Frameworks and Tools for Computer-Aided Visioning

Graham Winch, John MacDonald, and Steve Sturges

University of Plymouth Business School

Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, England


Firms planning fundamental change, whether driven by technology breakthrough or other structural changes, face particular problems not typically encountered in incremental change situations. Research is progressing on the development of a change framework to assist organisations facing such change. This framework includes a "change visioning" support tool which will configure itself to the envisioned new organisation through an interrogative session with the key change initiator(s). The tool can then be used as a flight simulator by key managers to enable them to pre-experience, learn about, and experiment with the new organisation, and then develop appropriate new thinking. This paper describes how this framework is emerging from the change management literature and case research, and addresses some of the modelling and interface issues in designing the Computer-Aided Visioning (CAV) tool.

Coping with change

Traditional research and publications on change management have tended to focus their attention on the planning and implementation phases, with relatively little emphasis on the needs of the managers in the new, post-change organisation - many of whom may not be directly involved with change implementation. Managers in incremental change situations can, with reasonable confidence, use their current experiences, practice, and modes of operation as their starting points for new thinking, and this can evolve as the change is implemented. Fundamental changes however may thrust managers into totally alien decision environments, and these managers need new tools to help them "cope with change".

A survey of general management texts and papers has revealed a tendency to refer to the importance of generating vision without specifying how this can be engendered. In the learning organisation literature, for example, the views of Garratt (1994) are typical in suggesting that senior managers frequently lack the training and development tools which would maximise their effectiveness. At the same time, much of the general literature on major change focuses on quality or BPR frameworks but tends to be based on one or two consultancy based case studies or surveys - see, for example, Coulson Thomas (1992) and Aitken (1995). Regrettably, however, these only offer general guidelines and models of change which fail to address how precisely vision is generated and how it can address the dynamics of individual managers mental models and changing scenarios. Many such transformations are reported subsequently as failing - Barrett (1994) suggests that up to one third of all BPR initiatives fail because they do not accurately visualise the future business processes. He calls for narrative and descriptive scenario planning and the use of computer models to assist management. Surprisingly little further reference is made to making use of IT for visioning or more creative purposes, though Winch et al. (1997) postulate a much broader role for IT which includes a visioning capability to provide a whole system view particularly in network-form or "extended enterprise" organisations.

A research programme at Plymouth is investigating the processes of major change implementation, specifically how firms prepare their senior managers for the changing roles and environments that change will force upon them. Through literature and case-study investigations, a framework for change is being developed which includes a "computer-aided visioning" tool - a CAV - that will enable such managers to pre-experience their new circumstances through a management flight simulator.

Communicating vision in major change situations

Preliminary results have been compiled from a series of qualitative case studies with managers in organisations which have undergone at least one fundamental change in the recent past, with six manufacturing businesses so far surveyed. Initially, an extended interview is conducted with the senior managers in each firm who had been involved in the initiation of fundamental change decisions (change initiators). This interview focuses on how the skills and knowledge base of key managerial talent was enhanced and developed. Following these, validating interviews are conducted with between three and five managers from each business who either had some responsibility for the implementation of the change, or whose roles were altered in some significant way ("post-change managers"). Follow up sessions have also involved further meetings with the change initiators to introduce a demonstration management simulator (described below), and to gauge how such tools can be enhanced to meet the expectations of these business leaders as they contemplate further fundamental change.

This work has already produced a large source of primary data which is currently being analysed. Initial findings have thrown up a variety of issues which highlight a lack of understanding amongst senior managers concerning the process of preparing both themselves and their staff for fundamental change. In management development terms, a particular need to align the views of key managers to the vision of change initiators has been identified. This is particularly appropriate for four of the sample classified as "high growth SME's". In these firms a lack of planning was found concerning the development of managerial thinking amongst promoted supervisors and foremen, on whom the growing firms will rely for their management cadre in the future. Another key area where failings appeared widespread was communication, both vertical and horizontal. New IT systems were producing tangible benefits in some of the firms where 'rogue' departments had traditionally been resistant to any change, but one middle manager from a vehicle equipment manufacturer had no idea about the turnover / profitability of the firms US sister company which manufactured a significant amount of the UK firm's turnover. In the case of vertical communication, a surprising lack of feedback mechanisms is in evidence, even in firms with as few as a hundred employees.

