What is organization development? The short answer is that it is a particular approach to improving the way organizations work. Efforts to improve organizational effectiveness have been around for as long as there have been organizations, but the term organization development got off the ground in the middle of the twentieth century based on the latest findings in the behavioral sciences. The most well known OD authors did the bulk of their publishing from the 1960’s through the 80’s. A search on Amazon, shows that many OD books available are new editions or revisits of the field by some of its original leading lights.
A recent book entitled Reinventing Organization Development, by David L. Bradford and W. Warner Burke, Pfeiffer, starts with a chapter called “The Crisis in OD” and includes one called “On the Demise of Organization Development.” A great classic is Organization Development by Wendell L. French and Cecil H. Bell, Jr which was published in its 6th edition and maybe its last in 1998, 10 years ago. Another good book, from the UK, is Organisation Development: Metaphorical Explorations, edited by Cliff Oswick and David Grant, 1996.
OD looks at the “soft” side of organizational effectiveness. This includes culture and how humans interact with each other in groups. The focus is the behavioral side of group functioning with the objective of developing more effective ways of working and better skills for managers to diagnose and fix their own problems. Organization development practitioners made no reference to the “hard” side of running an organization – the IT systems, business strategy, logistics, key performance indicators, marketing or anything about the external environment, except in very general terms. The way OD classically worked was to begin with “survey research” using questionnaires and interviews aimed at diagnosing what was wrong with the organizational culture and other human interaction processes. The resulting feedback was analyzed and an action plan was devised to address typical organizational dysfunctions such as poor communication, lack of collaboration across functions, poor team work and poor employee morale. In its early days, OD was too optimistic about how easily organizations could change. As a result, an entirely new subfield has developed just to focus on change management.
Why Organization Development had to Change
The problem with OD is that it is both too broad and too narrow. It’s too narrow because it doesn’t look at the hard side of running a successful business. It is also too broad, like having a discipline called global wellbeing. Where would you start to address such a broad topic? Would you focus on poverty, war, racial tension, food and water shortages, disease, religious toleration, or what? Being too broad, the field of organization development has naturally split into a number of subfields, such as culture change, team building, best place to work initiatives, talent management, leadership development, change management, to name a few.
OD consultants claimed to be taking a “systems approach” to improving organizational effectiveness, but their focus was primarily internal. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was not unreasonable to have such an internal focus. Today, at least in the private sector, the advent of hypercompetition has made the dynamics between organizations at least as important as the dynamics within them. Modern change agents tend to be specialists, ranging from strategy consultants, logistics or quality consultants through team building and communications consultants. Of those wishing to improve the whole organization, few would start by looking at internal dynamics. Most would start by looking at strategy, which suggests how the organization should be structured and what culture would work best. For example, in an innovation driven market, a culture of constant innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking is essential. Success in a cost-driven market requires tight processes that maximize efficiency with the lowest possible costs – a very different culture.
Organization development couldn’t last in its original form because, among other things, it treated all organizations as if they were broadly alike – as complex human systems. In Bell and French’s classic text, OD illustrations range across private and public sector organizations, including a university, an Indian tribe and a school, in addition to a business organization. While we still want to improve organizations (in their environments) as systems, we need to harness a wide range of hard and soft technologies, only a few of which originated in the OD movement.