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Academy of Management EXECUTIVE

Stream Analysis: A Powerful Way to Diagnose and Manage Organizational Change. By Jerry L Porras. Cambridge, MA:

Addison-Wesley, 1987. 163 pages. $12.95. Reviewed by William M. Bernstein, Ph.D., Burke Associates, Inc.

Stream Analysis is a method for helping organization members diagnose and solve problems. The

technique and examples of its application are described clearly in this book. If the method works as effectively as Professor Porras claims (and I tend to believe him), it is likely because he has paid careful attention to the problem of how to identify and visually represent assumptions about cause and effect made by groups participating in diagnosis and change efforts. In most respects, Stream Analysis advocates typical action research ideas, e.g., soliciting information from organization members affected by problems or change, and forming a team of influential managers to analyze the information and suggest remedial action. But it is not enough

merely to categorize and count the various beliefs of organization members. Porras suggests that change agents must also facilitate a process by which people articulate their assumptions about how various problems or issues are related to each other. This is because concerted, focused action depends on some underlying agreement about the nature of problems and their causes. Facilitating the process of making organization members' implicit causal hypotheses salient involves two steps. First, people must be given some flexible, general heuristic for classifying beliefs (i.e., beliefs about structure, social relations, technological etc.). Porras offers four categories

Academy of Management EXECUTIVE

(he calls them "streams") that are similar to those suggested by Weisbord, Nadler and other OD writers. Once beliefs about problems and issues are categorized by the change management group, the assumptions about how they are related need to be clarified. Porras suggests a way to graphically depict both the beliefs and the presumed causal connections between them. He also gives tips about how to find the central themes or "stories" that may be embedded in larger, complex graphs. As a result of this process, organization members are likely to develop a shared view of problems and their causes and a shared commitment to plans for

problem correction. Serious OD practitioners and managers contemplating change efforts will benefit from reading this book. The success of change interventions often depends on people's ability to reach some concensus about complex problems. I can't think of a better practical manual on the technology of assisting groups in problem solving and consensus building than Stream Analysis. My greatest disappointment with OD writing in general and this book in particular is that the connections made between methods and underlying theoretical concepts tend to be vague or uninteresting, or both. Maybe it is unfair to expect a "how to" book

to be intellectually stimulating, but the issues raised by OD work are so important and vital to us today. Why are most OD books so intellectually barren?

I think it is because the

"theoretical" sections of OD books are usually devoted to justifying OD methods with explanations that sound scientific and sophisticated. Instead of being

experiments in thinking that raise questions and consider various alternative solutions, OD theory chapters "tell what is true" as if readers were students in an introductory psychology class.

I found Porras' use of social

learning theory as a rationale for his method to be anachronistic. In part, the social learning reference

Academy of Management EXECUTIVE

seemed geared toward legitimizing

various concepts that a behaviorist

would consider "mentalistic":

people think about choices;

thoughts affect behavior; an individual's

thinking is affected by

others in the environment; and so

on. But who today doubts these

things? The consumers of OD interventions?

I doubt it. Raising

the issues is like pushing against a

door that has been opened since

the decline of strict behaviorist

thinking. These issues have more

to do with the history of psychology,

OD, and OD writers than the

questions of OD clients or the real

problems encountered in the

practice of OD itself.

Social learning ide~as are not

irrelevant here, but by themselves

they neither stimulate thought

nor add insight. The use of

Stream Analysis certainly raises

as many questions about perceiving

causality as about social learning.

Yet, attribution theory and

research, the area of social psychology

most concerned with the

processes by which people make

causal inferences, is not mentioned

once in the book.

Porras also follows the standard

OD practice of telling readers

that organizations are complex,

"open systems" similar to

biological organisms. The relationships

between the "systems"

and the social learning ideas are

never satisfactorily drawn out.

What is the centrally important

idea? What if organizations were

actually "closed systems"? Would

social learning processes be different?

What if they are "open systems"

but people believed they

were ''closed systems"? Would

Stream Analysis still work? The

verbiage about organizational

"systems" needs to be reduced

and refined, and the relationships

between "systems" ideas and

learning clarified so that these

types of questions can be addressed


Maybe the basic problem

with OD "theorizing" is that it assumes

that the system OD operates

on is the organizational system

itself. But OD affects the

organization only indirectly. OD

interventions such as Stream

Academy of Management EXECUTIVE

Analysis affect people's perceptions

of the organizational system.

They are efforts to influence the

"system of beliefs" (comprised, in

part, of the set of assumptions

about what causes what) existing

in the heads of organization members.

Belief systems are heuristics

used more or less explicitly by organization

members to make

sense of organizational events.

The assumption behind OD work,

of course, is that changing the belief

system of most organization

members (e.g., making it more explicit,

more normative, more connected

to reality, etc.) may cause

changes in individuals' behavior

and, in turn, changes in the organizational

system itself (e.g., its

structure, technology, social


The distinction between the

organizational system and the organizational

belief system seems

absolutely basic. And it is of central

importance for understanding

a method such as Stream Analysis.

But is is never spelled out explicitly

by Porras. Instead he used

the "system" idea to support the

use of different categories for classifying

peoples' beliefs about the

organization. That is, one part of

an organization is technological,

one is social, and so on. Hence,

the category scheme (the four

"streams) maps onto something

real-the organizational system.

This is neither irrelevant nor

wrong. Beliefs do tend to track

some underlying condition in the

external world and building a category

scheme that has some face

validity makes sense. But again, a

concept is used here primarily to

tell us something about a method.

Theory is used only as a rationale.

OD writing should get us to ask

new questions about basic, enduring

problems, not merely tell us

the answers to questions raised by