Ambiguous organizational change
Revisiting the role of projects
Public organizations are replete with projects of different kinds. Projects within public organizations may be used instrumentally as part of an agenda of change. However, such an agenda is not necessarily clear from the outset. Ambiguous approaches to change relates to both lacking clarity about the desired outcomes and the nature of the means through which outcomes should be generated. That goes for the original ideas of the instrumental use of the projects and the more specific contents of the projects, which may be changed underway depending on circumstances. For that reason, it is necessary to understand the role of projects in organizational change, not only through looking at the projects as such, but also how they relate to each other and the overall idea of organizational change.
This conference contribution sheds light on and analyses a project context of a Norwegian administrative county, where projects over time became instrumental to changing the organization through ongoing project reformulation in terms of direction and contents. The purpose is to understand how organizational change is furthered by means of parallel project establishment and management.
Building on an ambition of flexible work and closeness to the inhabitants and to attract and retain key staff, the Norwegian county established a concept for distributed workplace organization by and through a system for digital interaction. A multi-faceted project focusing on new forms of working was initiated in late 2019. Through four pilot projects, new forms of work should be enabled on four different geographical locations. Thematically, the four pilot projects focused on different issues, as shown in table 1.
Table 1. Pilot projects within the county
Principal geographical location
Co-creation centre for co-workers (activity-based workplaces)
Forms of work and management in open office solutions at a geographical distance
Building facilities as tools for integration, interaction and identity
Work in nodes, open common office solutions for flexible workplaces to be used by the county’s co-workers
In one way or the other, all pilot projects concerned office and working solutions for co-workers. For all pilot projects, digital interaction was presupposed. Also, a new personalized portal was constructed. A new quality system was set up to bring about a common understanding of best practice, processes and potential deviations.
As the projects went on, in the midst of the corona pandemic, all of them changed either contents, directions or names. To understand this rather complicated context of (sub-)projects and how they developed, it is important to understand the agendas, backgrounds and dynamics of the different projects in relation to each other – and also the meta-agenda that was partly formed during the course of the projects.
As will be argued, contrary to the idea of rational organizational change with clear purposes and goals, organisational change is emergent and – and in this particular case to a high degree dependent on ‘windows of opportunity’ that emerge in a context marked by the corona pandemic. In this situation, projects play a role as proxies for new ways of working – in the sense that new ideas and practices were developed underway and realized as opportunities to change the organisation’s way of working.
The paper contributes both to the literature on organizational change and project management. It suggests that projects should preferably not be understood just as vehicles given their missions and specifications, but as ongoing constructed opportunities of change that are used by significant actors to promote certain ambitions underway. It also claims that projects should best be understood from a meta-context, where the borders between different projects are not sharp, but negotiable.