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Closing the shop on sheltered work: case studies of organizational change.

Closing the Shop on Sheltered Work: Case Studies of Organizational Change

Qualitative research methods were used to examine the process of change from sheltered work to supported work models in three rehabilitation agencies. Of particular interest was the relative strength of "content" and "systemic" variables. Fundamental changes were found to have occured within each agency, led primarily by one or two key individuals with a strong commitment to an ideology of community-based services. Two distinct stages in the change process emerged. Economic pressure played a dominant role during the initiation phase at two of the agencies. The use of tactics for dealing with resistance and for ensuring permanence and stability was evident during the second, formalization phase.

The growing interest in supported employment has been accompanied by the belief that considerable change is necessary in the way traditional vocational organizations conduct their activities (McLoughlin, Garner & Callahan, 1987; Pumpian, West & Shephard, 1987; Whitehead, 1987). These changes may involve the types of individuals served, the sources of financial support received, the level of vocational integration sought, and/or the type of assessment, training and placement techniques employed.

Despite the complexity and growth of existing service changes little attention has been paid within vocational rehabilitation literature to the process of change. Whitehead (1987) has pointed out that a shift in service orientation towards supported employment poses complex and difficult challenges, including the possibility of personnel displacement similar to that experienced by institutional staff during the group home movement. Crimando, Riggar, and Bordieri (1988) have advocated increased attention to the management of change by rehabilitation administrators. One reason for the neglect of organizational change as an issue of concern may be that the changes are still relatively new and sporadic. A second reason may be that rehabilitation personnel are trained in and focused on a clinical, person change orientation rather that a systemic or organizational orientation (Stubbins & Albee, 1984).

The view that appears to underlie most discussions of change within rehabilitation is What might be called "content-centered". Change from an older service orientation to a newer service orientation is assumed to be a fairly straightforward process of adoption of new technologies by decision-makers, once the advantages of the new orientation have been clearly and rationally demonstrated. The discussion of organizational change by Paine, Bellamy, and Wilcox (1984) exemplifies such a content-centered perspective. They view the process of change as one of successfully marketing or franchising proven program models, and they specifically caution against attending to the change Process. These authors argue that (a) theories of change have not proven to be very helpful, and (b) immersion in process details deflects the attention of change agents away from a more productive emphasis on the content of change itself.

Content-centeredness also can be found in the field of special education where change to a more integrated, community-focused curriculum for students with disabilities has been increasingly emphasized. Wershing, Gaylord-Ross, and Gaylord-Ross (1986) have outlined what they call a "process model" of change. However, despite its name, the only change process described is the process of convincing "helpful administrators" of the rationale for change, and then collaboratively implementing the new service structure. Empirical studies of integrated school programs have not supported a content-centered view. For example, Biklen (1985] and Meyer and Kishi (1985) have described numerous factors at work in successful change that are unrelated to program content itself.

In contrast with rehabilitation and special education, a comparatively large body of literature on change has been developed within other human service disciplines, most notably those related to social welfare. Perhaps because these disciplines have been concerned with change for a longer period, or are more comfortable with "systemic" approaches to human service issues, a somewhat different view of change is evident within this literature.

Advocates of a "systemic" view of change conceptualize change as including structural, political, human resource and symbolic elements (Bolman & Deal, 1984). According to this view each element is present to varying degrees in effective change and undue attention to one element, to the exclusion of the others, may inadequately describe the change process (Giangreco, 1988).

For advocates of a systemic view, powerful forces operate within and without any human services organization or service system to maintain the status quo (Hasenfeld, 1983). These forces include (a) stable rewarding relationships with other organizations within a service network, (b) sunk costs and a lack of resources for implementing changes, (c) organizational ideologies which rationalize current practices, and (d) a delicate balance of power among professional interest groups and other internal organizational factions and coalitions. Proposals for change are therefore likely to meet with significant resistance (Brager & Holloway, 1978; Pati & Resnik, 1980). Organizational change is a long, difficult, and risky process, often resulting in changes that are modest in scope (Kaufman, 1971) or merely symbolic (Hasenfeld, 1983). The success of change efforts is governed by a complex network of organizational process variables, such as (a) the organizational position of the change agent, (b) the values and personal goals of dominant persons and groups inside and outside of the organization, and (c) the economic and political context in which the organization operates (Pati, 1980). Change agent tactics that are exclusively oriented towards rational discussion, Persuasion and collaboration do not always succeed. Successful change may involve the adoption of adversarial or conflict strategies (Brager & Holloway, 1978; Pawlak, 1980). Exclusive attention to the content aspects of change, i.e. the attributes of the particular program model or service technology being advocated, is likely to be unproductive or even counter-productive (Morris & Binstock, 1980).

