunford, 1996) and organizational learning (Jackson,
2000; Oswick et al., 2000). Others studies have looked at the role of conversations in
producing intentional change in organizations (Ford and Ford, 1995) and have
discursively analysed the role of consultants in the change management process
(Heracleous and Langham, 1996; Clark and Salaman, 1996), the negotiation of change
(Mueller et al., 2004), and the links between strategy and change (Washbourne and
Dicke, 2001; Dunford and Jones, 2000). The studies in this special issue exemplify the
capacity of discourse analytic approaches to generate fresh insights into a variety of
change related issues. These include: corporate transformation; corporate renewal; the
framing and routinization of change; and identity and change.
Five discursive analyses of organizational change

The papers in this special issue all contribute to our understanding of organizational
change and clearly illustrate of the potential contributions of discursive analysis
discussed in the previous section. The first paper by David Collins and Kelley
Rainwater engages with celebrated interpretations of organizational change whereby
“success” stories are lauded and such companies are regarded as exemplars of modern
business practice. The authors re-examine one such case of corporate transformation
(at Sears, Roebuck and Company) in a way designed to draw out many different voices.
By moving beyond contextual and processual accounts of organizational change,
Collins and Rainwater offer what they refer to as a “sideways look” of corporate
transformation. Rather than simply trying to uncover “what really happened” in the
turnaround at Sears, Roebuck and Company, they use narrative and storytelling
approaches to reveal the polysemic nature of the change. In particular, the authors
challenge the simplicity of sequential and linear understandings of organizational
turnarounds by invoking the audience in the narrative and story, as well as discussing
the more protagonist roles of heroes and fools. It is therefore possible to view the case
of organizational change in numerous ways. The authors choose to highlight two
alternative interpretations – tragedy and comedy – to reveal the complexities and
ambiguities of change management. The paper does not privilege one account over
another but reveals the possibility of “re-storying” previously reported cases (whether
celebratory or critical) of organizational change.
In the following paper, Nic Beech and Phyl Johnson also use narrative analysis to
examine change in organizations. However, their focus is different in that attention is
placed on how the key organizational actors constructed and interpreted their own
situation in the change process. This focus resonates with an active utilization of
discursive resources. The authors contend that change is a “continual process of
becoming” for actors and they reject analyses of organizational change which focus on
the points of stability; that is, accounts that examine the “before and after”of change.
Specifically, Beech and Johnson make a case for understanding the micro-level
processes of change by looking at the senior management group in one company and
the alterations to their identity as the change was personally experienced. It is argued
that what happens at this level can have wider consequences in the context of
organizational change. What the analysis of the identities of the management
executives in this case reveals is that a broader narrative coherence in, and unifying
direction for, the organization were missing. Rather, significant disjunctures and
disruptions in the actors’ identity and sensemaking were evident.

Identity is a theme also addressed in the third paper in this special issue. This paper
introduces the need for a more nuanced view of change by examining the spatial
location in which work activities are carried out. In her contribution, Susanne Tietze
challenges conventional views of organizational change which accept both identifiable
organizational boundaries in a specific place, and the performance of work activities
exclusively within those boundaries, as given. The author uses the case of tele-working
to highlight the dispersion and “reach” of contemporary organizations as the domains
of “home” and “work” collide. Those who engage in tele-work seek to use discourse as a
coping resource. However, even more than this, Tietze argues that it is the entire
household (and not just the tele-worker) that has to learn to cope with the wider change
in work organization introduced by tele-work. It has, for example, affected how
tele-workers construct and express their professional or occupational identities. Such
identities can either be affirmed or contested by other household members and a range
of discursive resources are subsequently enacted to protect their identities. She
concludes by noting that future studies of organizational change may need to rethink
what boundaries are established for the organization, as well as considering a variety
of stakeholders (family members, friends and neighbours) not normally associated
with change efforts.

