History of Change Management

Organizational change management or OCM was the rebellious youth of the infamous 1960s cultural revolution. It was the same years that gave us civil rights, feminist equal rights, birth control, and of course “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.”[1]

            The question, of course, is why then? Why not in the Industrial Revolution of early 1800 or a century later during the Roaring 20s? The answer is not about “how” we did things, as much as it “why” we did things. The Industrial Revolution gave us mass production and process standardization. The 1960s was a change in our cultural mind set. The phrase “question authority” captures this quite nicely. The essence of managing change is to understand the nature of change. And change is not about being predictably mass produced or standardized.

            The answer was that the old way of doing things stopped working. The American dominance as the world’s premiere industrialist was failing. It was no longer enough to mass produce a product. People started to want quality. One of the great ironies of World War II was that the very countries that we defeated on the battlefields of war, Japan and Germany, were now defeating us on the battlefield of industry. We had bombed their industrial capacity into oblivion. So, the irony was that they built new factories. Factories that were newer and more advanced than ours.

            In the post-war year of 1945-1960, America ruled the industrial world when it came to mass production. The factories that had geared up to build tanks and planes, now mass-produced automobiles and televisions. But with this hard-won preeminence came complacency. We rested on our laurels. And the Americans were producing an acceptably shoddy product. The Japanese and the Germans started to outsell the American automobile industry in the 1960s. In 1966 the Japanese introduced the best-selling car of all time. It was the Toyota Corolla. This quest for industrial excellence led to the Japanese to out producing the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, as the production leader with up to 13 million cars per year manufactured. This global competition was over more than cars. Japan also became the leader in electronics such music and television. The Sony Walkman was introduced in 1979 and revolutionized the music industry.

            This brutal and embarrassing loss of prestige forced America industry to rethink its approach to manufacturing. The book In Search of Excellence was published in 1982 and was a turning point in American industrial thinking. Change management had finally found its niche. A decade later, the public-sector followed suit with the publication of Reinventing Government in 1992.

            The paradigm shift from reactively managing change to proactively managing change was well underway by the time the high technology boom began. Microsoft was born in 1975 and Apple in 1976. Both quickly out designed and out manufactured the 800-pound gorilla of IBM. By the 1990s, Microsoft had 90% of the world personal computer market share.


Once the need for managing change became apparent, then the history is really about the evolution of both the types of need and the various models that were created over time to meet the perceived needs of an era.


           The need to address the technological changes in the workplace brought about first by the evolving technology that came with the birth of Microsoft (1964) and Apple (1965), Internet economic changes Amazon (1994) and Google (1998), cultural changes created by Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006).

            The year 2020 saw yet another shift from the need to manage the economic change created by a global technological and the perceived need to address the environmental impacts of global climate change, to the biological changes created by a global pandemic.

            In the global society of today’s world, we must be ready to manage any change that occurs that impacts humanity. The change may be technological, environmental, economic, cultural (socio-political), or biological. But we must be ready to manage it. Because if we do not manage change, then change will manage us.

            The truly frightening prospect of global change is that it increasingly threatens humanity. There are endless science fiction scenarios where humanity teeters on the brink of extinction. These are not merely the stuff of scary movies. As we have seen over and over, Oscar Wilde’s proposition that “life imitates art” was correct. The China Syndrome foretold Chernobyl and Fukushima. The movies Pandemic and Contagion foretold AIDS, SARS and CONVID-12. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968. In it, the onboard computer HAL decides it knows better than the humans what to do. It foreshadowed the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), as did Star Trek’s cybernetic organisms the “Borg.”

            The human race has one common trait. We are constantly at a “cross roads” that threatens our very existence. Change management is proactive. Emergency management is reactive. There may come a day when the emergency management fails us. It’s called “doomsday.” Let us hope that organizational change management wins the day.


[1] "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" is a 1977 single by Ian Dury, who popularized the phrase.