The purpose of this study was to view change from an organizational, systemic perspective and investigate how it occurred within a particular type of human service organization. Rehabilitation agencies that had experienced a significant change away from a sheltered workshop model toward a supported employment model were selected for study. The particular questions of interest were: (a) what was the scope and nature of the changes that occurred within these organizations? (b) what role did content factors, such as the availability of innovative service models or information about integrated vocational services, play within the organization? (c) what systemic factors were involved in change, and (d) to what extent were change agents aware of systemic variables or consciously utilizing change tactics?


In order to gain an in depth look at the structure of change, qualitative research methods were employed with a small sample of rehabilitation agencies.

Qualitative methods, developed originally within the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, have gained increasing recognition as a valuable complement to quantitative research across a range of social sciences. While quantitative methods focus on the measurement of operational variables and the verification of a priori hypotheses, qualitative methods focus on understanding the subjective experiences and perspectives of people, on detailed naturalistic description, and on theory development (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982; Erickson, 1985; Stainback & Stainback, 1984). Each method has its particular strengths and weaknesses (Ackroyd & Hughes, 1981), and is well suited to some but not all research questions. Systematic strategies for minimizing threats to reliability and validity are a part of each scientific tradition (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982). In qualitative research, data are collected through such techniques as participant-observation and in-depth interviews, and data analysis proceeds through induction rather than deduction. The unique strength of the approach lies in its ability to handle complex social processes without manipulating or imposing external constructs on the phenomena of interest. Within rehabilitation, qualitative research has been employed to investigate a wide range of issues, including sheltered workshops (Turner, 1983), evaluation centers (Murphy & Hagner, 1988), and the experiences of persons with epilepsy (Schneider & Conrad, 1985) and physical disabilities (Kleinfield, 1979).

Based on requests to rehabilitation professionals familiar with community-based vocational services for persons with severe disabilities, three agencies were identified which had undergone significant organizational change. All three were described as having "closed down their workshop" and having adopted a supported employment service mode. Administrators of the three organizations were contacted and all three agreed to participate. The small, non-representative sample was approached as case studies of organizational change, conducted as an exploratory or hypothesis-generating study (Erickson, 1985).

A series of open-ended interviews was conducted by the first author with members of each of the three organizations. Approximately ten hours of interview took place, with the executive directors, middle management level Program Coordinators, and direct service staff within the three organizations. Field observation of staff meetings and supported work sites supplemented the interviews.

The interview responses and field notes were transcribed and analyzed using modified analytic induction techniques (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). Each of the authors independently conducted a line-by-line analysis of the transcriptions and formed coding categories. Each new statement was either assigned to one or more existing codes, or a new code was created. At the end both investigators compared their coding categories. Two kinds of coding discrepancies occurred. First, there were some verbal differences in the naming of the categories, and these were easily reconciled. For example, the categories "external pressure" and "environmental pressure" were the same. Second, one set of categories was occasionally more detailed than the other. For example, the one category "resistance to change" in one coding system referred to what was classified into two categories, "parental resistance" and "staff resistance", in the other system. This type of disagreement was also not serious, and was removed by a mutual decision on the appropriate degree of specificity. The resulting list of coding categories contained three major themes related to the initial research questions, and these are reported in the results section.

Agency Characteristics

All three agencies studied were private, not for-profit organizations providing vocational rehabilitation services to persons with disabilities. The majority of clients at all three agencies were labeled mentally retarded. Two of the agencies, Transitional Services and Community Services, were located in two different New England states. The third agency, Career Services, was located in the southwest.

Transitional Services had been a traditional work activity center since the mid 1960s. Forty staff served about 200 clients. Community Services had begun as a school program in the late 1950s and had gradually developed adult service programs as graduating students reached adulthood. Career Services served approximately 50 persons in its vocational and adult continuing education programs.

There were obvious differences among all three organizations in their organizational structures and histories. Transitional Services was large in size and had made a substantial investment in a sheltered work facility and equipment, whereas Community Services and Career Services were relatively small and had no significant sunk costs related to sheltered work. Community Services was only six-years-old at the time the change was initiated, and its organizational structure was relatively "flat", whereas Transitional Services and Career Services were both over 20-years-old and had a more traditional pyramid-style organizational structure.


