Thinking about Large Scale System Change

his is part of a series of guest blogs on large systems change.


Large scale systems change (LSSC) involves multiple organizations, systems, and groups, often from two or more sectors, that take actions to deliberately effect fundamental shifts in the ‘rules of the game’ or a dominant worldview and associated practices, i.e., the policies, regulations, rules, norms, and standards of practice that constitute ‘how things work’ within the boundaries of interest or with respect to relevant issues or topics of interest.

The key to understanding the word ‘large’ in LSSC is to understand that the scale and scope crosses multiple boundaries, either crossing sector, industrial, or multi-organizational boundaries within a country or crossing national boundaries when the issue of interest is regional or global in scope.  Issues associated with LSSC are inherently ‘wicked’ in nature (see Rittel & Weber; Churchman; earlier blog), which means that they involve multiple stakeholders with different perspectives, are intractable problems with no apparent or agreed path to solution, and have no clear resolution or end point.  Examples of ‘large scale’ wicked problems include poverty, climate change, sustainability, the global financial crisis, and a shift of the business system toward true sustainability.

The term ‘system’ in LSSC can be considered to be a set of interacting/interdependent elements that form an integrated and complex whole.  Most systems are ‘holons’ (Koestler, 1968) in that they are ‘whole’ systems comprised of parts that are themselves ‘wholes.’  For example, an individual employee (a whole person) may be part of a team within a department which is a part of a business unit, which is itself part of a company that is part of an industry, and so on.  LSSC inherently requires taking this type of systems perspective to attempt to understand some of the dynamics and relationships among the various elements of the system.

Most theories of system change are focused at the organizational level as articulated by the (rather dated) organization development literature (French and Bell, 1984; Schein, 1969; Beckhard, 1977; Bennis, Benne & Chin, 1961; Cummings & Worley, 2008; Blake & Mouton, 1969; Nadler, 1981; Bartunek & Moch, 1987; Hage & Aiken, 1970; French).  Some business-in-society scholars have addressed the corporate level implementation of corporate responsibility systems and structures within the corporation (Jonker, 2006; Lyon, 2004).  There is, however, little work within the business in society field explicitly on the type of multi-sector large scale system change of the sort necessary to engage issues of climate change, sustainability, and other problems that are ‘wicked’ in nature.  LSSC involving attempts to change the nature of relationships among organizations and institutions, could also engage their operating goals and practices, norms, values, and behaviors.

Waddock (2008a, 2008b), for example, has proposed that the emergence of the corporate responsibility infrastructure that attempts to create greater corporate sustainability, responsibility, accountability, and transparency is a social movement.  Waddell (2010) studies Global Action Networks (GANs), which also attempt to effect fundamental systemic change within and across industries and issues at scale.  Both this emergent infrastructure and the evolution of GANs can, in effect, be considered social movements in some ways.  Similarly, LSSC could be considered a form of what Peterson (1989) termed new social movements in which the rules of the game also shift fundamentally.

Diani (1994, p. 1) argues that ‘Social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities.’   Similarly, effecting LSSC involves changing the relationships and interactions among system elements.  Today, social movements are understood to occur in numerous domains and go well beyond simple informal networks–though networks are an integral feature of all social movements.  Melucci (1985) emphasizes that social movements work at three levels:  institutional change, cultural innovation, and shifting dominant cultural codes, all of which can be the focus of LSSC.  Hensmans (2003) further argues that as they attempt to (re-)shape institutional fields, social movements need to have a strategic orientation.  This notion fits well with LSSC’s idea of deliberate action toward what is likely to be a rather broadly defined and sometimes implicit goal (e.g., have companies deal more effectively with climate change, enhance sustainability practices in companies, make the financial system more responsive to the productive economy).

