Book Review: Changing Cultural Practices: A Contextualist Framework for Intervention Research

Changing Cultural Practices: A Contextualist Framework for Intervention Research
by Anthony Biglan. Context Press, 1995. 464 pages $28.74

Changing Cultural Practices

This book is a very serious effort to apply behavioral psychology to culture change. The book begins with a technical discussion of the principles of reinforcement and then moves on to a discussion of how one changes cultural practices. It then considers several case studies in detail and ends by proposing a methodology for culture change. The book is scholarly, with quite a bit of discussion of experimental design, the analysis of data from experiments and a very detailed bibliography. For all that, a practical process practitioner can find much of value here.

Let's face it; most discussions of culture change are light weight exhortations to communicate better. Obviously it's important to communicate, to let employees know when change is coming, to explain the importance of the change and to encourage employees to help implement change. But what does one do after one has communicated and still faces a sullen or hostile audience? What does one do when the change one is trying to sell is perceived as undesirable by the people who are expected to implement the change?

There are lots of theories of motivation that work more or less effectively in different circumstances, but for most business process practitioners, the best available theory of motivation is based on simple behavioral principles. Employees tend to do things that result in pleasant consequences and to avoid tasks that lead to punishing results. We all know this: We pay larger salaries to key employees and we give bonuses to salespeople that get the best results.

But we often don't provide reinforcement in a consistent manner. And we don't do it nearly as often as we should. Numerous studies show that managers are quick to notice mistakes and punish, but much less likely to notice when employees are behaving in the correct manner and to offer praise.

Changing culture, ultimately, means changing how groups of people behave. It involves defining desired behaviors and reinforcing them when they occur. It involves organizing those who can reinforce and assuring that they do it when they should, which in turn means organizing reinforcement for those who do the reinforcement. And, importantly, it means doing it systematically and consistently.

The studies cited in Changing Cultural Practices, from changing tobacco use and childrearing practices to reducing sexist and environmentally harmful practices, shows just how effective this approach can be.

Everyone who is serious about cultural change owes it to themselves to read and study this book. It lays out the principles of the most effective change approach we know about, and provides details about how to put it into practice.

Then you need to apply these principles by building them into your business process change methodology. It's one thing to redesign a business process and another to design a management plan to implement the new redesign. Smart change practitioners will master both.

Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of Enterprise Alignment, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in San Francisco. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.com
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