Organisational change isn’t linear. There’s no clear beginning or end point. Instead, it’s a cycle – an ongoing process that every organisation must be ready to actively engage with at any given time. And the troubling thing is that very few business leaders actually know how to navigate change.

"There’s never an end to change – we are constantly evolving," said Professor Melanie Bryant from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

“We need to take a step back and question our assumptions about change, because they’re quite often myths.”

Through her research, Professor Bryant is challenging misconceptions about how the social environment can affect the way organisations and business leaders think about and manage change.

Traditional approaches to organisational change tend to label ‘change recipients’ (usually employees) as being resistant. They often single out employees as the source of failure, without really considering the bigger picture, or the role that other key stakeholders, such as managers, play in the change process.

“We need to shift away from this notion that change occurs within a closed environment, and that individual change recipients have as much influence over outcomes as we’ve been led to believe,” said Professor Bryant.

And she’s taking that idea into the field.

At the University of Tasmania, Professor Bryant is working closely with researchers in social sciences and agriculture to understand how farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural industry view change. They’re also looking at the impact that big issues such as global warming and government-mandated policy shifts have on their decisions around change adoption.   

For example, when new technologies are being rolled out to farmers, they’re not always being used. But it’s not because farmers are resistant to adopting new systems and devices.

It’s not about blaming the end-user.

“It’s important to think about the bigger environmental and government changes that take place in agriculture, and the influence that different stakeholders have in change adoption across the industry. We need to shift the emphasis away from the change recipient – in this case, the farmers.”

Agents of change

Thinking about change in this way is important, and not just for those within an organisation. As Professor Bryant explains, bridging the gap between government, organisations, and change recipients is the key to ensuring something as vital as food security in Australia.

“It’s about the future of the environment and food production in Australia,” she said.

“Issues such as climate change, water shortage, and government policy changes actually impact on the decisions farmers can make on a day-to-day basis to engage in things like new technologies.”

Although agriculture is such an integral component of Australia’s economy, it’s often overlooked by management researchers. Professor Bryant is seeking to bridge that gap by focusing on farmers as change recipients, in the way that employees are traditionally thought of as the change recipients of an organisation.

Interviewing beef and rice farmers around the country, her team found that the reality of their experience was far from what the myths surrounding the industry are saying.

Rather than being resistant to change, farmers are a highly adaptive group. Even when faced with water shortages and government policy changes, they’re willing to use new methods and technologies.

But there are significant environmental and social dynamics – and often mixed messages – that can prevent them from adapting as quickly as they’d like.

“It’s about changing our focus from traditional views of management, which suggest that change recipients are resistant to change, and therefore they won’t adapt to it,” Professor Bryant explains.

“We need to tease out the important social questions and think about how they influence people’s decisions. We need to broaden our understanding of how we should better work with people at different levels of industries and organisations to come up with a new change intervention strategy.”

This is important for all kinds of industries – not just agriculture, she adds. Because while it’s easy to blame the employee, cutting through the myths surrounding change will go a long way in ensuring the health and longevity of any organisation.

“This has great implications for all kinds of different organisations,” said Professor Bryant.

Rather than focusing on the employee, we need to think about the role that managers are playing in encouraging or creating barriers for people who are otherwise willing to adopt change.

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.

Find out more about studying Business and Economics here.

About Professor Melanie Bryant.

Professor Bryant's research interests are primarily in challenges associated with the implementation and adoption of change, particularly around the themes of responses to institutional and organisational change, barriers and enablers to change adoption, and individual awareness and understanding of change. Her work is multi-disciplinary in focus and has been applied to a number of settings including government, agriculture and health. Professor Bryant is a qualitative researcher and is particularly interested in social constructions of change, and the duality of structure and agency in organisational settings. Her most recent projects have focused on social issues and challenges around complex technology change in the Australian rice industry, and institutional/organisational challenges associated with biosecurity adoption. Her work aligns with the University of Tasmania research themes of Environment, Resources and Sustainability and Culture and Society.

View Professor Melanie Bryant.'s full researcher profile