The fourth paper also picks up on a recurrent theme in this collection. Donald
Anderson discusses representations of voice by organizational members in a change
process and demonstrates the importance of historical continuities in terms of how
language adopted in the past can shape language in the future. The study is located in
a high-tech company and Anderson interprets a range of discourse excerpts from
members of a project team to establish his argument. Voice (of the individual, of
specific others’ and of categories of organizational members such as managers) enable
generalized meanings to emerge. He shows how organizational members discursively
construct meaning in patterned ways and that new discourses seldom appear in an
independent fashion. Instead, each “new” discourse draws on and transforms texts and
meanings previously used in the organization. Processes of framing and routinization
of language are then considered by members of the project team as possible areas of
organizational change. The change occurs when people temporarily stabilize the
organization through the voicing of current practices. By voicing actual practices,
individuals can then evaluate how they might sound in the voices of organizational
members. This allows the inter-relationships between past, present and future
discourses to emerge, and therefore the shift from past to future organizational
meanings, or organizational change, to take place.

Matthew Seeger, Robert Ulmer, Julie Novak and Timothy Sellnow in their paper
examine organizational change as it relates to crisis and disaster. In particular, they
focus on the comments (or voice) of the chief executive officer in the Wall Street
bond-trading firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost nearly 700 of its 1000 employees in the
World Trade Centre attacks in September 2001. Seldom do studies of organizational
change focus on corporations, which have experienced widespread personal tragedy as
articulated through substantial loss of human life. Such crises and disasters are
significant change-inducing events and, not least of all, place severe demands on
sensemaking in organizations. By looking at the role of the chief executive officer, the
authors identify a “discourse of renewal” as Cantor Fitzgerald expressed a new
purpose in the post-September 2001 period. The leader was therefore, critical in giving
meaning to the crisis. Using a variety of discursive devices, including rhetoric and
metaphor, he enabled the situation to be reframed and, in turn, shaped the nature and
degree of organizational change. In this way, the identity of the company was
“remade”. The discursive use of public sympathy and support resources by the
company helps account for this positive outcome. This finding stands in contrast to
conventional wisdom, which suggests that such disasters are primarily negative
events, which lead to organizational decline. However, as the case shows this is by no
means inevitable.

Discussion and conclusion

The implications of discourse analysis for the study of organizational change are
neatly captured by Haridimos Tsoukas in his Afterword to the collection. In particular,
he notes that some other views of making sense of organizational change, including
those of the behaviuorist and cognitivist perspectives, 1offer a more limited approach
to our understanding of organizational change than potentially does discourse
analysis. This is because these two perspectives tend to project a more objectified view
of the world. For those adopting a discursive perspective, this world is constructed
through narrative, language, signs, symbolic patterns and so on. If Tsoukas is correct,
then our understanding of common change terms including “power”, “stability”,
“turbulence”, “unfreeze”, “refreeze” and even “change” itself are by no means
universally shared. Further, the role of actors and the construction of their identity in
organizational change, as well as how the narrative of change unfolds, need to be
woven into the account of change. In other words, to understand change, we need to
understand how it is discursively constructed and interpreted.

This paper has highlighted the ontological and epistemological role of discourse in
shaping organizational change and, in so doing, noted the ability of discourse analysis
to open up analytical space for alternative accounts of the processes forms and
outcomes of organizational change. We have asserted that discourse analytic
approaches reveal the role of discourse in the social construction of organizational
change initiatives, emphasizes that the meaning attached to organizational change
initiatives comes about as a result of a process of negotiation among key actors, and
shows that the discourses of change should be regarded as intertextual. We have also
argued that the value of discourse analytic approaches to the study of organizational
change, in part, lies with their facilitating a multi-disciplinary perspective of change as
well as their capacity as an alternative approach to the study of a variety of
organizational change related issues to generate fresh insights into these issues. These
observations are commensurate with those ofAlvesson and Karreman (2000b), p. 145),
who have observed that the value of discursive approaches to the study of
organizational phenomena, is that they offer the researcher insights into the
ambiguous and constructed nature of the data with which they must work, whilst at
the same time allowing them space for more relaxed, freer and bolder ways of
interacting with the material. The papers in this special issue all exhibit these
important attributes. Combined, they vividly demonstrate the capacity of discourse
analytic research to challenge, innovate and progress more conventional approaches to
the study of organizational change.

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Further reading
Oswick, C. and Grant, D. (Eds) (1996), Organization Development: Metaphorical Explorations,
Pitman Publishing, London.

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