PurposeThe purpose of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of the role of abstract forms of power in organizational change by exploring the role of such forms of power in the recent structural transformation of an iconic Australian Intellectual Property law firm. The research literature reflects relatively few studies on the increasing complexity of power dynamics in organizational and institutional arrangements.Design/methodology/approachThe complexity of the investigated phenomena led to the adoption of three qualitative methods in order to access the specific forms of data that were perceived to be relevant to answering the research question (“How did abstract power dynamics influence the nature and outcomes of the firm’s structural transformation?”). Ethnography was used in the attempt to discern, through participation and observation, the assumptions that manifested in action and/or inaction; phenomenology in the exploration through unstructured interviews with 41 staff members and 4 clients of the firm, of their interpretation and “sense-making” of their “lived experience” of “what was going on” in the firm; and narrative enquiry in establishing a narrative of critical events, and their impact on “what was going on” in the firm, including those that had occurred over the years prior to this research initiative.FindingsThe research shows the effects of contradicting forms of abstract power (namely, hegemonic (ideological) power, dominant institutional logic and structural power) as the firm struggled to address challenges to its existence. The impact of these forms of power upon the partners’ apprehension and interpretation of the emerging challenges to the firm’s business performance remained inconspicuous throughout the period of transformation. However, these contradictory forms of abstract power insidiously created tensions within the organization which were poorly addressed, resulting in organizational dysfunction and destructive sectarian conflict. The results show that the inability of partners to discern the nature of the forms of power which were influencing their responses to the crisis was a consequence of under-developed collectively reflexive capabilities and an absence of collaborative problem-solving practices. This resulted in a negative outcome for the firm.Research limitations/implicationsThe research has significant implications for collective endeavor in global business operations that are becoming increasingly complex. In particular, the complexity of power relations, as insidious ideological forces supported by ubiquitous technologies threaten to subsume agentic power in ways that domesticate and neutralize it, requires the development of sophisticated forms of collective ways of “working with power” – capabilities that include the ability to demystify the abstract forms of power that can shape the experience of social realities as “inevitable and natural.” Further research into these forms of power, and the surreptitious role they play in organizational arrangements, is an important requirement. With respect to limitations, as the research is located in the interpretivist research paradigm, the issue of interpretation is problematic. A strong effort was made to limit unwitting interpretive bias but the possibility of such bias cannot be ruled out, especially as, in some cases, the data are an interpretation of prior interpretations of events and/or experiences (as, e.g., in the interview data).Practical implicationsWorking constructively with various forms of power is becoming a critical capability within organizations. This has implications for the relational and communicative skills that underpin effective collaboration of staff and other stakeholders. Such collaboration needs to include the collective ability to make explicit through critical dialogue the surreptitious influence of abstract forms of power upon the prevailing organizational arrangements and routines. To achieve this, these forms of power have to become demystified through constructive critique of the taken-for-granted aspects of everyday organizational life. This has important implications for leadership development practices and educational programs.Social implicationsUnless leaders develop the ability to make the influences of abstract forms of power more conspicuous, and develop collaborative capabilities to work with insight into their management, they run the risk of agentic power becoming subsumed and neutralized by such forms of power. This has important implications for organizational agency and, especially, for the creative agency of the individuals who work within organizations. On a broader scale, it has implications for institutional arrangements and for the critical apprehension of global ideologies.Originality/valueStudies of abstract forms of power are relatively rare in the research literature. This is probably a result of the long-standing dominance of positivism, with its realist ontological assumptions and its objectivist epistemological assumptions. In exploring the influence exerted by abstract forms of power on the inability of the partners of a professional services firm to apprehend their situation more accurately, and to interpret their strategic options with greater insight, this research makes an original contribution to the understanding of the influence of abstract power dynamics in organizational change, and in organizational arrangements more generally.
International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy – Emerald Publishing
Published: Sep 9, 2019
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