What is the Evidence for Dialogic OD Outcomes?

We found little strong evidence to confirm Dialogic OD results. However, hopefully more clear evidence will be accumulated by scholar-practitioners.

(Image: DariuszSankowski)

Dialogic Organization Development Part II:

A little while ago, we wrote an introduction to Dialogic OD (DOD). Our original intent was to follow this up with a comprehensive literature review, find a meta-analysis, and then provide a concise summary of evidence for Dialogic OD results. Although there are quite a few articles, videos, and other references to Dialogic OD, we found that not much rose to the top as far as clear-cut outcomes are concerned.

We also asked in several forums for feedback on evidence. This was done primarily through social media such as twitter, Linkedin, and Linkedin groups (i.e., ODN & SIOP). There was a good amount of praise for the DOD approach and we did find a few case studies. Some feedback indicates Dialogic OD is taking off more in the UK and Europe than in the US.

There were also several book reviews of Bushe and Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change. Some book reviews were so glowing as to be on the verge of blatantly promotional. Anecdotally a few people mentioned how DOD was good in specific industries that are constantly shifting and evolving, such as healthcare.

So, what does the literature say?

Well, at this stage it is still inconclusive, based on searches*. We searched Google Scholar as well as accessing academic databases (Google too where we found some cool videos ). Most results were books or unpublished dissertations in the academic database. New dissertation examples like Dialogic Model for Community Focused Strategic Frame Analysis by Don Ness indicate this is a hot topic and on the rise. Book results (or chapters) varied from those by Bushe and Marshak, to Practicing Organization Development: Leading Transformation and Change / Edition 4 by Rothwell, Stavros and Sullivan.

What about peer reviewed journal articles? There are some, like Reflections: OD or Not OD that is the Question! A Constructivist’s Thoughts on the Changing Nature of Change by Cliff Oswick. However, this is more a review and critique than an outcomes focused research project. Oswick opines that diagnostic OD is in danger of being marginalized by new approaches. One example of a case study is Shifting the paradigm: reevaluating resistance to organizational change. Although the piece is primarily conceptual in nature, the authors report that with dialogic implementation (using informal, individual, and group interview sessions with case management personnel) they were able to uncover reasons of resistance to a change implementation. This helped them to develop a new narrative around the change and turn around the implementation.

Dialogic OD practices seem to have taken off, and have been embraced by practitioners. Nevertheless, it appears not many of the practitioners are publishing their results as you might hope scholar-practitioners would do. Or perhaps they are not identifying what they do as Dialogic OD? Here is an example of a narrow search in PsychINFO:


This could be due to the difficulty of capturing the practice under the single heading of Dialogic OD. Maybe it is also because Dialogic OD embraces many existing approaches, almost like a toolkit. In the original article we observed that Dialogic OD could comprise Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, Future Search, and World Café for example. Although many of these approaches rose up prior to the label of Dialogic OD. There is a growing body of literature on Appreciative Inquiry — one could argue some of that research is actually about Dialogic OD…

Furthermore apparently Dialogic OD is partly about the mindset of the practitioner. How do we know the mindset of the practitioner? Would they need to explicitly indicate they are using a Dialogic OD mindset from the outset? Would this just be based on self report or other ways to determine a person’s mindset?

In addition there is a bit of a conundrum as Dialogic OD seems focused on a self-organizing change process that emerges from new ideas, in contrast with a diagnostic OD approach, which attempts to diagnose the current state and then help move to a future state scenario. To quote Bartunek and Woodman on desired outcomes:

Finally, the desired outcome from a diagnostic OD perspective is change in organizational norms and the organizational culture,broadly defined (Bennis 1969, Schein 1990). These are expected to lead to changes in how organizations and their members act to accomplish particular goals (e.g., Beckhard 1969). In contrast, in a dialogic approach, the emphasis is not so much on changing behavior as on changing the conceptual frameworks out of which organization members operate (Cooperrider & Srivastva 1987, Bushe & Marshak 2009), opening up the possibility of emergent forms of organizing that may be very unpredictable.

But there still have to be results: better customer service, or increased efficiency, or reduced waste, or reduced re-admission times for hospitals, etc.

It is remarkable that so little seems to have been written about outcomes in peer reviewed articles about an approach that appears to be used so widely. Perhaps authors did not directly refer to Dialogic OD, but instead to one of the many components under the Dialogic OD umbrella. Then that raises the question: why not? However you look at it, this is intriguing, and if you are aware of any systematic review or meta-analysis on the topic, please let us know via the comments.

It leaves us with a problem, though: in our original article we asked whether or not Dialogic OD is new wine in old bottles, and it’s hard to make that judgement in the absence of quantitative or even much qualitative data.

And it looks as if this concern actually more widespread. A recent article by Allan Church entitled The Art and Science of Evaluating Organization Development Interventions sums it up like this:

As many authors have noted (e.g., Anderson, 2012; Burke, 2011; Church, 2003; Cummings & Worley, 2015), the evaluation stage in the model is often given lip service or overlooked entirely. This is true whether you look at classic approaches to doing OD work as well as the newest dialogic approaches (Bushe & Marshak, 2015 — where evaluation, for example, is not even listed in the topic index). A quick scan of the EBSCO database shows no academic articles published at all, for example, on the terms evaluation and OD since 2012.

Clearly practitioners need to be concerned with the valuation of the impact of their interventions. In the article Church summarizes obstacles to doing so and a puts out a call to action to practitioners to evaluate their change efforts. It is not a tutorial, but he provides a framework and includes good tips.

Image courtesy of Church (2017)

It is not so much that “more research is needed” as so many articles state, but that better research is needed along with a more seamless integration between research and practice. OD practitioners have known for decades that evaluating outcomes can be very messy. Yet it is still needed. This was true in 1964 when Blake and Mouton wrote Breakthrough in Organization Development, and more true now, not less. To quote my friend John Ballard
“If you are not interested in evaluation, I’m not interested in your OD intervention”

So the lesson might be this: whether you are doing old school Diagnostic OD or newfangled Dialogic OD, evaluate your outcomes. Help collect evidence to determine which approaches are efficient and effective, and in what conditions. As we suggested in the first installment, Diagnostic and Dialogic OD may be partners as opposed to polar ends of a continuum. But only the evidence will tell.

(written by Paul Thoresen and Koen Smets)

*Examples of search terms included:

“Dialogic OD”

“Dialogic Organization Development”

“Dialogic Organisation Development”