Roger Klev and Morten Levin, Participative Transformation: Learning and Development in Practising Change.

Carlotta Walker

cover Participative TransformationRoger Klev and Morten Levin, Participative Transformation: Learning and Development in Practising Change. England: Gower Publishing Company, 2012

Carlotta S. Walker

Carlotta Walker

Carlotta Walker


Klev and Levin began Participative Transformation by making a clear and concise statement of the intent of their work.  They stated that the aim of their book was to “build a research-supported foundation for practicing organizational change” and to “provide a theoretical model or organizational change and at the same time practical guidance to assist the practitioner in leading change” (2). The authors proceeded to make the argument of the importance of their work and the gap in the literature which they intended to fill.  Klev and Levin eloquently stated that:

There is a fascinating situation where the pursuit of practical solutions is disconnected from the research-based knowledge, while knowledge developed through scientific procedures does not reach beyond the ivory tower of academia.  Our ambition is to create theories that have practical relevance and build reflection and learning processes from local experiences. (8)

I must admit, I was immediately drawn into the book by their bold claim that they would attempt to bridge the gap between practice and theory.  Often times, lofty attempts to bridge the gap fall short of practitioners’ expectations. I was anxious to delve into the book, if only to determine whether Klev and Levin met the high expectations they, themselves, set for their audience.

What Is an Organization?

Chapter one of Klev and Levin work begins with a discussion of a seemingly mundane term, organization.  While authors of classics works such as Bolman and Deal (1984), Hatch and Cunliffe (2006), March and Simon (1958), and Morgan (1986) avoided the task of presenting an operational definition of the term organization, Klev and Levin dove right into the task.  They asked the question: “What is organization”?  They posited that the answer to this question is contingent upon the way in which people within the organization view processes and people.  They presented two possible answers to this profound question.  The authors contended that one possible answer may be that “an organization is a division of work which is coordinated and controlled by management, and produces a planned outcome” (15).  They also posed that an organization is “what its members create by their everyday practices” (15).  The later description proves to be the basis for which their participative approach to organizational change is built as this perspective invites a more bottom-up approach to organizational transformation.  Further, the authors argued that in order for change to occur, the change agent should ask themselves two pragmatic questions:

  1. Why is the organization the way it is, and how could it become different; and
  2. Why should this particular approach make anything happen?

Klev and Levin asserted that such questions provide the backdrop for their reasoning of how participative transformation is related to their underlying assumptions regarding the composition of an organization.

Navigating the Literature

In chapter two of the book, Klev and Levin navigated through the organizational development literature in a manner which was both insightful and succinct.  More specifically, they discussed the way in which change is conceptualized in five specific organizational development (OD) processes:

  • Generic Processes;
  • Training Group;
  • Action Research;
  • Sociotechnical Thinking; and
  • Co-Generative Learning

The authors traced the progression of the organizational development literature throughout the course of the 20th century, noting that earlier traditional OD processes were contingent upon an expert facilitating change, whereas the mainstream processes that emerged in the late 20th and early 21th centuries focused on people creating and facilitating organizational change.  The Co-generative learning process, in particular, receives a lot of attention.  In fact, chapter four focuses solely on the concept of co-generative learning.  In short, the authors asserted that the premise of co-generative learning model is built on the fundamental argument that both change agents and participants are engaged in all of the same learning and development processes.  This fundamental argument also forms the basis of Klev and Levin’s book.  They vehemently argued that change is a process of social change not mechanical change.

Technical and Political Economy

In chapter three of the book, Klev and Levin continued to build their case for social processes as the catalyst for organizational change.  They contended that change does not occur within a vacuum which is independent of factors occurring outside the boundaries of the organization.  Rather, organizations should be conceptualized as sociotechnical systems, wherein technology plays an integral role in the enabling of different forms of organization.  It is here that the authors take another opportunity to inform the audience of the inadequacies of the literature by stating that:

The important role of technology and the option of choosing technology is absent in the literature on organizational change, but will be a main point in this book and specifically in this chapter……There is a striking ignorance in the literature on change and development on how the political economy will influence both organizational choices as well as opportunity for participatory design of change processes. (49-50)

Chapter Three is dedicated to a discussion of the history and trajectory of the concept of sociotechnical systems and the impact which political economy has on organizational change.             

