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Organizational change applications in behavior analysis: a review of the literature and future directions.

Implementing lasting organizational change has received an increasing amount of attention in the literature over the last 20 years. Despite this general trend, behavior analysts have been slow to address this when presenting applied research. This article reviews research published in The Journal of Organizational Behavior Management (JOBM) since 1990. The review suggests that the major areas of systematic applications in 013M target performance of first line employees and supervisors and that the impact of such interventions are rarely linked to companies' financial success and survival. Conclusions concerning the directions of the field of organizational behavior management in consideration of these findings are offered.


Global market change is occurring at a fast pace. A recent report published by The Conference Board in Canada, titled "Leadership for Tomorrow: Playing Catch-up with Change", reveals that the complexity and speed of change is beyond what most high-level executives can manage or their own. Increasingly, corporate leaders are relying on the skills, education, and competence of their employees at all levels of organization (Papmehl, 2002). Accordingly, successful organizational response to market demand requires response from individuals at all levels. This means that organizational effectiveness depends on the alignment of responses from the top management level down to the performer level (i.e., front line worker). In a review of Industrial /Organization (1/0) psychology literature, Tharenou (2001) stresses the need for a greater focus on organizational change. Tharenou (2001) states that as the world continues to move to a global economy, organizations will need to adapt to changing cultural and economic contingencies. She argues that even though individual performance certainly cannot be ignored, the changing climate calls for a greater focus on the context in which an organization functions. Tharenou (2001) also discusses how lasting, structural change might be carried out given contextual constraints. Given the need to focus on organizational change, it is important to consider various ways through which such change may be approached.

Theoretical Perspectives

At the theoretical level, organizational change has been studied from a variety of perspectives incorporating an array of assumptions. Prochaska (2000) argues that organizational change can be viewed as a developmental process through which the organization passes through a variety of stages. Desired changes are made possible when the change agent is able to successfully recognize and adapt to the developmental stage that the organization is resting in (Levesque, Prochaska, & Prochaska, 1999). McKenna (1999) takes a more humanistic approach in arguing that successful change comes about as a function of the manager's need for control and his or her ability to understand the complexity of the system in need of change. Olson (1990) takes a psychoanalytic perspective in arguing that orchestrating successful change involves capitalizing on the conflict between conscious and unconscious understandings of that change.

In the behavioral literature, organizational change is addressed theoretically through the meta-contingency analysis (Mawhinney, 1992, 200 1; Malott, 2002). According to this perspective, when the products of organizational practices contribute to the

materialistic survival of the organization, the practices that generated them are more likely to reoccur. More specifically, like any other cultural practice, organizational practice can be defined as "a set of interlocking contingencies of reinforcement in which the behavior and behavioral products of each participant function as environmental events with which the behavior of other individuals interact" (Glenn, 1988). Furthermore, group practices (e.g., production methods, marketing techniques, process management, etc.) in organizations are selected by their consequences. Therefore, there is a contingent relation between a cultural practice in an organization and the outcome of that practice (e.g., group survival, in turn, maintains the future production of organizational product). This relationship is called a metacontingency.

Theories of selection and metacontingencies are also applied within the framework of behavioral systems analysis. According to this perspective, which is based on general system theory, organizations are behavioral systems that are formed by individuals' interaction toward a common goal. This interaction toward a common goal occurs within the context of the organization's interaction with a broader cultural and economic environment (Brethower, 2000, 2002; Malott, 2001, 2002; Rummler, 2001; Rummler & Brache, 1995). Applied Research

Applied research in organizational change has demonstrated a similar breadth of approaches. One common approach is the classification of personality traits, the various reactions that people demonstrating such traits might have toward organizational change, and how the prevalence of such traits might help or hinder change (Wanberg & Banas, 2000; Rousseau & Tijoriwala, 1999; Judge, Thoresen, Pucik, & Welboume, 1999; Janssen, de Vries, & Cozijnsen, 1998; Myerson & Scully, 1995). While these authors tend to view personality traits as innate characteristics of the individual, which the organization may use or must overcome, other researchers have approached attitudes towards change as a function of the change process and recommended strategies toward generating positive reactions to the change process. Often conceptualized as 66stress" or "resistance", researchers have recommended overcoming these attitudes through role-clarification (Yousef, 2000), employee empowerment (Labianca, Gray, & Brass, 2000; Loekk, & Ametz, 1997), training of coping strategies (Mack, Nelson, & Quick, 1998), and employee participation in the change (Sagie & Kowolsky, 1996), to name a few.

