The story of organization development

The story of organization development

There are three chapters in the story of organizational development: the original version of the 1960s and 70s, the extensions and modifications to the original approach in the 1980s and 90s, and the new look at organization development of the 2000s.

The first chapter – the original version

Organization development emerged as the ‘OD’ movement in the 1960s. It was based on the strong humanistic values of its early founders, who wanted to improve the conditions of people’s lives in organizations by applying behavioural science knowledge. Its origins can be traced to the writings of behavioural scientists such as Lewin (1947, 1951) on group dynamics (the improvement of group processes through various forms of training, eg team building, interactive skills training, T-groups) and change management. Other behavioural scientists included Maslow (1954) who produced his needs theory of motivation, Herzberg et al (1957) who wrote about the motivation to work, and Argyris (1957) who emphasized the need to plan for integration and involvement. McGregor (1960) produced his ‘Theory Y’, which advocates the recognition of the needs of both the organization and the individual on the basis that, given the chance, people will not only accept but seek responsibility. Likert (1961) added his theory of supportive relationships.

The two founders of the organization development movement were Beckhard (1969) who probably coined the term, and Bennis (1969) who, according to Buchanan and Huczynski (2007: 575), described OD as a ‘truth, trust, love and collaboration approach’. Ruona and Gibson (2004: 53) explained that:

Early OD interventions can be categorized as primarily focusing on individuals and interpersonal relations. OD was established as a social philosophy that emphasized a long-term orientation, the applied behavioural sciences, external and process-oriented consultation, change managed from the top, a strong emphasis on action research and a focus on creating change in collaboration with managers.

The objectives, assumptions and values of the original version of OD

As originally conceived, OD programmes aimed to increase the effectiveness of the various processes that take place in organizations, especially those relating to the ways in which people work together. It was also concerned with improving the quality of people’s working lives. The original OD philosophy was that of humanism – the belief that human factors are paramount in the study of organizational behaviour. This had its roots in the conclusions reached from the Hawthorne studies of 1924 to 1932 (Mayo, 1933; Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939) that the productivity of workers increases when someone they respect takes an interest in them. The focus then turned to the needs of people as individuals and in groups with an emphasis on process – how people worked together and how this could be improved. The assumptions and values of OD were that:

  • Most individuals are driven by the need for personal growth and development as long as their environment is both supportive and challenging.
  • The work team, especially at the informal level, has great significance for feelings of satisfaction, and the dynamics of such teams have a powerful effect on the behaviour of their members.
  • Organizations can be more effective if they learn to diagnose their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Managers often do not know what is wrong and need special help in diagnosing problems, although the outside ‘process consultant’ ensures that decision-making remains in the hands of the client.

Traditional OD programmes

OD during this time was practised predominantly by external consultants working with senior managers. Personnel specialists were not involved to any great extent. OD programmes consisted then of ‘interventions’ such as those listed below. In OD jargon an intervention is a planned activity designed to improve organizational effectiveness or manage change. The following are the traditional OD interventions; they still feature in current programmes:

  • Process consultation– helping clients to generate and analyse information that they can understand and, following a thorough diagnosis, act upon. The information relates to organizational processes such as inter-group relations, interpersonal relations and communications.
  • Change management– often using the techniques advocated by Lewin (1951), which consisted of processes of managing change by unfreezing, changing and freezing, and force-field analysis (analysing and dealing with the driving forces that affect transition to a future state).
  • Action research– collecting data from people about process issues and feeding it back in order to identify problems and their likely causes as a basis for an action plan to deal with the problem.
  • Appreciative enquiry– a methodology that does not focus entirely on finding out what is wrong in order to solve problems. Instead it adopts the more positive approach of identifying ‘best practices’ – what is working well – and using that information as a basis for planning change. It can be associated with action research.
  • Survey feedback– a variety of action research in which data is systematically collected about the system through attitude surveys and workshops leading to action plans.
  • Group dynamics– improving the ways in which people work together by means of programmes that aim to increase the effectiveness of groups through various forms of training, eg team building, interactive skills training and T-groups (‘training groups’, which aim to increase sensitivity, diagnostic ability and action skills).
  • Personal interventions– developing interpersonal skills through such processes as transactional analysis (an approach to understanding how people behave and express themselves through transactions with others), behaviour modelling (the use of positive reinforcement and corrective feedback to change behaviour) and neurolinguistic programming or NLP (teaching people to programme their reactions to others and develop unconscious strategies for interacting with them).