A fundamental change occurred within each organization towards desegregated vocational services. However, change had a different meaning and described a unique set of events within each organization. Within each organization one or two specific people were strongly identified with the changes that had taken place, and these people occupied leadership roles. The initiation of change and its formalization as a permanent part of the structure of the organization represented two distinct phases of the change process, and within each phase the relationship between content factors and systemic factors was somewhat different. Each of these results is discussed below.

Initiation of Change

Economic Forces

Economics played the most direct role as a stimulus for change within two of the three organizations. Transitional Services felt pressured from referral agencies and the parents of secondary school students with disabilities. Both of these groups were pushing the agency for alternatives to sheltered work. A group had even formed in the community to investigate the possibility of starting a new agency. Traditional Services was perceived as stagnant and out of touch with new ideas, and so upon the retirement of the executive director in the mid-1970s, the Board of Directors had sought a replacement who was known to be an innovator.

Economic pressures also were experienced by Career Services. Initial attempts to establish a sheltered work program at the agency were not well received. A sheltered workshop was already available in the community, and those persons without day programs were often those who had negative attitudes towards workshops. Some had been rejected for sheltered employment, and others were interested in a combination of services rather than employment alone. Both of these agencies were rewarded economically for taking steps towards community-based programs. Referrals were said to have "skyrocketed" at Transitional Services. Career Services obtained a major state contract to provide an alternative to sheltered employment. The third agency, Community Services, was essentially unaffected economically by the change to supported work.

Ideological Leadership

Within each organization, one or two individuals strongly committed to community services and normalization occupied key staff positions and largely orchestrated the change process. The vocational coordinator at Transitional Services was expressly recruited and hired by the new executive director to function as a change agent. The executive director and vocational coordinator at Community Services and Career Services, respectively, were the primary agents of change within those organizations.

The organizational position of these change agents was an important factor. The executive director of Career Services reported that her initial interest in supported work resulted from attending a "Marc Gold/Lou Brown conference." She reportedly came back really enthusiastic and had been accompanied by two non-supervisory staff members. However, two years went by without significant change. When the same conference was repeated, the executive director made sure to send supervisory staff members with stronger leadership potential, including the vocational coordinator. Soon after the second conference, specific plans for change were made.

All of the change agents evidenced a strong ideological commitment to community-based services. Career Services' vocational coordinator explained that "as far as the work activity center was concerned, we didn't believe in it and we didn't want to put the effort into making it work." Program models and related information regarding community-based services played an important role for these individuals, but did not directly provide a blueprint or model around which new services were designed.

Within Transitional Services, the executive director had been recruited by the board of Directors, and in turn had hired the vocational coordinator, largely on the basis of specific program content expertise. The executive director had experience in developing small businesses, and the vocational coordinator had experience in "Try Another Way" (Gold, 1980) systematic training techniques. Such expertise was the basis for staff confidence and trust in their leaders. But paradoxically, no small businesses were established at Transitional Services, and formal "Try Another Way" training techniques were seldom utilized. As the director noted:

"It's almost embarrassing. You won't see a lot of data

sheets, but you will see training. Staff gained

confidence; they began to have a structured way to look at

things and expectations that people could achieve."

At Community Services, the decision to change was closely related to an evaluation of the agency utilizing the Program Analysis of Service Systems (PASS) format (Wolfensberger & Thomas, 1983). The executive director of the agency felt that the results of the evaluation highlighted some of the weaknesses of the organization. But, significantly, she also reported that neither the evaluators nor a normalization-trained consultant who maintained ongoing contact with the organization were "the least bit helpful about what to do about them." However, as the executive director noted, the evaluation consultant served as a morale booster as the change process unfolded:

"When you just got really overwhelmed, you could

always sit down with him (consultant) and say, 'Tell me

again what we are doing and why.' He was there as a

resource, and that was essential."

The experience of the staff of Career Services was similar. Although they were enthuasiastic by the conference they attended and the other information available to them, such information was not sufficiently specific or relevant to the unique needs of the agency to provide a program model for change.

In each of the three agencies, the changed program evolved from the specific resources, characteristics, interactions and opportunities of each agency. External sources of information and training provided moral support for staff or what has been called a sense of membership in an ideological community (Chernis & Krantz, 1983).

