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