Additional research, primarily in the area of health service delivery, has focused on the outcomes of organizational change. McDougal, Moody Clonan, and Martens (2000) examined the effects of a pre-referral intervention program on the number of students referred to a special education program and the acceptability of that intervention to the referring staff. Rosenbeck and Horvath (1998) studied the effects of organizational restructuring on the number of clients receiving in-patient and community-based health services. Additionally, Lord, Ochocka, Czamy, and MacGillivary (1998) reported the effects of change processes on the role of the consumer in the distribution of mental health services.

Literature such as the aforementioned is only a sample of a growing body of research in the area of organizational change. Despite the increasing attention from the psychological sciences that organizational change is receiving as a subject matter, the field of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) has been slow to address organizational change as a subject matter in its own right. Though much of the research generated by organizational behavior managers could be presented as dealing with organizational change, more often than not, the attention organizational change receives and inferences regarding its processes are discussed only very generally, if at all, in research findings. Given the robust demonstrations of behavioral principles that have been reported at the organizational level and the implications these findings have for organizational change, this is somewhat surprising. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to 1) analyze several areas and methods that have been published since 1990 in a prominent journal in the field of OBM (i.e., Journal of Organizational Behavior Management), 2) discuss the implications that such research has in relation to organizational change, and 3) close with a discussion of possible benefits the field of OBM might realize as a result of turning more attention toward this topic.



Volumes 11-21 of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management (JOBM) were reviewed by four graduate and undergraduate students. Each student reviewed the method and results sections of ten or more articles. Only articles that referenced applied, empirical research within actual organizations or businesses were selected. We considered articles to be empirical if data concerning behavior or behavioral outcome were represented in the context of a "Results" section. One article was excluded, even though it included all sections specified for study since it was an addendum to an article appearing prior to volume 11. Further, we constructed a data collection sheet to identify the level of analysis utilized, where intervention was targeted, who measures where taken for, and the intervention strategies implemented. Operational definitions were developed to define each category corresponding to the data-collection sheet utilized. Further, operational definitions were defined for each category in addition to their subcategories.

Operational Definitions

Unit of measure. The units of measure are identified as (a) group data only, (b) individual data only, or (c) group and individual data. Group data is defined as an analysis represented as a conglomerate of outcome or behavior data, including financial data. Individual data is defined as any within subject analysis or any representation of outcome or behavior data for an individual participant. None of the individual data include financial measures.

Level of intervention. Level of intervention is the target unit of measurement and is defined as all of the people whose behavior was directly intervened upon. The subgroups consist of (a) front-line staff, (b) front-line managers, and (c) high level management. Front-line staff is defined as those individuals whose performance directly impacts a product or the public. Front-line managers are defined as those individuals who directly supervise front-line staff performance. High level management is defined as any individuals whose responsibilities include administrative duties and do not directly supervise front-line staff.

Target measures. These are the implemented measures and are defined as all of the people or measures whose behavior or behavioral outcomes are represented in the data. The subcategories include (a) front-line staff, (b) front-line managers, (c) high level management, (d) financial measures, and (e) other measures. Financial measures are defined as any fiscal measure that data were collected for. Other measures include any data that are presented that do not include any of the previous subcategories.

