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Last year, a group of Dutch researchers published some pretty depressing findings.* They had conducted a systemic review into the quality of the evidence presented in organizational change management research. Their conclusions were simple. "There is solid evidence for what many scholars and academics have long suspected: Despite its growing volume, [organizational change management's] body of evidence is of low quality and growing lower". In other words, the evidence for what works is dodgy, and getting dodgier.

There are three main reasons the evidence for what works in change management is scant and poor.

  1. The first is that much of the research is driven by vendors and so open to – well, let's call it bias. They have a product to sell and they do their best to sell it.
  2. The second is that even when both vendors and academics have a genuine interest in investigating what works in successfully driving organizational change they can struggle to get hold of the data they need from companies. Things like performance ratings. Some firms just don't want to share it, others may be interested in theory, but then personnel may change and getting approval or access can be difficult.
  3. The final reason is that most firms are not interested in looking at what works in driving organizational change for themselves. They tend instead to be focused on just single change initiatives and making sure that they work. For the individual senior or mid-level leader running a particular change project, there is little to be gained from figuring out learning for future initiatives. They just need to make sure this one works. Or at least that it doesn't go horribly wrong, anyway.

If the success rates of organizational change initiatives are to improve, though, something has to change. Because we need more and better information about what works and what doesn't. And the only way that that can start happening is if firms start doing one of two things. Either they start partnering with vendors or academics and properly sharing their data, so that the vendors or academics can do the research. Or, firms need to stop looking at this perennial problem with such a short-term, single-initiative focus, and start building up a reliable body of knowledge about what works for themselves.

In other words, they need to stop relying on academics and business schools being the experts in change and start becoming the experts themselves.

Many firms already tip-toe in this direction to some degree – but I'm talking about something more than a single 'Lessons Learned' slide at the end of a project summary presentation. The question, I guess, is what and how….without incurring significant extra cost or requiring extra headcount? The good news is that it is do-able and doesn't need to be complex. The specifics are a story for another day. The point here is that the key ingredient you need and key thing missing from too many firms is the will to do it in the first place.

* Eric Barends, E., Janssen, B. Have, W., Have, S., (2014). Effects of Change Interventions: What Kind of Evidence Do We Really Have? Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 50 (1), 5-27.