The second chapter – criticisms of the original version of OD and new approaches

The OD movement as originally conceived and practised was characterized by what Buchanan and Huczynski (2007: 559) called ‘quasi-religious values’ with some of the features of a religious movement, which, they claimed, is one reason why it has survived as a concept in spite of the criticisms that began to be levelled at it in the 1980s. Weidner (2004: 39) wrote that: ‘OD was something that practitioners felt and lived as much as they believed’ (original emphasis).

Criticisms of OD

One of the earliest critics was McLean (1981: 4) who noted ‘the moral and ethical misgivings concerned with the development of what might be regarded as a sophisticated science of manipulation’. He cited a comment by Strauss (1976) that at times OD is little more than abstract moralization and asserted that:

It is becoming increasingly apparent that there exists a considerable discrepancy between OD as practised and the prescriptive stances taken by many OD writers… The theory of change and change management which is the foundation of most OD programmes is based on over-simplistic generalizations which offer little specific guidance to practitioners faced with the confusing complexity of a real change situation. (ibid: 13)

Armstrong (1984: 113) commented that: ‘Organization development has lost a degree of credibility in recent years because the messianic zeal displayed by some practitioners has been at variance with the circumstances and real needs of the organization.’ Burke (1995: 8) stated that ‘in the mid-1970s, OD was still associated with T-groups, participative management and consensus, Theory Y, and self-actualization – the soft human, touchy-feely kinds of activities’.

An even more powerful critic was Legge (1995: 212), who observed that the OD rhetoric fitted the era of ‘flower power’ and that: ‘OD was seen, on the one hand as a form of devious manipulation, and on the other as “wishy-washy” and ineffectual.’ She noted ‘the relative lack of success of OD initiatives in effecting major and lasting cultural change, with the aim of generating commitment to new values in the relatively small number of organizations in which it was tried’ (ibid: 213), and produced the following devastating critique.

The third chapter – changing the focus

The most significant change in the 2000s was the shift to a strategic perspective. As noted by Cummins and Worley (2005: 12): ‘Change agents have proposed a variety of large-scale or strategic-change models; each of these models recognizes that strategic change involves multiple layers levels of the organization and a change in its culture, is driven from the top by powerful executives, and has important effects on performance.’ They also commented that the practice of organization development therefore went far beyond its humanistic origins. Another development was the emergence of the concept of ‘smart working’. This could be described as an OD intervention because it involves taking a fundamental look at methods of improving organizational effectiveness.

There was also more emphasis on associating organization design with organization development. Marsh et al (2010) suggested that organization design and organization development need to be merged into one HR capability, with organization design taking precedence. They considered that this should all be brought in-house as a necessary part of the business model innovation process. But as they observed: ‘We do not believe that the field of organization development has passed its sell-by date. Far from it. It just needs to be repositioned as an HR capability’ (ibid: 143).

However, Weidner (2004: 37) made the following more pessimistic comment about OD: ‘Unfortunately, after sixty years – despite the best efforts and intentions of many talented people – OD finds itself increasingly at the margins of business, academe, and practice. The field continues to affirm its values, yet has no identifiable voice.’ OD ‘interventions’ still have a role to play in improving performance but as part of an integrated business and HR strategy planned and implemented by HR in conjunction with senior management, with or without outside help.

The main change that has taken place in the move from traditional OD to organizational development as practised currently is the focus on improving organizational performance and results through organization-wide initiatives. These do encompass the behaviour of people, especially when this relates to their levels of engagement (the degree to which people are committed to their work and the organization and motivated to achieve high levels of performance). But they are also concerned with the organizational processes that affect behaviour and engagement, namely, strategic HRM, work system design, smart working, high-performance working, organization design and job design.

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