Formalization of Change

Once initiated, the change process did not proceed in a smooth and uninterrupted fashion. Participants at all levels characterized change as an upsetting experience; "pure hell", as one staff member put it. Change agents were faced with numerous setbacks, obstacles, and surprises. Resistance was encountered within each organization and change agents utilized strategies to neutralize or overcome resistance. In addition, the initiation of change was followed by a second phase of follow-up changes, directed towards ensuring the permanence and stability of the new community-based system. This phase, loosely analogous to the "maintenance and generalization" phase in individual behavior change, is sometimes referred to as formalization (Walsh & Dewar, 1987). In the process of neutralizing resistance and formalizing change, the use of specific and deliberate tactics on the part of change agents was most evident.

Resistance-Neutralizing Tactics

The primary source of resistance to change came from staff members within each organization. Some staff members were comfortable with, or had a vested interest in, the status quo. As one staff member put it, "Our system was established, and for all we knew, it was working." Some staff members believed that a major shift in service technology would be difficult and even somewhat frightening.

Change agents sought to neutralize this resistance primarily by building an adequate reward system for staff and providing staff development opportunities. For example, the new executive director's first act at Transitional Services was to increase staff salaries and benefits. Second, administrators sometimes overcame the reluctance of staff members by assigning them to some occupational area of individual interest within the supported work program. At Community Services, for example, staff members were encouraged and supported in setting up a small business in their area of interest, and many times they became absorbed in the business venture. Third, a sense of reversibility was projected, so that staff believed that if the changes became unworkable, the organization could go back to what had been done before.

Most staff members believed that they had been treated fairly and were better off than they had been before, and responded to change with acquiescence (Carnall, 1986). The few staff members who remained dissatisfied eventually left the organization. This turnover, or bureaucratic succession (Pawlak, 1980), produced new staff members more open to influence and more receptive to the new orientation.

Some resistance was also felt from clients of the agencies and their families, but change agents described this resistance as much less than had been expected. The organizations overcame client resistance by ensuring that, in each individual case, client and/or family wishes were respected. Those who wished to remain in or return to the workshop were allowed to do so at Transitional Services and Community Services (which no longer operated a workshop but maintained a small business at the former workshop location). At Career Services, when the final workshop contract shut down, no clients resisted a community placement, although a few did resist a full time work placement. Those who wanted a specific work assignment or supervisor were accomodated. Concerns about Social Security benefits, transportation, work hours or related matters were handled by making special arrangements or providing assurances that addressed each specific concern. The supported employment programs developed were reportedly flexible enough to allow for this degree of individualization.

An important tactic utilized by change agents to prevent or minimize resistance was careful management of the flow of information to significant interest groups within the organization, such as staff, families, and Boards of Directors. For example, success stories of workers who enjoyed community work were highlighted in newsletters but when community jobs did not work out for other individuals, change agents reported that they "never told those stories." When the treasurer at Transitional Services became concerned about decreasing workshop revenues, the vocational director switched to a different reporting system. She began reporting the combined revenue for both workshop and community work enclaves instead of two separate totals. Because they occupied key management positions within their agencies, the change agents had some control over the selection, timing, and format of information disseminated about their programs. Other tactics of information management included the careful timing and selection of staff training, retreats, and external evaluations.

Formalization Tactics

Although change agents initially sought to project a sense of reversibility, steps were eventually taken within each organization to ensure the permanence of the changes made and to structure the organization differently. The primary formalization tactic was the redesign of job positions. At Transitional Services, creation of the position of vocational director at a level higher than workshop manager ensured that the workshop program would occupy a subordinate position in relation to the supported work program. The position of publicity director was abolished and in its place two case manager positions were created. This redesign served an information management function (decreasing the flow of information until the changes were well under way), and it also allowed the new positions to be designed in such a way tha new case manager responsibilities including assisting clients to move to community work sites.

Community Services was the most radically restructured of the three agencies. Most staff positions were abolished and direct service personnel became small business owners with training stipend contracts with the agency in place of staff salaries. At Career Services, all direct service job descriptions were modified so that the planning of individual client services became more of a team effort. That way, as the vocational coordinator explained, "Everybody is responsible for everybody." This dispersal of responsibility had the effect of giving more control to the vocational coordinator.

Two other strategies were employed to formalize the change to supported employment. At Transitional and Community Services, physical distance was placed between the community work program and sheltered work, by moving the base of program operations to a new location in a different part of town. Second, each of the three organizations attempted to develop a support network for staff members to replace the loss of day to day social contact available in segregated settings. These supports included regular meetings, informal get-togethers, telephone contacts, and inservice training events.