The Prescription for Practicing Change

The authors navigated through decades of management, organizational development and organizational theory fads to present their refreshing concept of participative transformation. Klev and Levin prescription for change comes in the form of co-generative learning.  Klev and Levin presented a model that is strongly influenced by participative action research and the co-generative learning model which was developed by Elden and Levin (1991) and Greenwood and Levin (1998).  The authors argued that their model should “serve as a practical guidance for making knowledge-based decisions about how a particular development process could and should be organized and led.”  Their model is built upon three basic arguments:

  1. Employees are more likely to embrace change which they have helped shape.
  2. Democracy is essential to organizational change.  Therefore, employees should be given the opportunity to direct and impact the organizations for which they work.
  3. Co-generative learning is a catalyst for democracy.

The concept of co-generative learning is built upon two major propositions.  First, co-generative learning is founded on the way in which knowledge is developed.  Knowledge is developed through the use of concrete experimentation to solve practical problems.  Second, co-generative learning is built upon core democratic values.  According to Klev and Levin, both the processes of developing knowledge and change must enable individuals to control the situation in which they are immersed.

Klev and Levin continued to build their argument regarding the impact of deploying their participative transformation model for organizational change by discussing the underlining framework or conceptual fundament upon which the co-generative learning model is based.  According to the authors, pragmatic philosophy serves as the conceptual underpinning of the co-generative learning model as well as the model for participatory organizational change.  They also stated that co-generative learning involves the integration of communicative processes on various types of arenas with design and lead learning process which are associated with the management perspective of organizational change.  Additionally, Klev and Levin asserted that their model of participatory change:

Builds on a basic idea that learning and development are implemented in an interplay between participants and leaders who mutually engage in identifying problems and challenges, create workable solutions and learn about both problems, solutions, and new opportunities along the way. (75)

Leading Participatory Change

Chapters five and six of the book are dedicated to learning, knowledge, and the nuances associated with participation and resistance to change. The authors incorporate the standard learning, knowledge, and reflection works of renowned authors such as Schon (1983), Polanyi (1966), Argyris and Schon (1978).  While, each of these topics is extremely important to the process of organizational change, I was drawn to Klev and Levin’s discussion of leading participatory change which occurs in chapter seven of the book.

Chapter seven began with an insightful discussion of leadership theories including Bass’ (1990) five I’s and Jim Collins’ (2001) level 5 leadership, and the distinct fragmentation of leadership discourse.  The authors posited that the first main direction for which leadership discourse takes is actually a continuation of what they described as the “heritage from classical theories.” In this direction, leaders are viewed as extraordinary beings that possess the innate ability to make things happen.  The primary aim of the leadership research that was conducted in the classical theories fragment was to reveal the qualities of this extraordinary leader.  The point of departure from the classical leadership discourse is championed by Klev and Levin who asserted that “leading organizational change deals with encouraging and enabling the organization to meet identified challenges and to develop its capacity to meet future challenges” (123).

Moreover, Klev and Levin contended that leadership, within the context of leading learning processes, is essential to the developmental and sustainable resources building within an organization.   The authors asserted that there are four essential responsibilities associated with leading participatory change:

  1. Clarifying the boundary conditions within which the change processes operate;
  2. Shaping of positive communicative and learning conditions where one’s own and others’ basic assumptions may be challenged and inquired about;
  3. Designing and facilitating arenas for learning, based on understanding of alternative work forms, principles of participation and conditions for learning; and
  4. Institutionalizing mechanisms that increase the organization’s capacity for handling future needs for change. (125)

Ultimately, chapter seven is a fitting end to Klev and Levin’s conceptualization of organizational transformation through participative change.

Work Forms

The authors round out the book with discussions of organizational analysis, search conferences, meaningful conversation, resolving workplace conflict, and learning histories. The aforementioned concepts are a broad selection of work forms that Klev and Levin believed shows great potential to facilitate sustainable learning processes, in chapters eight nine, ten, eleven and twelve, respectively.  This collection of chapters forms part two of the book.

The topic of chapter eight is organizational analysis.  Essentially, the authors introduced the way in which leaders and change agents can conduct their initial analysis of the organization.  They proposed an organizational analysis approach that combines the use of effective theoretical and practical participative approaches.  This approach is a variation of the grounded theory approach, and is coupled with creative and constructive analysis.  Moreover, their proposed approach to organizational analysis is comprised of three steps:

  1. Listening to members of the organization;
  2. Conducting a creative and constructive analysis; and
  3. Involving employees in the analysis. (144)

The three aforementioned steps serve as the basis for formulating the initial design for participative change.

