by Catherine Tong
The empirical/rational, or “normal,” approach is a theory that proposes organizational change occurs if a plan is rationally justified and demonstrates benefits to a change target, be it an individual, group or organization. The underlying assumption is that individuals are rational beings who follow rational self-interests. If an argument is rationally justified and presented in an effective manner, a group will support change because it supports their self-interests (1).
Central to the theory is the use and dissemination of information (2). To ensure a proposed plan is justified, it must be supported by reason and fact-based knowledge. Empirical information is obtained from research. In both public and private sectors, dedicated research institutions, centers and laboratories serve as sources of modern information (1). These facts are discovered and relayed by experts and professionals in their fields, and then communicated through channels such as academic and research journals, presentations, and other accessible media (internet, IT networks, etc.) 3). Recipients then use this information to make decisions of whether to act in support of proposed changes, based on the plans’ logical and beneficial natures.
The empirical-rational approach follows basic assumptions (3), including:
- Individuals are rational beings who are driven by self-interest.
- If information is justifiable and put forth in a convincing manner, individuals will act in support of the proposed change.
- Information must be gathered by experts and professionals to ensure the most accurate and empirical of knowledge.
- The transfer of information is linear and unidirectional. Senior members (and/or expert representatives) of a system communicate facts to recipients, who decide if the posited change is rational.
- Communication is meant to help recipients understand facts, and not to promote the redefining and changing of information yielded by experts.
The approach was first coined by Robert Chin and Kenneth Benne in 1969 in their article “General Strategies for Effecting Changes in Human Systems” (3). As one of three meta-theories of change, along with normative-reeducative and power coercive approaches, the empirical-rational strategy reflects the influence of knowledge and innovation on implementing change (3) It recalls the Western philosophies of rationalism and empiricism, which hold that reason and testable sense experience, respectively, are the source of truths (4, 5). The complementary philosophies, in their modern forms, can be traced back to the Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason (mid 16-17th century) (6), when Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the foremost proponent of scientific induction as empiricism (5) and René Descartes (1596-1650) was the advocate of reason as the means of deducing absolute certainties (4).
Applications to Global Health:
An example of its application includes an organization using epidemiological data to support the funding of malarial nets. Based on information which shows the effectiveness of using nets to reduce contact between human and mosquitoes, a non-profit organization may raise supporter funds to provide nets to susceptible/impacted areas. By supporting the cause, contributors reason that they are lowering the risk of malarial infections and saving lives. To then implement change, the organization may innovate methods to convince at-risk individuals to sleep under malarial nets. Methods would include demonstrating their utility and direct benefits, as well as garnering the support of community leaders to be the voices of reason.
The empirical-rational approach is relatively straightforward and easy to implement when focusing on short-term problems. However, as a community and its problems evolve, the approach is subject to doubt and miscommunication. Technology poses a problem when modern information conflicts with pre-existing knowledge, leaving individuals mis-informed and unable to make the most reasoned decisions. Likewise, when participants are adherent to a particular school of thought, change is also difficult to implement (1). The anti-vaccination movement of the 2010s provides an example of these limitations. Based on the circulation of previous, and now discredited, scientific evidence of mercurial contents in vaccines linked to autism, members of the anti-vaccine movement have sought to justify their mistrust of pharmaceutical products and not vaccinate their children (7). The end result has been the resurgence of measles outbreaks in the United States, where the disease was once declared eradicated not half a century ago (7). The empirical-rational theory is reliant upon information that is up-to-date and consistent. When challenged, the approach is ineffective at singularly promoting a goal, such as public health.
(1) Sedl.org. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory – Facilitative Leadership: The Imperative for Change [Internet]. 2015 [cited 17 March 2015]. Available from: http://www.sedl.org/change/facilitate/approaches.html
(2) Miles M, Thangaraj A, Wang D, Ma H. Classic Theories: “Contemporary Applications: A comparative study of the implementation of innovation in Canadian and Chinese Public Sector environments. Faculty of Administration, University of Ottawa, Faculté d'administration, Université d'Ottawa [Internet]. 2002;. Available from: http://www.innovation.cc/scholarly-style/classic-theories.pdf
(3) Quinn R, Sononshein S. Four General Strategies for Changing Human Systems. In: Cummings T, ed. by. Handbook of Organization Development. 1st ed. 2008.
(4) Brand B. Rationalism. 1st ed. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014.
(5) Quinton A.M. Empiricism. 1st ed. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014.
(6) Hatch RA. The Scientific Revolution - Definition - Concept - History [Internet]. 2015 [cited 26 April 2015]. Available from: http://users.clas.ufl.edu/ufhatch/pages/03-Sci-Rev/SCI-REV-Teaching/03sr-definition-concept.htm
(7) Parker L. The Anti-Vaccine Generation: How Movement Against Shots Got Its Start. National Geographic [Internet]. 2015 [cited 26 April 2015];. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150206-measles-vaccine-disney-outbreak-polio-health-science-infocus/
Chin R, Benne KD. General Strategies for effecting changes in human systems. Boston: Humans Relations Center, Boston University; 1969.