Power and organisational change
: a case study

  • Joao Pedro F. F. Carvalho Oliveira

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis reports the results of a case study conducted in a Portuguese manufacturing organisation, a part of a large group, which endured profound organisational changes. The initial objective of the research was to explore, in a processual way, the long-term interactions between an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, the consultants that implemented it and management accounting and control, in this organisation. However, during the fieldwork, the researcher was confronted with an apparent puzzle: in the past, formally powerful ‘central’ actors had been confronted with important limitations – including in their relations with formally less powerful actors, particularly ‘local’ actors at the plant level. At the time of the fieldwork, however, the situation had substantially changed. The researcher was therefore confronted with a puzzle, which seemed to be about the distribution of power in the organisation, about who the powerful actors were and, more fundamentally, what caused (or limited) actors’ relational power. Three innovations introduced by central actors appeared to have played an important role in this fundamental change in the organisation and in the distribution of power within it. At stake were a technological innovation – the adoption of the financial module of an ERP system (SAP FI) – and two organisational innovations: the relocation of the Corporate Centre (CC); and the creation of a Shared Services Centre (SSC), in the same location of the group headquarters and of the Chairman and majority shareholder. Clegg’s (1989) framework of ‘Circuits of Power’, based on a Foucauldian and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) approach, was drawn upon as interpretive lenses to address the empirical puzzle about power. The researcher’s mobilisation of the framework facilitated the understanding of what caused (or limited) actors’ relational power, not only in the past but, particularly, at the time of the fieldwork, when the ongoing repercussions of the three innovations were taking place. Such in-depth understanding was constructed through a qualitative, interpretive and processual research, adopting the method of an explanatory case study combining both retrospective and longitudinal components. During the three-year’ fieldwork, 54 interviews with 29 respondents, lasting more than 90 hours, were supplemented by other information generating techniques, such as documentation analysis and observation of meetings, presentations and artefacts in numerous socio-technicalinteractions. The researcher’s interpretation of the case study insights highlighted that the previous power limitations perceived by the formally powerful, ‘central’ actors could be traced to characteristics of the circuit of social integration (rules of meaning and membership across the organisation, as interpreted, accepted and enacted by actors) and of the circuit of system integration (techniques of discipline and production). The three technical and organisational innovations – SAP FI, the CC and the SSC - introduced by central actors in the circuit of system integration (conceptualised, in ANT terms, as nonhuman and collective actors, respectively) had significant repercussions across the various circuits of power. These repercussions had a structural nature, since the innovations collectively succeeded in giving rise to a network of complementary, mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing Obligatory Passage Points. The emerging network of Obligatory Passage Points was essential in promoting the introduction, interpretation, acceptance and enactment of rules across the organisation as desired by central actors. This thesis proposes several contributions concerning the repercussions of the collective of innovations across the circuits of power. Some examples are embedding rules in technology (Volkoff et al., 2007) and organisational processes, redefining the scope of agencies, creating non-zero sum outcomes, and the emergence of the perception of control inevitability and naturalness within organisational normalcy. Collectively, these innovations promoted rules enactment (by both human and nonhuman actors) in ways that benefited the interests of central actors. In addition, this thesis proposes contributions related with the two theoretical frameworks and literatures framing the research. It proposes several refinements to Clegg’s (1989) framework, comprising changes in its graphical layout, linkages and even concepts. The second contribution is an ANT-inspired, OIE model of rule-based action. This model draws on Burns and Scapens’ (2000) macro structure and concepts, but it proposes additional structures and substantially different perspectives, mechanisms and even concepts. It adopts a wide definition of rules, also viewing them as internal structures orienting actors. Thus defined, rules underlie routines and fill a gap in routines-focused frameworks – in particular, when there are no established routines as regards particular issues.The model acknowledges intra-organisational diversity and focuses on the processes of introduction, interpretation, acceptance and enactment of rules. It also relates rules with material conditions, in particular since rules may be technologically and organisationally embedded. Finally, the model highlights that rules may be enacted by both human actors (individual and collective) and nonhuman actors. The model provides a novel way to conceptualise how actors’ interests may be achieved through the various intersections between rules and material conditions, and by the ultimate enactment of rules by both human and non-human actors.
    Date of Award2010
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsUniversity of Porto, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation & IBM PhD Scholarship
    SupervisorJohn Burns (Supervisor) & William Nixon (Supervisor)


    • Power
    • Organizational change
    • Institutional theory
    • Actor network theory
    • Rules

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