An important part of my research has been working closely with four organisations who agreed to be case studies as part of my project, and the industrial placements I carried out with them as part of this. During the four industrial placements, I adopted the role of external change agent, with the aim of initiating changes to workplace policies and practices to support working carers.
Aligning to the core themes, challenges and opportunities highlighted in the UK industrial Strategy (2017), all case studies were in low productivity regions in the UK, each case employed a proportion of low skilled workers, and one case was a small and medium sized enterprise (SME). None of the cases had any formal support for working carers in place.
Every organisational change, whether large or small, requires one or more change agents (Lunenburg, 2010). In his influential book Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003, p400) introduces a change agent as someone who ‘operates interventions, defined as actions with a coherent objective to bring about behaviour change in order to produce identifiable outcomes’. A change agent is anyone who has the skill and power to stimulate, facilitate, and coordinate the change effort (Lunenburg, 2010).
Working alongside an internal change agent*, I provided the knowledge and expertise needed to develop a tailored intervention programme to support working carers for each organisation based on policy and practice recommendations, grounded in both context-specific applied research and a broader theoretical and empirical evidence base.
My role oscillated between that of an external change agent, working alongside the internal change agent to support them in developing their policy and practice, and a researcher trying to understand the organisation, how it operated, and how working carers could be best supported (Grimes, 2013).
One of the key factors in maintaining a successful collaboration with my industrial partners was to ensure that I remained accessible and available for advice (via email, over the phone or in person), for the duration of the research project. Alagoz et al. (2018) recognised the importance of follow up when reviewing the use of external change agents in healthcare organisational change efforts, and noted that an implementation strategy featuring regular, tailored follow up by the external change agent is most likely to promote successful organisational change.
Although I maintained frequent and timely contact with the internal change agent, the research project did have a set completion date which meant that I, in adopting a change agent role, did consider a withdrawal strategy which involved building confidence and leaving the internal change agent in a position where they felt able to implement changes. This is recognised by Smeed & Bourke (2012, p5) who note that ‘while the change agent assumes the authority necessary to initiate and manage a change process, eventually s/he will withdraw, leaving behind a culture that can sustain ongoing, substantive reform discourses’.
I hope my role as an external change agent will lead to a successful programme of policy and practice support for working carers within the four case study organisations, as well as foster possible future collaborations and knowledge exchange opportunities, which will lead to similar organisation developing their own intervention programmes to support working carers.
*Alagoz et al. (2018, p1) give examples of internal change agents as being organisational leaders who support change; project champions who actively promote change; or organisational ‘opinion leaders’ who, through their endorsement, promote change implicitly.
UKRI Innovation Fellow
Alagoz, E., Chih, M-Y., Hitchcock,M., Brown, R. & Quanbeck, A. (2018) The use of external change agents to promote quality improvement and organizational change in healthcare organizations: a systematic review. BMC Health Services Research, 18:42 DOI 10.1186/s12913-018-2856-9.
Grimes, P. (2013) Considering the continuing development of inclusive teachers: a case study from Bangkok, Thailand. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28:2, 187-202, DOI: 10.1080/08856257.2013.778112.
Lunenburg, F.C. (2010) Managing change: the role of the change agent. International Journal of Management, Business and Administration, 13 (1).
Rogers E.M. (2003) Diffusion of innovations. New York: The Free Press.
Smeed, J. & Bourke, T. (2012) Teachers’ perceptions of the use of an external change agent in school curriculum change. Australian Educational Researcher, 39(2), pp 207-220.