Organisational development has been around since the late 1940s, but even practitioners working in this field find it difficult to define precisely. Valerie Garrow and Sharon Varney hold a mirror up to the discipline

Despite the term “organisational development” falling somewhat out of favour in recent years in the US, with practitioners rallying behind the more mainstream “change management” banner, OD has been enjoying something of a revival in the UK. New titles and roles have sprung up, such as “head of OD and learning”, “head of workforce and OD” and “responsible for OD and internal communications”. In the public sector particularly, roles often combine responsibility for HR, change management and learning and development. In the third sector, this can also extend to governance and risk.

Despite this fascination with OD, it is not always clear what it involves – OD can look and feel very different from one organisation to another. This, of course, may be the secret of its longevity: OD practitioners require a broad skills set and range of experience as well as a deep understanding of the systemic nature of organisations. This is why it has remained as a field of practice (and one with a rich heritage), rather than a separate department. OD is a specialism, not a function.

At a time when we’re all looking to improve organisational performance and effectiveness, finding out exactly what OD is and what it can achieve is a smart move. Most definitions of OD originate from the US where much of the academic, and practical, work originates. In order to understand them, it is helpful to trace the roots of classical OD.

OD is generally considered as a post-war response to the dehumanising effects of scientific management practices, which saw workers as small cogs within well-oiled organisational machinery. Work was fragmented into small tasks, designed and monitored scientifically by “the management”, often through time and motion studies.

The humanistic approach of OD began to replace the machine metaphor of organisations with natural images, and drew on the behavioural sciences to suggest how people, systems and technology could be organised in a more effective and humane way. The key strands of work that form the core of classical OD relate to new humanistic values, training and development, employee feedback, systems thinking and action research.

In the 1980s, an increased interest in organisational culture was in part a response to the success of Japanese organisations in fostering quality and excellence. Culture became particularly important for understanding post-merger integration problems, and it became common practice to approach organisational change through what Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, called the hardware of an organisation (its structure and processes) and its software (the norms and culture). On top of this, by the 1990s, OD enveloped the preoccupation with involvement and participation, later to be known as employee engagement.

The legacy that still distinguishes organisational development from general change management consultancy is its humanistic values. Psychologists and social scientists concerned with the alienation of workers brought a strongly values-driven approach to the study of leadership, management and motivation. OD recognises the potential of motivated people in organisations, a trend that has become increasingly important in a knowledge economy in which individuals represent talent and human and intellectual capital.

OD today tends to be associated primarily with change. At its heart lies action research: cycles of data gathering, analysis, action or change, reflection and evaluation. However, the “change” that OD now finds itself dealing with may itself have changed. Our latest research into the nature of OD, found that respondents working in the OD field believed that traditional concepts of change were out of step with our turbulent working world (see Links panel, below). Now practitioners are talking about working with emergent (some call it “improvisational”) change; this means establishing a direction for change and working in a way that is responsive and adapts to fluctuations in the real world. This is critical if HR and other business leaders are to capture and benefit from the practice of OD.

With the challenging remit of enhancing organisational effectiveness, it is not surprising that customer expectations of OD practitioners are demanding. Job advertisements specify a whole range of qualifications, experience and personal qualities, central to which is the ability to form partnerships at senior levels in an organisation. OD jobs often appear towards the top end of organisational hierarchies without any clear career paths leading up to them.

So how do OD and HR relate to one another? That too has changed over time. In recent years, there have been calls for a rapprochement between OD and HR, not least because those involved in managing people and with an understanding of the behavioural sciences should be combining forces to champion the human contribution to organisational effectiveness and change. Links with strategic HR are recognised by the practitioners who took part in our study, although there are some key distinctions. Organisational development practitioners see themselves as more free-spirited and loath to be tied to a department or function. At its best, OD is non-formulaic and rarely sits neatly within an organisational hierarchy. An OD team might be comprised of a range of individuals from various functions who work together on a change project and then disband after their work is done.

OD preserves its integrity by working outside or at the boundaries of the system and prides itself on non-collusion. For that reason, internal OD people often consider five years to be the maximum time they would spend in one organisation before the ability to challenge becomes weaker.

Practitioners point to two emerging patterns in the OD field. The first is the increasing fragmentation of OD in the UK. The second is its enlargement. The former is likely because of the perceived lack of status of OD in the UK (as opposed to the US). The latter is perhaps more likely as more people become involved in improvement initiatives, once traditional OD territory.

Whichever direction it takes, an OD mindset is going to be a valuable asset when organisations seek to re-align and survive in a post-recession world.

A personal perspective
Christine Lloyd, executive director, people and organisation development for Cancer Research, says: “Having worked in and around the OD field for 25 years, I have come at it from many perspectives – logical, intuitive, intellectual and emotional – but a precise definition or quantification of the field still eludes me.

For me, the key to working in OD is to accept where you are in the present moment, work with the issues that are presenting themselves today and accept that today’s challenges and responses are the result of a rich tapestry of past experience, circumstance and intuition. One thing I have learnt, is that you cannot engineer OD and it is not formula-driven.

My own career in OD has reflected a journey from the more structured approaches of the past to current approaches of emergence and flow. I often use the expression “opportunistic OD” to describe my current preference for real-time, “in the moment” ways of working.

So what does the future hold for OD? I am increasingly noticing movement towards balancing and integrating the hard and soft elements of OD and I believe emerging themes for the future include:
- the evolution of organisation design through the influence of technology and social software into amorphous networks;
- OD linking more closely to “strategic reframing” rather than limiting it to the HR or people aspects of the organisation;
- stronger links with communications and engagement – shaped by the emergence of a generation for whom communication is driven by technology;
- an increasing emphasis on risk as a framework for organisation design; 
- the current downturn moving organisations towards organisational effectiveness.”

How to become an OD professional
Get some wider experience of business in a commercial or operational function. Most of the OD practitioners in our latest research had business experience in areas outside HR, such as marketing, sales, purchasing, projects, or operations.

OD is also about much more than expertise with a range of tools and techniques. It is as much about the qualities of the OD practitioner as it is about the interventions and requires a high degree of self-knowledge and ongoing personal development. Many practitioners in our research held master’s qualifications which, they explained, had helped them develop advanced critical reflection skills.

Seek opportunities to work on cross-functional projects. Wherever they sit in the organisational structure, OD practitioners add value by working at and across boundaries. They are curious about how different parts of the organisation affect both each other and the network of customers, suppliers and organisational stakeholders. Asking questions about connections and organisational-level impact can help you in developing an OD mindset.

About the authors: Valerie Garrow is associate director, HR research and consultancy, and Sharon Varney an associate, at the Institute for Employment Studies.

Research report: The IES' report, Fish or Bird: Perspectives on Organisational Development, looks at current UK OD practice through interviews with both practitioners and senior executives.