Organization Development: Intro to OD 101

OD can make more contributions to organizations… with a bit of change

This is the first in a 3-part series on Organization Development:

Part I — What is OD?

Part II — A few Strengths and Weaknesses of OD

Part III — Call to Action for Proactive Change

On to Part I — What is OD?

I was first introduced to the Organization Development (OD) field two decades ago through the lens of Industrial-Organizational Psychology. I remember falling in love with concepts written by Chris Argyris and others as they described organizational dynamics (and some of the dysfunctions they can cause). Having seen many of these organizational dynamics and dysfunctions played out over the previous decade in a different career I had been in the workplace made these writings resonate with me. Where does Industrial-Organizational Psychology and OD overlap? Please see this post for a contrast of the two disciplines.

I really like the discipline of OD when viewed through a wide angle lens. I greatly appreciate the purposeful multi-disciplinary approach (Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology etc). These multiple foci help to see issues that may be missed when looking from only one discipline (such as Psychology), although one drawback may be a lack of a deep dive into those various disciplines. For example, I was a sociology major before I switched to psychology as an undergraduate. I kept a sociology minor for my BA which I think helps to inform my views today. But, I would not describe myself as a sociologist nor would I say I have kept up with developments in that area over the decades. I have to wonder “Do OD professionals sometimes miss the deep dive from other disciplines?”… maybe a post for another time.

To me, OD is also more than a bag of techniques. What binds it together is a value framework that ensures practitioners are operating in an ethical manner and are behaving consistent with OD values. Key values in OD include humanism, democracy, development, and effectiveness (Jamieson & Worley 2008). I have seen this reflected in OD readings and when talking to senior experienced professionals in the field. I knew that OD values were fundamental to the field, but on a level that was not so explicit. My POV is that they help to ground the field and provide moral guidelines that may be lacking in some other professions. If we are applying techniques to an organization, but in a value free type of way (or counter to OD), then that is not really OD. Do we fully embrace these values? Are they a holdover from an earlier time? Are they too culture bound (US & UK centric) to help guide us in our modern global environment?

What’s in a Name?

There is the perennial question of “What is OD?”. This is exacerbated by it being such a broad field. One person’s primary practice may be coaching, another may be in building high performing teams, while another is doing large scale whole system transformation. And some do all three… How can all these practitioners claim they are all “doing OD”? Not only is it confusing to our profession internally, more dangerously, it is confusing to clients as well.

Many people like the Beckhard definition of OD (1969).

Organization Development is an effort that is: Planned, Organization-wide, Managed from the top, Increase organization effectiveness and health, Through planned interventions in the organization’s “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

I historically preferred Burke and Bradford (2005):

Organization Development is a system-wide process of planned change aimed toward improving overall organization effectiveness by way of enhanced congruence of such key organizational dimensions as external environment, mission, strategy, leadership, culture, structure, information and reward systems, and work policies and procedures.

I like the emphasis on planned change and the clearly systemic view. But I now find the Jamieson and Worley adapted definition more compelling:

A process of planned intervention(s) utilizing behavioral and organizational science principles to change a system and improve its effectiveness, conducted in accordance with values of humanism, participation, choice and development so that the organization and its members learn and develop. (adapted from Jamieson and Worley 2008)

The parts for me to highlight include the important addition of “Organizational Science” in addition to Behavioral Science, an emphasis on OD values, and the explicit call out of organization learning/developing for individuals in the organization. This speaks to the capacity building of the company which is implied in the other definitions but made much more visible in the Jamieson and Worley definition. Adding in organizational science is a way to update and upgrade so that people are not too fixated on behavioral science. We could easily find a dozen definitions of OD (or more), but the important part for OD practitioners is to synthesize the critical pieces.

Who cares about a formal definition?

So, we have definitions that may or may not be agreed upon in the field. However, what I had been to drawn to was the view from Bradford and Burke (2005). They suggest that instead of being overly concerned with the OD field as a whole when describing to clients, to just describe to people what you do. This may resonate more for practitioners and their clients alike. In the chapter “The Future of OD” (p 209) they outline several examples of what OD practitioners do such as:

  • We believe in competing against one’s own performance, against standards of excellence, and against the market competitor. We have approaches that help you achieve that by learning how to cooperate with colleagues so all can compete better and so we can hold each other accountable for high performance.
  • We know that organizations can’t guarantee lifetime employment. But you can build increased loyalty and commitment by increasing their employability. We know how to build learning systems so that your people can perform better while increasing their competencies.

There are over half a dozen of these examples which are all “OD” but speak to the language of business. Maybe in a way this is more important than a textbook definition of the field. I see some practitioners who are very good at using this kind of language in describing what they do as OD practitioners and the outcomes they can provide for the organization. Maybe — and I speculate here — the external OD practitioners who we see successful in practice are the the ones who have mastered this translation.

Often an OD initiative is an intervention of some type in an organization. When Argyris gives guidelines for interventions they reflect OD values. In Intervention Theory and Method: A Behavioral Science View (1970) he outlined what was required for a good organizational intervention:

  1. valid useful data
  2. free informed choice
  3. internal commitment

Please see this blog for more information

So there we have it, a very brief overview of Organization Development. In part II we will tackle a few specific examples of areas OD can be very strong at as well as potential liabilities.

P.S. Part II is now up!