Klev and Levin discuss the concept of search conferences in chapter nine of the book.  The authors asserted that search conferences are a viable model for designing conferences that incorporate participative decision making during the problem clarification phase with participative development during strategic planning phase.  Furthermore, the authors described search conferences as a work form that “shape arenas for participative planning and development” (149).  Search conferences also aid in the processes of identifying the specific problem and prioritizing the processes in accordance to level of importance.  Search conferences only last for two days and also include elements of relationship building.

Chapters ten, eleven, and twelve were written by three different authors.  Chapter ten was written by Mara Sense.  Sense presented the concept of the “World Café.”  According to Sense, the world café is a “simple work form that has interesting effects when it comes to activating the energy in larger groups” (159).  The world café concept is based on the widely-held assumption that individuals engage in lively conversations when gathered into smaller groups.  Sense proposed that organizational change agents should capitalize on such sociological behaviors by creating structured communities that support changes in the organization’s culture.  Essentially, these structured communities of communication will serve as conduits of constructive and creative work processes.

Chapter eleven was penned by Ann Martin.  In this chapter, Martin discussed the way in which workplace conflicts may be solved using interest-based processes.  Noting that organizational growth and sustainability are facilitated by cooperative problem-solving activities, Martin asserted that interest bargaining is an effective tool in the process of problem solving. Simply put, interest bargaining is a problem-solving process whereby underlying interests of the vested parties are the primary focus.

Martin uses compelling anecdotal scenarios to discuss how the process of interest bargaining may work in practice.  Moreover, Martin’s practical example serves as a roadmap for implementing interest-based process to resolve workplace conflict.

The final chapter of Participative Transformation, which was written by Emil Royrvik, presents the concept of learning histories.  Roth (1996) defined learning histories as “formalized approach for capturing and presenting learning processes in organizations” (5).  Learning histories are short, written reports of key occurrences in an organization’s history.  Royrvik argued that there are four primary benefits to using learning stories.  First, learning histories cultivate a culture of trust in an organization.  Second, learning histories provide context for historical events.  Third, learning histories serve as a catalyst for information dissemination.  Finally, learning histories provide the foundation for the acquisition of knowledge of leadership and management in general.

The Verdict

In the introduction of the book, the authors boasted that they would bridge the gap between theory and practice.  I was quite impressed with the way in which Klev and Levin’s model for participative transformation evolved throughout the book.  The authors wove an insightful web between the theoretical underpinnings of organizational development, action research, and leadership theory and their concept of participative transformation.  Their framework for participative change may serve as a roadmap for practitioners who are searching for a tool to assist them as they navigate their way through the intricacies of organizational change to implement sustainable organizational change.


Argyris, Chris and Schon, Donald. Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspectives. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1978.

Bass, Bernard. From Transactional to Transformation Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision. Organizational Dynamics (1990): 19-31.

Bolman, Lee and Deal, Terrance. Modern Approaches to Understanding and Managing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984.

Collins, Jim. From Good to Great. New York: Harper-Collin, 2001.

Elden, M and Levin, Morten. “Co-generative Learning. Bringing Participation into Action.”

Whyte, W., Ed. Participatory Action Research. Newbury Hill: Sage, 1991.

Greenwood, Davydd and Levin, Morten. Introduction to Action Research Social Research for Social Change. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998.

Hatch, Mary Jo and Cunliffe, Ann. Organizational Theory, Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University, 2006.

March, James and Simon, Herbert. Organizations. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1958.

Morgan, Gareth.  Images of Organizations. Newbury Park: Sage, 1986.

Polanyi, Michael.  Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Roth, G. Learning Histories: Using Documentation to Assess and Facilitate Organizational Learning. Working Paper. Cambridge: MIT Center for Organizational Learning, 1996.

Schon, Donald. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professional Think in Action. New York: Bass Books, 1983.

About the Author

Carlotta S. Walker is a leadership and management consultant, specializing in quick-service restaurant (QSR) leader development, and has worked in various capacities in the quick-service industry for 12 years.  She is currently employed as a franchise field consultant for Kumon North American.  She earned a Master’s of Science in Administration Degree (HR Administration Concentration) from Central Michigan University, and is currently a doctoral student in Baker College’s Doctor of Business Administration program.