Back in February 2009, Linda Holbeche, CIPD Director of Research and Policy and Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, a leading thinker on organisational change, co-authored an article in Impact, CIPD’s quarterly update on research and policy activities, called Organisational development – what’s in a name? (click here to download a copy as a PDF). As OD consultants and advisers, we hope that the article has had ‘impact’ as well as simply appearing in a magazine with that title, as we share the authors’ concerns that OD is neither well understood nor as widely practised as it might be. Like them, we would very strongly argue that OD has a major contribution to make in the present business climate as a means of breaking out ‘vicious cycles of wastefulness and short-termism’.

The years running up to ‘the crisis’ – a more multi-headed beast than a mere ‘credit crunch’, hence perhaps the lack of a widely accepted single term for our times – can be seen as one in which relatively easy living blind-sided organisations to a need to think differently or over longer timeframes. As the authors say:

… periods of strong growth can often mask the need to do anything different and breed complacency.”

Yet those are not current circumstances for most organisations: making hay while the sun shines is ok only as long as organisations, when colder winds blow, are happy to keep their heads down on hay bales when they could have been working towards pillows.

Even battening down the hatches can be a short-termist strategy: this morning’s Financial Times flags the current high level of mergers and acquisitions activity, cited as the highest year-to-date figure since 2000 (although we should wonder how meaningful that figure can be on 11 January). As we’ve written before, M&As don’t necessarily follow through on their promise: organisations ultimately aren’t Lego pieces that can be reconfigured according to strict logic – the proper functioning of their human systems, and their involvement in implementing the merger, are critical to success. If M&As are increasing at the rate the FT highlights, there is at least one pressing need for OD to take a higher profile. As we commented at the time:

In the present environment, where M&As are often motivated by survival this level of failure should ring an entire belfry of alarm bells: survival is not something you can achieve only a fraction of, after all.”

Holbeche and Cheung-Judge clarify a definition of OD by contrasting it with both HRM (talent management, resourcing, compensation and benefits, employee relations, appraisal and other performance management systems) and HRD (training, education and development). OD is, by contrast, a holistic approach that is ‘about getting the organisation’s total system to work coherently’.

As specialists in learning transfer and application, one surprise in re-reading their article is that the descriptions of OD read much more as ‘HRM plus’ than they as ‘HRD plus’. Though the links between OD and learning transfer are in many ways more implicit than explicit, there are some important parallels: the behaviour of line managers, the organisational culture and environment, PM and recognition practises are all influential in enhancing – or standing in the way of learning transfer, and are all aspects that the OD practitioner will value and seek to explore and influence for the better.Perhaps one of the reasons for what the authors see as OD’s recent ‘abeyance’ provides an answer: unlike HRM or (traditional models of) HRD, OD is what they describe as a ‘scavenger discipline’, drawing on systems thinking and especially on a range of behavioural sciences. Describing it as “shamelessly humanistic”, they list humanistic values as one of OD’s core values:

[…] believing that individuals should be given opportunities to become all that they can become, reflecting a humanistic striving for optimal alignment between organisations and individual goals and needs”.

In showing how OD goes beyond traditional HRD to review and embrace the best practice in line management and performance management as a continuous activity, they also illustrate that truly effective HRD that strives to increase learning and application does the same – and by many of the same routes.

Nor is this the only immediately visible link or parallel between OD and a more high profile contemporary concern: employee engagement. Inherently inclusive, the best practise in OD poses the question “What’s the best way forward for us?” rather than “How do we get them to do x?”: to work effectively, OD seeks to enlist and engage rather than to control (or, if it is following contemporary fashionable thinking, to nudge.)

As Holbeche and Cheung-Judge point out, an inclusive and involving approach is critical for another reason:

[…] involving the people affected by change and allowing them to provide input on issues that matter to them (for instance by engaging them in large-scale strategic conversations) is more likely to result in people owning the change process and its outcomes.”

Seeing line managers as ‘the primary practitioners of organisational development’ (another parallel with learning transfer, where ASK has long seen line managers as the single biggest influence on the ultimate success of learning interventions), they argue that HR needs to work closely with senior leaders to turn them into commissioners of OD who:

[…] appreciate that an organisation is a human system, not just a technical system.”

Just as allowing those affected a voice and an opportunity for contribution is an element of OD that reflects best engagement practice, so creating a sense of ownership is similarly vital to the ultimate success of OD interventions. (Indeed, as we’ve said before, this is a guiding principle.)

In situations where HR does not have the ear of senior leadership or lacks influence, OD interventions will – where they occur at all – tend to be driven by consultants. Where this is the case, following the authors’ arguments for OD, this should not automatically be seen as ‘a bad thing’. The interventions of the last few decades that the authors categorise as belonging to a ‘ruthless pursuit of efficiency’:

[…] business reengineering in the 1980s, rationalisation in the 1990s, and aggressive outsourcing in the 2000s […]

may have also been strongly associated with external consultants, but were all also interventions that valued the view of organisations as technical rather than both technical and human systems. Interventions that focus on aspects such as engagement, relationships and dialogue, and organisational health go beyond short-termist, ‘looking at the numbers’ approaches.

By doing so, however, they should – and indeed must – more readily avoid two of the recurring issues of externally-led interventions: that the outcomes (which includes new processes, practices and culture changes) must be owned, literally and emotionally, by the organisation, and the ‘project’ must at some point become ‘Business As Usual’ – albeit a ‘usual business’ that is a distinct improvement on previous practice.

This ‘improved organisation’ need not be the only legacy. The article authors cite Edgar Schein in commenting on the range of OD interventions that have become part of mainstream organisational life – change management, conflict resolution, team building and better communications are just four of a longer list of examples. Even OD interventions that start as partnerships with external consultants – and partnerships is exactly what they must be – can leave a lasting impact in focusing attention on the importance on the role of human systems in achieving organisational objectives and sustainability: an external HR consultant could – in bringing their potential contribution to senior leaderships’ attention – be the best present an HR function buys itself.

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