Does Your Social Network Help or Hinder Change Initiatives?

Topic(s): change management
Publication: Academy of Management (2012)
Article: Change agents, networks, and institutions:  A contingency theory of organizational change
Authors: J. Battilana, T. Casciaro
Reviewed by: Kecia Bingham

Not all change initiatives are created equal. Divergent organizational changes (changes that diverge from the institutional status quo) are especially difficult to implement since they require change agents to persuade organization members to not only adopt new practices, but break with institutional norms. The authors of this study sought to reveal what factors increase the likelihood that a change agent: 1) Will initiate a divergent change initiative, and 2) Will persuade other organization members to adopt that change.


The researchers found that change agents with rich structural holes in their network (i.e., a low degree of connections between contacts in his or her network) were more likely to initiate divergent change than were change agents with network closure (i.e., few structural holes in his or her network). That makes sense, right? The less ingrained people are in the organization, the more likely they are to shake things up. A network with structural holes is more likely to foster novel ideas compared to a network with a high degree of structural closure, which is characterized by redundant information and pressure to conform to existing norms.

Also, the researchers found that those structural holes in a change agent’s network increased the adoption of changes that were different from the status quo, while network closure hindered the adoption of such changes. Reportedly, structural holes allow change agents more leeway in deciding when and how to present change to various stakeholders, which is important in implementing changes that go against the grain. However, structural holes in a change agent’s network hindered the adoption of low degree divergent changes, presumably because it made it more difficult for the change agent to mobilize people and resources around the change.


These findings suggest several practical implications for practitioners. First, contrary to popular thought, network cohesion is not advantageous for all change projects. Instead, change agents with networks rich in structural holes appear better for implementing radical institutional change. Second, when selecting change agents, it is important to consider not only the degree of institutional change, but the change agent’s organizational connections. Lastly, to improve the matching of change agents to change type, organizations may benefit from training potential change champions to recognize structural holes in organizational networks.

Battilana, J. & Casciaro, T. (2012). Change agents, networks, and institutions:  A contingency theory of organizational change. Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), 381-398.