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A theory of organizing informed by activity theory: The locus of paradox, sources of change, and challenge to management

Frans Prenkert (Norwegian School of Management, Oslo, Norway)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 July 2006




The aim of this paper is to provide a solid theoretical base to the study of paradox in organized activity. It draws upon activity theory to show the managerial and analytical potential of the activity systems model (ASM) as a systematic tool to analyze paradox in organizational practice.


The methodology employed in the study can be described as a longitudinal multiple case study approach. The focal organization was followed over a period of three years. About 25 interviews and 50 participatory observations were made. Text documents were analysed using an analytical tool developed from theory – the “Analysis Readiness Review (ARR)” – to structure and categorize data.


This study shows that the locus of paradox can be empirically identified within and between the constituent elements of an ASM, and that the consequence of such paradox is the emergence of a new genetically more evolved ASM. Hence, paradox in organized activity will eventually usher in change, such as the rearrangement of the elements of organized activity, and the replacement of one or many of those elements.

Research limitations/implications

This research is limited in that it models only two principal types of contradictions in activity systems, both of which are inner contradictions intrinsic to the activity system in question. The case study is merely indicative and more empirical research is needed to further extend our knowledge of paradox in various types of organized activity.


Managers can utilize the ARR‐tool as a systematic checklist to identify the elements of the organizational practice and to locate paradoxes. In doing so, they can actively take part in shaping the dialectical processes of change that the paradoxes create, by paying attention to the contradictions present in the activity system. This is the challenge to management that paradoxical organizational practice poses, and this paper provides one tool to help managers and researchers to better face this challenge.



Prenkert, F. (2006), "A theory of organizing informed by activity theory: The locus of paradox, sources of change, and challenge to management", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 471-490.



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