Cheering the Change Champions

I really did enjoy an article in the Times Higher 1st October 2015. Steve Olivier, a deputy vice-chancellor at Abertay University, offers advice on How to Manage Rapid Change.

Although nowhere near as eminent as a deputy vice-chancellor, I am also a change champion, I have, over the last few years, presented myself for as many management training programs as I can endure. Operating rather like a resistance worker, I attend, take notes and then work with the tools of critical discourse analysis to uncover the discourses, power relations, metaphors and assumptions that are embedded in these programs. I work with a colleague, Helen Sauntson, and this analysis owes much to her expertise.

Change is one of those managerial ‘hooray words’ and, indeed, Olivier reassures us that ‘change initiatives are well-intentioned’. He then announces a litany of fifteen changes that he and the senior management team have introduced in ‘just 18 months’. Ho-hum. I wouldn’t mind betting most academics have undergone something very similar in the last three years. I could certainly check off half of Olivier’s list. Better than that, I am now looking forward to the fifth iteration of the semesters to year-long back-and-forth in my career. At Abertay, we learn that “No initiative could proceed without our first agreeing to no more than 10 principles to guide it”. That was the part I didn’t entirely recognise. Ten? Crikey, I’d be happy with one. If we can flip-flop so many times, how can we be asked to believe in any underlying principles? I am not so much a change champion as a change veteran. Change is a kind of dysfunctional academic circadian rhythm designed to make sure no process ever fully cements itself. The only response it evokes in me is resignation and thoughts of all the productive work about to be erased while I Do, I Undo and I Redo – in the way of the Louise Bourgeois sculptures.

So what do the documents of managerial training schemes reveal? Firstly, the constant references to ‘change management’ presuppose that change is something that must be managed and cannot simply be allowed to occur organically or naturally. This helps to create a discourse of change as something which must be ‘controlled’ by those in powerful positions within an institution (referred to in training documents as ‘change leaders’, ‘change masters’ and ‘change agents’). It is presented as an indicator of competence, regardless of judgements favouring the status quo, or alternative changes. Resisting change is presented as a ‘negative behaviour’.

Invoking change as a universal good to be embraced, presupposes that there will be resistance and ‘barriers’ to change, and that change is something that will not be wanted by staff working in HEIs. Academics, of course, are often the initiators of change (particularly in their subject areas), but this meaning of change is notably absent from training documents leaving a clear presupposition that change is ‘top-down’ and can only be initiated and directed by those in the most powerful positions within an institution. A discourse is created that any change that is desired by those in less powerful positions must be suppressed and controlled by those higher up.

Parker (2014) documents a convincing case study of change management at its most strident as ‘a project which attempts to ensure that all parts of an organization ‘share’ values. Or, to put it a different way, to ensure that there is no disagreement with the corporate line, and that academics and students know their places and their ‘best interests’’ (2014: 283). Apparent resistance to change was often characterised as a problem of communication (2014: 285), and unhappiness discounted as ‘inevitable in times of rapid change’.

Our documents indicate that managers see all change as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. However, change is decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation: ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287). Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Those who leave are recast as not sharing the vice-chancellor’s vision. The discourse creates binary options of compliance or exit; zero: sum; entrepreneur or whiner hankering for the ‘good old days’. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, will be defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).

A final strong presupposition underlying the uses and meanings of change in the documents is that all change will ultimately be successful. Despite reservations that covertly may be held, the discourse is relentlessly positive; there are never any ‘problems’, only ‘challenges’, and problems are solved, challenges are overcome, ruthlessly, just like resistance. The ideology created in the text prevents academics from interrogating the legitimacy of change are being imposed – to technology, to working conditions, to ‘performance management’ or to redundancy criteria. One of the absences in the documents is the possibility of academics participating in democratic structures to agree change. Indeed, if resistance fails, and the employee finds themselves stressed or their work impeded by change, then there are institutional means by which the institution attempts to manage the dissatisfied self. Docherty (2014b) writes that “everything, including dissent, is managed and circumscribed to keep existing authority in power. Institutionally, it’s called ‘change management’”.


Thomas Docherty (2011). The unseen academy. Times Higher.

Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school. Organization. 21(2) 281–292.


3 thoughts on “Cheering the Change Champions”

  1. Excellent sweetie!! Nice blend of recycled and new observations.


    Dr. Kathleen O’Mara Professor, History & Africana & Latino Studies Depts Fitzelle Hall 268/ SUNY Oneonta Oneonta, NY 13820 607.436.2593 When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas “marketplaced,” our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly un-intelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly. Toni Morrison, The Nation, 260:21 [5/29/95] 760



  2. It is interesting that what you have uncovered in academia is already changing in the business world. Janet Bowker writes about how the changing discourses of “change” reflect the changes in managerial thinking… going from the ideas you have described above to the notion of change = learning, learning = journey, teamwork and success (with your happy supportive work family).
    I think you might like this:
    Bowker, J. (2012). From ‘Communities of practice’ to ‘Communities of learning: Interdiscursivity in changing corporate priorities. In P. Gillaerts, E. de Groot, S. Dieltjens, P. Heynderickx & G. Jacobs (Eds.), Researching discourse in business genres: Cases and corpora (pp. 115-138). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.


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