Business process re‐engineering (BPR) promises to transform organizations by fundamentally altering their core processes, thereby achieving radical improvements in performance. As the number of actual re‐engineering projects increases, the rhetoric surrounding BPR has shifted to reflect greater cynicism and discomfort over its claims. In the absence of compelling and trustworthy evidence about the success of BPR projects, critics have exposed logical contradictions within BPR’s “manifesto” for revolutionary change and insinuated that BPR’s utopian rhetoric masks political motives. This paper contributes to this discussion in three ways. First we examine two difficulties affecting the evaluation of BPR programmes: defining what process re‐engineering really is, and determining whether BPR has been applied successfully. Second, we examine four fundamental contradictions inherent in BPR’s analysis of organizations: the fallacy of its “clean‐slate” assumption, the paradox of information technology’s role as an enabler of organizational change, the hypocrisy of employee empowerment, and the irony of employee commitment. Third we propose that such contradictions be addressed in both research and practice by employing theoretical perspectives that are prepared to accommodate contradictory phenomena, in contrast to the simplistic, deterministic logic guiding current investigations of BPR’s effectiveness. We suggest theories of organizational learning and organizational politics to understand and resolve the contradictions embedded within BPR.
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