Intervention strategies. Intervention strategies are identified as any of the following subcategories which improve production or efficiency: (a) feedback, (b) goal-setting, (c) incentives, (d) self-monitoring, (e) training, (f) procedure change, (g) physical plant, (h) punishment, (i) prompts, and 0) job aids. Feedback is defined as any process by which workers are informed of their performance. Goal-setting is defined as any procedure where employees or employers set goals for performance. Incentives are defined as money or other items used to increase behavior. Self-monitoring is defined as any procedure where employees maintain data relating to their own behavior or behavioral outcome. Training is defined as education and skill acquisition pertaining to performance and occurring prior to any data collection at the level of intervention. Procedure change is defined as a modification to the process by which a specific task is carried out. Physical plant is defined as changes to the physical environment. Punishment is defined as the application of consequences to reduce behavior. Prompts are defined as interventions occurring prior to the behavior, aimed at increasing desired behavior and occurring in an ongoing manner during intervention. Job aids are defined as the distribution of materials aimed to assist performance. Policy change is defined as any change to or addition of rules aimed at controlling employee behavior or business change.

Interobserver Agreement

Reliability measures were taken to ensure accurate categorization. Interobserver agreement was collected on approximately 38% of articles reviewed. The reliability index used was the number of agreements divided by the number of agreements plus disagreements multiplied by 100. The mean interobserver reliability was 96.8% with a range of 85.7 to 100%.


137 articles were published in the volumes of JOBM reviewed. Of those articles, 38 met the above criteria for inclusion. Of those articles reviewed for this study, 36 targeted front-line staff, 12 targeted front-line management, and 2 targeted high-level management. Of the 36 articles targeting front-line staff, 9 also targeted front-line management and I targeted front-line management and high-level management. I article targeted front-line management exclusively and I targeted frontline management and high-level management.

Data concerning unit of measure are summarized in Table 1. Group level was the most common method of analysis for all intervention targets. Individual level of analysis was employed in 12 of 36 interventions conducted at the front-line, in 2 of 12 interventions conducted at the level of front-line management and in neither of the studies targeting high-level management.

Data concerning intervention strategies are shown in Table 2. As an intervention strategy, feedback was the most frequently employed method of intervention at the level of front-line staff and high-level management and the second most employed intervention at the level of front-line management. At the level of front-line management, training was the most frequently employed intervention and was the second most employed intervention at the level of front-line staff. At the level of front-line staff, goal setting and self-monitoring were used at equal rates over the study period followed by procedural change, prompts and job-aids. Finally, physical-plant change, punishment and policy change were used only once during the study period and only at the level of the front-line staff.

Procedural change was the third most commonly used at the level of front-line management, followed by incentives and goal setting. Self-monitoring and prompts were employed only once at the level of front-line management. No other interventions were directed at front-line management. Training, incentives and goal-setting were each applied once toward high-level management and no additional interventions were employed for this target group.

Table 3 indicates data concerning target measures as they relate to interventions targeting various levels of employment. In other words, this analysis compared the level of employment at which an intervention was aimed with the level of employees whose behaviors or behavioral outcomes were included in data analysis. To clarify, an intervention might include training at the level of front-line management but only represent front-line staff in the data. Looking at the table, one can see that of 12 studies targeting front-line management, 7 included behavior or behavioral outcomes measured at the level of front-line staff, 5 interventions targeted at front-line management contained measures for front-line management, and so on. In most cases, data were reported for the level at which intervention occurred, though in certain cases only financial data were shown. Additionally, interventions targeted at management levels were more likely to incorporate data from lower levels of employment. Though data were not collected concerning what types of measures were included in "other measures", data collectors descriptively reported that these generally referred to measures of satisfaction with an intervention strategy or, in certain cases, client outcome.

Data concerning financial measures and follow-up measures are depicted in figure 1. Financial measures were included in a total of 9 out of 38 studies and, when represented, were often the only measures included. Additionally, follow-up measures that identified the lasting effect of organizational interventions were included in only 9 out of 38 studies.


Our aim in this paper was to identify major areas of research and methodologies that have been published in JOBM since 1990, discuss the implications of such research in relation to organizational change, and provide a discussion of possible benefits the field of OBM may realize as a result of turning more attention towards this topic.

