Freeze and unfreeze – one problem with herding cats

I’m currently working on a paper/idea which is essentially seeking to argue that the herding cats metaphor. This metaphor’s most famous instantiation is the EDS herding cats commercial. It is a metaphor/phrase that is often used within higher education, especially when someone has tried to get academics to do something. It’s often equated to herding cats.

My basic premise is that herding cats is exactly the wrong way to encourage academics to change. To me it is indicative of the traditional top-down, I know best approach that is completely inappropriate, for a number of reasons, for academia.

Herding cats includes the herders and the cats. The assumption is that the herders know where they are supposed to go and how to effectively get the cats to this destination. In the current context within which most universities operate I don’t believe that any one actually knows what that destination should be and I think it questionable that anyone knows how to effectively get a significantly large group of academics to any fixed destination.

Related to this is the observation that I think the traditional change management mantra of “unfreeze, move, refreeze” is also inappropriate. I’ve written elsewhere about what I think is a more appropriate model. This is the model I’m struggling with how we might implement across a complex, contemporary university.

As part of my writing I wanted to identify the original source of this “freeze” idea. I may have achieve that this morning while reading Parchoma (2006) which includes the following

Lewin (1947) argued that in order to successfully facilitate change, organizational leaders need to undertake a three-step process: unfreezing, moving, and refreezing. Unfreezing involves destabilizing the status quo. Moving includes identifying and evaluating the relative strengths of forces within a social field, considering available options and initiating incremental change. A social field is defined as an “ecological setting”? in which “coexisting social entities, such as groups, subgroups, members, barriers, [and] channels of communication”? (p. 200) undergo periods of relative constancy and change. The “relative positions of the entities”? within the social field illustrate their roles as either driving or restraining forces (p. 200). Driving forces are defined as those forces that initiate and sustain change; restraining forces are defined as those forces that restrain or decrease the driving forces. Refreezing is the process of supporting a return to a sense of stability in the changed environment.

My preference for emergent development means that I don’t believe that there should be any freezing and consequently no need for unfreezing. Instead there should be continual, on-going emergence and change as the institution responds to changes in the environment.

Parchoma (2006) is even more useful as it covers the criticisms of Lewin’s field theory and also covers the responses to it. The criticisms include

  • Its linearity, simplicity and mechanistic approach
    This is one of the arguments for the emergent approach. How this has been responded to will be intersting.
  • Field theory can only enable incremental change and not more transformational change
    This is an argument that can also be attached to emergent development. There are some arguments against this. Parchoma (2006) identifies Burnes (2004) as arguing against the criticism of field theory and also of stating that “over time, incremental change can lead to radical transformations”. This is something I need to follow up.
  • The naive exclusion of issues of power and politics within organisations
  • Field theory has been percieved as a top-down approach to change management which lacks relevance to the culture of contemporary organisations (Dawson, 1994)
    Does that sound familiar at all? The response to this is the Lewin had a focus on identifying forces that included those within/between group and in particular those that head variant levels of power within and among organisations.

Elord and Tippett (2002) are also referenced as having responded to criticisms of Lewin.

The quality of Parchoma (2006) continues to improve, the further I read. Of course, the fact that it is reinforcing my current beliefs is only a very small contributing factor in that opinion.

Current structures and functions of the traditional academy may not reflect the “network enterprise”? norm of the corporate world (Norton, 2000). Networked enterprises are described in terms of a triangulation of initiatives, each of which work toward the goal of achieving maximum flexibility as a strategy for dealing with complexity, ambiguity, and continual change. Implementing a networked system effectively involves an inter-related and complex set of changes to conventional business practices, which can only be accomplished “if managers and workers understand”? that the changes do not constitute “a fixed way of doing things but, rather, a method, or philosophy of experimentation, of constantly testing existing procedures against proposed changes, of always searching for small ways to improve”? (Alcaly, 2003, p. 148).


Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: A re-appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002

Elrod, P. D. II, & Tippett, D. D. (2002). The “Death Valley”? of change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15(3), 273-91.

Gale Parchoma, A proposed e-learning policy field for the academy, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18(3): 230-240

A problem with credentialism around teaching and learning

For at least the last 5 years there has been an increasing drive for university academics to have formal credentials in learning and teaching. The essential argument is that you wouldn’t go to a medical doctor who hadn’t been trained in medicine, so why should you be taught at university by a person who has been trained in teaching.

One problem with this is the assumption that a credential in teaching is the same as being a good, or even capable, teacher. But that’s not the issue I’m thinking about here.

In thinking about the REACT approach to helping staff design courses and elearning I’ve been moving towards a participatory, emergent process through which academics pick up the necessary training while they are developing their courses. Put another way, the learning design process provides the necessary training as part of doing learning design.

This idea has many potential problems and shortcomings. Apart from the fact that it is only in its early days of development. One of those problem could well be the clash with the widespread acceptance of credentialism for university teaching.

Parchoma (2006) writes

While the new economy’s reliance upon a well educated workforce for survival and success suggests a strong role for the academy in the future, cultural and value differences may impede corporate-academic collaboration. Corporate demands for knowledge workers who continually renew their knowledge for the purpose of sustaining innovation—but do not necessarily seek formal credentials for that knowledge—and may not be attuned to traditional university culture and values. The norms of the traditional academy may not well serve the corporate agenda, and may not wish to do so.

Will this be a problem? How might it be overcome?

There’s a bit more. Parchoma (2006) also says

Coping with the ambiguities of work as an experimental arena where there are no fixed processes or procedures will require an adaptable, informed, and innovative workforce, capable of high levels of effective interpersonal communication and collaboration. Members of this workforce will need to continuously renew their knowledge; and therefore, adopt learning as a life-long process. The resultant pressures on existing post-secondary educational institutions to provide continuing personalized education for adult learners via flexible, affordable, distributed learning options may become an increasingly strong driving force for change within the institutions themselves.

The implication is that universities need to change their teaching to keep up with the demands of their students which are created by the knowledge economy. For me, the implication is that universities also need to change how they teach their staff about learning and teaching to keep up with the demands created by the knowledge economy.


Gale Parchoma, A proposed e-learning policy field for the academy, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18(3): 230-240