In terms of the development of learning and knowledge, two principal issues are beginning to emerge: firstly, the importance of utilising external stakeholder sources of learning and knowledge, and, secondly, the benefits of replacing and/or creating new staff positions to meet the needs of their new environment. One Finance Director of a manufacturer of high tech security systems said the best decision they had taken regarding the change was to bring new staff into the company at a very early stage, before a normal assessment of the firms finances could justify this. Internal skills enhancement also seems to have been neglected as firms dealt with the 'hard issues' related to the change, though it is also clear that the growth in popularity of externally assessed quality initiatives have at last focused management attention on this key responsibility. One manager in a manufacturer of equipment for the petroleum industry cheerfully recalled how he dealt with a series of new duties relating to the introduction of a new product line and a rapid expansion of sales. At this point he asked for the recording of the interview to stop and then admitted that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. This is, perhaps, one particularly harsh example of the difference between the rhetoric and actual commitment.

In terms of capacity and ability to plan changes, a pattern is emerging of fundamental change being initiated primarily as a reactive response to a deterioration in traditional markets. The emphasis of managerial thinking tended to be on internal re-organisation and short term benefits, rather than one which focused on market expectations; formal plans tended to be either absent or not circulated. Despite the importance of external stakeholder knowledge in our findings there was virtually no serious attempt to bring in suppliers into the planning loop. In two of the SME's succession planning would also clearly be a vital area for the companies, yet it was clear that the implications and possible consequences for the businesses had been evaluated in the most cursory manner.

A framework to support preparations for fundamental change

The research to date is pointing towards a number of critical success factors to ensure that managers within an organisation can "hit the ground running", that is, making sure they can be fully effective in their new environment as quickly as possible after the change. The case research has suggested that this is unlikely be the case, and that many mangers are seriously unprepared for what the change brings. This could be expected to be particularly true for those whose roles change in a major way, but who have not been centrally involved in planning and implementing the change. Simply developing and refining skills may be part of the process, as junior managers take on more senior roles, new staff come into the firm, and management processes evolve. However with major change, there may be severe discontinuities that command fundamentally different ways of thinking - former competitors may become allies in joint ventures, firms that used to operate through traditional supplier/customer trading become integrated supply-chain partners, or firms historically operating within their local markets go global.

Figure 1 - Extract from Interrogatory Question Bank

A significant feature of the framework being developed to support organisations in preparing for fundamental change is a computer-aided visioning tool. Briefly, the concept is that tool supports the process by enabling the change initiators to articulate their vision of the changed organisation through a detailed inter-rogatory. Figure 1 shows an extract from the question bank of over a thousand questions that can be called dynamically by the interrogatory interface to characterise the organisation and the change. (The questions are layered in colour-coded strata.) The vision that results from this process is then automatically captured within a system dynamics model that is calibrated to the firm and its expected future changed operations and relationships, as determined by the change initiators' input. The model itself forms the core of a flight simulator that then enables other managers to pre-experience the changed organisation, trying out their old ways of doing things and testing their old ways of thinking.

Figure 2 - Demonstrator Flight Simulator Interface

Currently a demonstrator is available that offers simple functionality. It permits a simple interrogatory session with the scope being confined to process technology changes in a manufacturing environ-ment. The captured data - parameters to define the organisation and the change and to calibrate the model - are then transferred to a generic system dynamics model through a DDI. The interface has been developed within an Excel® spreadsheet structure which interfaces easily with the generic model constructed in PowerSim®. Access to the model is by a typical flight simulator interface, and Figure 2 shows the interface that would result from representative answers to the Figure 1 question bank.


Research to date has highlighted a number of key factors to be addressed as organisations face major changes driven by technological breakthroughs and the changing global business scene, and by new organisational structures being designed to meet these challenges. Broadly these include:

A framework is being developed to support organisations in preparing for planned major change that includes a model-based tool for delivering to key managers a way of pre-experiencing the envisaged post-change situation, and a CAV demonstrator is currently available and being trialed.


Aitken, A & I. Saunders, 1995, "Vision only works if communicated", People Management, 1(25), pp. 28-31

Barrett, J. L., 1994, "Process visualisation: Getting the vision right is the key", Information Systems Management, 11 (2) pp. 14-23

Coulson Thomas, C., 1992, "Strategic vision or strategic con?: Rhetoric or reality" Long Range Planning, 25 (1) pp. 81-89

Garratt, Bob, 1994, The Learning Organisation and the Need for Directors Who Think, Harper-Collins, London

Winch, G. W., H. Gyllstrom, F. Sauer, & S. Seror-Marklin, 1997, "The virtual neural business system: a vision for IT support for the network form organisation", Management Decision, 35 (1), pp. 40-48

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