One conclusion that may be drawn from this review is that behavior analysis has a variety of methods that demonstrate effective change in a variety of organizations and at varying levels within the organization. Feedback, incentives, training, prompts, and so on have repeatedly been shown as effective agents for behavior change when used in an organizational setting. The value of the strategies employed by the various researchers whose work is represented here is not in question. However, our review suggests that the major areas of systematic applications in OBM target performance of first line employees and supervisors and that the impact of such interventions are rarely linked to companies' financial success and survival. As shown, less than a fourth of the articles reviewed included an analysis of the financial impact an intervention might have for the organization. Additionally, just as few studies took measures to ensure that the changes implemented would have a lasting effect. In that regard, the issue is whether or not the generalization of our scientific technology to broad-scale change in organizations is a worthwhile goal to pursue.

According to organizational literature, broad-scale organizational change that targets the complex organizational contingencies at all levels of the organization is likely to produce lasting change (Brethower, 2000, 2002; Rummler, 1995, 200 1; Malott, 200 1). This is a noteworthy cause for OBM researchers and practitioners since the primary goal of the science of human behavior is to produce utilitarian technologies that bring about positive and lasting change in the behavior of individuals and ultimately the practices of groups and cultural collectivities.

With regard to the analysis of cultural practices, we define practices in organizations as learned interactions with institutionalized stimuli (e.g., rules, policies, mission, vision, other organizational members, etc.), acquired under group auspices, and shared among members of a given organization. More specifically, with regard to organizations (which we consider as cultural settings), cultural practices involve the interindividual transmission of organizational information. We believe that the dominant patterns of behaviors of organizational members are perhaps the most challenging components of any organizational system since they are somewhat informal, contextual, implicit, and are strengthened and transmitted interindividually as well as intraindividually. Therefore, the challenge in designing interventions and their maintenance lies in making explicit what is usually implicit. This process requires an account of operating contingencies that govern and maintain interrelated behaviors of individuals in organizational settings and ultimately impact organizational interaction with its environment. Scholars such as Malott (2001, 2002) Abernathy (1996, 2000), Abernathy and Harshbarger (2002), Brethower (2000, 2002), and Mawhinney (1992, 200 1) have addressed the broad-scale organizational issues and have provided systematic approaches to organizational change that are based on an enviromnental selection perspective. Our challenge then is to demonstrate systematic applications of such perspectives and broaden the scope of behavioral science.

In addition, application of our broadscale technology seems worthwhile since it will help us respond to market demand and hence promote the growth of our field. This approach may require an increase in our response effort as researchers however, since broad-scale application implies interaction with many enviromnental complexities and variability. However, the aforementioned literatures offered by behavioral analysts who are interested in broad-scale application provide a solid foundation for our pursuance of such challenges. Further, the resources required (e.g., cooperative organizations, labor associated with data analyses and implementations, etc.) for broadscale applications may not be as readily available as the ones that have been used in small-scale interventions. However, many scholars in OBM are successful practitioners who have expertise and access to potential sources of data and systematic applications. In that regard, increased collaboration between academicians and such practitioners may contribute to our goal of systematic organizational change interventions.

To conclude, we believe that further analyses associated with precise specification and demonstration of the means by which organizational contingencies influence dominant patterns of organizational members' behaviors that ultimately impact organizational performance and survival is a challenge that is worth the direct attention of behavior analysts in the field of OBM. Though the development of strategies targeting the behaviors of specific individuals or practices of groups is important work, the ultimate goal of such interventions is to first ensure the survival, and second facilitate the improvement of the organization more generally. Therefore, the final measure of the success or failure of an organizational intervention is at the organizational level. If OBM is to remain current not only with trends in business but the goals of the organizational science as well, we feel the field must account not only for the behavior of individuals working for an organization, but the impact that behavior change has for the success of the organization more broadly.


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Ramona Houmanfar, Scott A. Herbst, and Jared Chase

University of Nevada, Reno

Author Note: Author would like to thank Nicole Ballardini and Linda Brose for their helpful participation in the data analysis process. Ramona Houmanfar, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno; Scott Herbst; Department of Psychology, University of Nevada Rem and Jared Chase, Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ramona Houmanfar, Department of Psychology/296, University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, Nevada 89557. Email:
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Author:Houmanfar, Ramona; Herbst, Scott A.; Chase, Jared
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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