Initiating Divergent Organizational Change: The Enabling Role of Actors’ Social Position

by Julie Battilana

Overview — Does social position influence the ability to launch groundbreaking organizational projects? This study investigates that question as well as whether workers' social position in their professional field affects their ability to begin such projects. Using data based on more than ninety clinical managers in the United Kingdom's National Health Service, Battilana studied initiatives such as the development of an alternative to hospitalization for older people and another that would shift role division by transferring decision-making power from physicians to nurses. Her results indicate that social position is an important condition at the heart of organizational change. Key concepts include:

  • A worker's social position is an important condition for their likelihood of initiating important new projects in organizations.
  • Social position is a deciding factor in which types of changes may be made.
  • Within the spectrum of social positions, the characteristics of people who are more likely to initiate such new projects are quite different depending on the type of change project that is considered.

Author Abstract

This study addresses the paradox of embedded human agency, or the contradiction between actors' agency and institutional determinism. It helps to resolve this paradox by considering the enabling role of actors' social position. Adopting a relational view of human agency, I model the impact of their social position on the likelihood that actors will initiate changes that diverge from the existing institutions. I test this model using data from 93 change projects conducted by clinical managers at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. My findings suggest that social position is an important enabling condition for divergent organizational change, and is a determinant as well of the type of divergent organizational change an actor may undertake.

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