EGOS 2005: Unlocking Organizations

Organisations often get locked in specific ways of seeing and doing things, they even may get trapped. Those processes have been discussed in organizational studies, where conceptions such as warped communication channels, recursive conflict loops, architectures of simplicity or bounded perception routines are used to describe how organisations lose their flexibility, become disabled or fail to meet new challenges.

Such lock-ins occur on different levels: individuals, groups, departments, alliances, regions, industries and societies. They can also be found in different types of organisations such as firms, public administrations, universities, unions and NGOs. Although cognitive, normative and resource-based lock-ins are common phenomena in and between organisations, no consensus has yet been reached on how to explain their occurrence. The dynamics underlying these processes are indeed as manifold as the symptoms signalling their existence. There are dynamics, such as autopoeitic reproduction, standardization, bureaucratic vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies, but also forces, such as power, politics, embeddedness, and generally the institutional context. To explain the processes behind lock-ins is an important task, but even more challenging is the question of how they can be reversed, i.e. un-locked.

Un-locking may occur in an unintended, evolutionary way or be brought about by deliberate approaches and strategies of change. Different actors may initiate un-locking activities: executives, consultants, corporate strategists, innovation champions, whistle-blowers, works councils, grass-root movements, government officials, hidden agents, etc. Related questions address issues such as legitimacy, resistance to change, structural inertia, defensive routines and intervention strategies. Whatever the way and whatever types of actors are involved, un-locking processes are ambiguous in nature. On the one hand they may imply conflict, anger and confusion. But at the same time they mean getting rid of paralysing routines, broadening the scope for new opportunities, tearing down walls, overcoming the "dark side" of embeddedness and entering uncharted waters. It is this ambiguous character that makes the results of un-locking procedures difficult to foresee. The process and its outcomes are inherently uncertain.

What happens after an organisation has been un-locked? How do systems react to un-locking upheavals? Are there significant differences between various types of organisations? How can organisations regain their stability? And how to avoid a re-stabilisation which leads to re-locking? Or is the organizational solution of the future a chronically unfrozen one? How are we to conceive of these processes? In terms of equilibrium models or of dynamic non-linear systems?

To come to a better understanding of the process of the un-locking of organizations is a challenging task for organization researchers. In order to meet this challenge it is fruitful to establish a dialogue between different research approaches which have in the past used a variety of concepts to explore this and related topics, ranging from path-dependency and path-breaking in institutional theory, fit and structural inertia in population ecology, learning spirals and unlearning in organizational learning, to name only a few.

The 21st EGOS Colloquium therefore invites submission of papers from a multiplicity of disciplines and perspectives focusing on different types of organisations and different levels of analysis: empirical studies of path dependencies in and between organisations, case studies of trapped regions, industries or governments, conceptual work on the dynamics of lock-ins, theories and methods of un-locking interventions, research on intended and unintended consequences of the un-locking of organizations etc. Finally, it may be illuminating to engage in self-reflection and to explore lock-ins in organisation theory, discussing the possibilities and limits of un-locking ourselves as organisation researchers.

Georg Schreyögg, Jörg Sydow (Freie Universität Berlin)
Sigrid Quack, Hedwig Rudolph (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung)