Organisational development (OD) is a term increasingly bandied about within companies. The jobs section in this magazine will probably feature appointments requiring responsibility for organisational development. But ask a manager or HR specialist what the term means and you will rarely get a simple answer.
While its execution is often complex, the principles of OD are fairly straight-forward: it is a planned, organisation-wide approach to improving organisational effectiveness. There are, however, some important assumptions that underpin the concept.
OD is informed by a set of humanistic values and beliefs about the potential of people and organisations to develop and grow. It involves change through people and improvements to build future capability. It is concerned with the health and well-being of people at work and is rooted in a sound theoretical and research base.
At the turn of the century, scientific management portrayed work as a mechanistic and rational process. Then, with research such as the Hawthorne experiments, came increasing awareness that organisations are not the rational places people had assumed. In fact, the world of work was far more disorderly. Organisational effectiveness was influenced by relationships, people’s social needs and motivations and the dynamics of work groups.
This understanding of the importance of the human ‘process’ that lies beneath the ‘content’ of work grew from the 1940s onwards with the research findings of people such as Lewin, Trist and Banforth. They laid the foundations for the personal development programmes and teambuilding events that remain part of OD practice today.
Increasingly, organisations became viewed as two independent, yet inter-dependent systems: the technical and the social. Understanding these interdependencies within the ‘work system’ is critical to successful organisational development. Put simply, if you change a business process or technology, there will be effects elsewhere in the system that need to be considered, for example, the skills and motivations of people operating those new processes.
The term ‘organisation development’ was first coined in the 1950s, by McGregor and Beckhard, who introduced new team structures promoting higher levels of upward decision-making.
In the 1960s, the field of OD continued to be influenced by practitioners and academics from the US. Much of their thinking is now mainstream. For example: change (Lewin); motivation (Maslow/Herzberg); and learning (Knowles).
More recently, new approaches such as Real-Time Strategic Change (Jacobs) and Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperider) have come to the fore. These put an emphasis on finding new ways of engaging more people in dealing with the changes faced by their organisation through dialogue and conversation.
Development at work
OD is about looking at the organisation in its entirety. In doing so, we can begin to understand how shifting one element within the system will have an impact – often unexpected – on another. Without this, trying to solve organisational problems at their face value can be a waste of time. Just think of the number of structural changes introduced by organisations that have no real positive effect.
One of the most widely used models to help understand the elements in OD practice is the Burke-Litwin model.
This shows all the different types of OD interventions. It also shows the inter-relationships between different aspects of the organisational system and how individual performance relates to that of the organisation as a whole.
Take the issue of performance management. An HR director may realise that there is little differentiation in the outcomes of performance reviews and the distribution of bonus payments. Everyone is rated good or above average. Yet senior managers constantly complain that performance is below par. New, tighter, performance management systems and procedures are introduced. But real levels of performance stay the same and now managers complain the new system is a time-consuming burden.
In this case, the problem is not with the systems at all, but with the climate in the work units. This climate is influenced by the management culture, which, in turn, is influenced by the tone set by the leaders who are complaining about performance. The key is to spot these links and to work in the areas where there is likely to be most leverage.
Decisions about how to intervene need to be informed by data. OD models such as Burke-Litwin encourage us to collect data at a number of levels across the organisational system and to ask questions beyond the obvious.
In collecting this data, it is best to involve people from within the system. The process of involving them is just as important as the data in bringing about change. Recently, an organisation mounted an online staff attitude survey which produced some robust feedback for the leadership of the organisation. More importantly, the process seemed to unleash new-found energy within the workforce.
The role of the OD practitioner was to help identify what data needed to be collected, how, and by whom. It was then to respond to the issues that emerged and ensure that staff remained involved.
Where does organisational development belong?
Many OD practitioners come through the HR route. However, there is a trend towards moving OD practice out of HR and bringing it alongside functions such as strategy or business development. Professional OD programmes are increasingly attracting practitioners from a range of backgrounds. Sometimes participants bring business process or quality management experience, after realising they need to balance their technical knowledge with a deeper awareness of the human responses to change and transformation.
Sometimes the OD team is drawn from within the business, with people selected for their operational – rather than OD – skills and their commitment to improving the organisation. At a conference on OD at Roffey Park earlier this year, it was learned that OD change at the BBC was led, not by HR or OD specialists, but by a senior producer.
Increasingly, organisations are using large-scale change processes, where the whole organisation gets together, and all staff are involved in creating and agreeing change decisions. These latest develop-ments reflect values central to OD practice – engagement, participation and democracy.
Wherever the OD role lives, it is clearly a strategic function, and as such, needs to be positioned where it is best able to influence the whole organisation. The OD role possesses most leverage when senior leaders see it as critical to business success and strategy and the OD practitioners themselves have high credibility and influence with these stakeholders. This enables them to intervene in some of the complicated process issues we have described.
How to become a practitioner
There are some core skills and knowledge required of the effective OD practitioner. At their heart, are ‘soft’ skills in facilitation, influencing and consulting. These will be coupled with expertise in areas such as organisational design and systems thinking.
Just as important is the mindset of practitioners and the extent to which they are able to commit to the central values of OD and reflect on their own practice. The most effective practitioners we work with live and breathe these values through every intervention they make.
All of these skills and attributes can be learned on OD practitioner programmes. Networks, co-consulting, mentoring and working alongside external experts are other options.
Ask yourself if your organisation wants sustainable change. Do you want a workforce that feels committed to the change and has a real stake in it? Are you looking for collaboration, trust, shared values and adaptability? Are you prepared to take a broad, systemic view of the organisational challenges you face? If the answer to all questions is yes, you should be pursuing OD.