Closing the Workshop

The formalization process apparently was seen as culminating in an agency having "closed its workshop." However, the meaning of this phrase different among the three agencies. Transitional Services dramatically increased its competitive placement program over a two-year period and developed an array of work enclaves. These enclaves employed between two and nine workers each, under Transitional's work activity license. In addition, the agency's staffing pattern had been revised to reflect an emphasis on community employment, a new storefront-type location away from the facility had been developed as a based of operations, and the Board of directors had voted to decrease the percentage of workers employed within the facility each year until a complete transition to community employment had been accomplished. Thus, the agency staff felt that a massive and radical change had occurred, even though a segregated work activity center continued in operation.

Community Services underwent a sudden process of dispersing virtually all of its 30 clients into community employment within a period of three months. Some workers were placed into competitive jobs, and others were hired by each of the small businesses which were established by agency staff. The facility itself became one such business. Each business incorporated separately and retained a contract relationship with Community Services, whereby the agency provided a monthly training stipend.

Career Services embarked on a gradual process of developing competitive jobs and volunteer positions within community businesses, and later developing a series of work enclaves. Eventually, only one small subcontract operation remained within the facility itself. When that contract was suddenly cancelled by the contracting company, the agency was faced with the choice of either developing a new facility contract or new community work sites. It chose the latter option. No clients worked within the facility after that time, although it continued to be utilized by clients as a central meeting point for transportation arrangements and for some non-vocational programming.

Without question, major changes occurred within each organization. However,$what was described and experienced as "closing the workshop" was a process unique to each agency. Each agency began by expanding those program components in which it had experienced success: Transitional Services in work enclaves, Community Services in training contracts with small businesses, and Career Services in volunteer work experiences. Each agency continued to utilize its original facility. However, Career Services no longer used its center as a work setting, and Community Services' business operation eventually moved to a different location. In summary, the agencies' changes to supported work did not involve a complete break from past patterns of services. The manner in which "closed their workshop" was rooted in the traditions and perceived strengths of each organization.

It should not be inferred that the formalization phase was interpreted by the staff as a final stage of the organization's development. None of the staff interviewed believed that the change from sheltered employment to supported employment services was finished. Each step in the change process opened up a whole array of new problems, with no immediate or permanent solution in sight. Despite this uncertainty, the interviewees unanimously concurred with the sentiment of one change agent that "We couldn't possibly go back. There's no way we could go back."


The changes described in this study emanated from a variety of structural, economic, personal and symbolic sources. With the exception of an evident distinction between initiation and formalization phases, there appeared to be no common sequence of events nor simple formula that adequately describes the changes that took place within these organizations. For example, the complex interplay of internal and external factors cannot be satisfactorily classified simply as "proactive" or "reactive" changes (Crimando, Riggar & Bordieri, 1988). Rather, change agents within each organization made use of the unique characteristics, traditions and situational opportunities available to them to both respond to pressure from sources of referral, funding, and program evaluation, and to implement a strongly felt commitment to change. Most often "closing the workshop" actually meant reducing the workshop and adding new programs which were perceived as less segregated by staff.

External resources and information were often cited as important stimulants for change. However, such "content" factors appeared rather transitory, functioning more as sources of moral exhortation than as practical, ongoing sources of program design.

It was evident that specific, purposeful tactics had been employed by change agents, particularly during the formalization phase. Tactics included staff incentives and training, resolution of individual concerns, job restructuring, information management, staff turnover, physical relocation, and support system development.

The results of this study should be considered as only preliminary, descriptive accounts, suggestive of further questions and research. Particularly in light of the small sample of agencies and of respondents within those agencies, a great deal of caution is required in the interpretation of these findings. For example, the selection of individuals most closely associated with change as interviewees might have made the behavior of these individuals appear overly significant. Further research should involve a larger number of respondents and begin to focus more specifically on such issues as the longevity and stability of change, and the relationship of change outcomes to the structural, economic, personal and ideological factors noted in this study. Patterns of change across a wider variety of organizations seeking more integrated service approaches also require further study.

It is hoped that the present study will highlight organizational change as an important and fascinating topic in contemporary vocational rehabilitation, particularly important for those interested in influencing the direction or rate of change within rehabilitation organizations. Organizational change is an extraordinary complicated, difficult, long-term, and unpredictable process that has for too long been neglected or treated simplistically, and is not well understood even by those who have experienced it.

DAVID C. HAGNER is with the New Hampshire Developmental Disabilities Council and the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability. STEPHEN T. MURPHY is with the Division of Special Education & Rehabilitation at Syracuse University.
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Author:Murphy, Stephen T.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:Technology: a vital tool for persons with disabilities.
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