LSSCs operate in networks and sometimes networks of networks, sometimes closely coupled and other times more loosely coupled or even uncoupled, but sharing a similar broad agenda or set of goals.  Some actors in LSSCs operate in what we can characterize as broad networks of actors that group together in what is known as collective action (e.g., Peterson, 1989)  Others may be moving the issue forward either in different networks or independently, as Paul Hawken (2007) has demonstrated in his work on blessed unrest (2007).  In the case of the corporate responsibility infrastructure, actors initially operate more or less independently, but as the infrastructure matures more consolidation and ‘rationalization’ is taking place (Albareda & Waddock, 2013 working paper).  What the groups identified by Hawken share is a common set of values and similar broad agenda around sustainability and social justice that they attempt to operationalize through their work, independently or collectively.  What they lack, as Hawken points out, is a collective strategy for effecting the necessary large scale system change that is needed to reach their goals.  LSSC can be conceived as a more deliberate attempt to engage collaboratively oriented actors sharing such a common set of values and related vision of change on specific actions to effect system change.

Scholars and practitioners of LSSC are interested in the ways in which social change happens across large swaths of society(ies), in particularly with reference to progressive changes that include dealing with climate change, reducing imbalances in society, and effecting greater sustainability.  In LSSC there is a deliberate action strategy oriented toward social and institutional change, and actors can operate from within existing institutions and enterprises or within networks, some of which are newly created to effect change.  LSSC for Sustainability represents a potential shift in worldview to change the dominant world view from one of materialism, consumption, and constant growth with a dominance of the economic over human systems towards a more eco-centric, humanistic, progressive, and sustainable worldview or mindset with associated practices.  In other words, it shares the sustainability and social justice orientation of the ‘blessed unrest’ entities, but with a more deliberate social movement and change orientation.

Social movement theorists McAdam et al. (1996) suggest that social movements operate using three core processes:   cultural framing or trying to shape the debate in a contested field;  taking advantage of ‘political opportunity structures’ or tapping into gaps and opportunities in the existing political, social, and institutional environment; and creating and using mobilizing structures or networks of committed parties that can tap into the opportunity structures and move the agenda forward.  These activities take place also in LSSC, along with the need to develop at least a modicum of a shared vision about the future that formal or informal members of the movement can agree to.  This is done explicitly within more formalized networks or more implicitly as a set of shared values like the many entities working in the sustainability and equity space identified by Hawken (2007).

LSSC involves transformation of some systems, which means that movement members need to determine where there are leverage points for change (Senge, 1990) that can be used to either ‘nudge’ (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009) the system into a new way of behaving or find ways to effect more significant change.  Issues of system resilience and adaptiveness (Chapin et al., 2009), diversity, and well-being of human and other living beings are central to considerations of sustainability.  In addition, as Brown points out, sometimes bridging or intermediary organizations can be used to bring a degree of organization to the under-organized systems that are typically involved in attempting large scale change initiatives (Brown, 1983).  These mediating or intermediary entities can, in LSSC, potentially be a set of actors who engage together to create a collective strategy for change.

Consider, for example, the shift from Apartheid to post-Apartheid in South Africa, the shift from the idea that smoking is a socially acceptable practice to smoking becoming socially unacceptable, the shifts from agrarian to industrial to information- or knowledge-based economies.  Such shifts can be thought of as social movements, even though they do not focus on the disadvantaged nor are they necessarily contained within national boundaries, which was previously considered the usual focus of social movement theory (e.g., McCarthy; movements (McCarthy, 1977; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald, 1996; McAdam, Sampson, Weffer & McIndow, 2005).  Using this framework helps understand the potential for LSSC.  These shifts came about because of deliberate change efforts undertaken by a variety of actors in loose networks with related goals over a period of time.  Actors, at various points in time, ‘mobilized’ themselves into sufficient structure that specific and quite deliberate actions could be taken.  Some of the actions taken were rhetorical, (re-)shaping the conversation (cultural framing) around the issue (e.g., around the dangers of smoking) and even created informational campaigns.  Others were more charged actions that helped to mobilize less central groups into action and brought public attention to the issue (mobilizing structures).  No one individual or group can typically be identified as the change agent.  No one event is the ‘cause’ of the shift, although certainly key trigger events that mobilized action could be identified when the circumstances (opportunity structures) are ripe for change.

Large scale system change for sustainability using understanding derived from organizational change theory and social movement theory could potentially provide a new way to consolidate resources and initiatives aimed at resolving the particular wicked problems of sustainability, climate change, and social justice that affecting the future of humanity.


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