How Organizations Slowly Change Over Time
New Research Advances Theory of Institutional Drift
TORONTO – Wednesday, September 8, 2021 – Even the smallest variations in the way people interact with one another and perform their jobs inside an organization can lead to significant institutional change over time, according to new research just published in the Journal of Management Studies.
Maxim Voronov, a Professor of Organization Studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business, co-authored the research paper together with Mary Ann Glynn, an Associate of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, and Klaus Weber, a Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.
The research paper puts forward what it terms the “theory of institutional drift” to explain how minor, under-the-radar changes to standard practices can lead over time to significant and unexpected changes in organizations. A classic example of institutional drift, says Professor Voronov, is what happened at NASA regarding the Challenger disaster in 1986, when the NASA space shuttle suddenly exploded one minute after take-off, killing all seven crew members aboard.
A number of studies have shown that one of the contributing factors in the accident was the slow but steady tolerance from NASA engineers for accepting greater levels of risk, which in turn led to an erosion of safety standards within the organization – what the researchers describe as the “normalization of ever-greater deviations from routine practices”.
“Institutional drift leads to institutional change by altering the repertoire of practices associated with certain roles, thus redefining the shared understandings of acceptable and normal practice,” says Voronov. “When ongoing deviations from routine interactions between people within an organization are ignored or normalized, the result is institutional drift.”
The key lesson here for organizations, adds Voronov, is that small practice deviations on the part of a large number of employees should not be seen as trivial – particularly when they build up over time.
Maxim Voronov is available for interviews about the research findings. A copy of the study is available upon request.