What is Organization Development? Part 1: Definition

I still can't answer the question 'What is organisation development?" and it's a question that I am asked a lot, particularly in terms of the relationship and distinction between organisation design and organisation development – but let's just stick with talking about the latter.

This bafflement was brought into focus again yesterday when I was asked to comment on a discussion paper "HR's role in developing OD solutions to manage change" and then complete a survey on OD. (This is open for anyone to do).

There are some reasons why I can't answer the question partly because as a researcher pointed out "It is a complicated topic … in which there appear to be some strong and opposing views."

Looking at this more closely there are three reasons why this is the case:

  • There are too many definitions, they are too different and they are not pointed enough.
  • There is no coherent or unified underpinning OD theory.
  • There is no method of rigorously evaluating the outcomes of an OD 'intervention'.

I'll cover each of these in three different posts. Starting today with the definition.

The current standard definition appears to be:

"Organization development is a system-wide application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures, and processes fthat lead to organization effectiveness." Cummings, T.G, and Worley, C.G. (2008) Organization development and change.

But this is an all things to all people definition. What would a client make of it? How does it adequately describe being able to solve an organizational problem quickly, simply, cheaply? A more straightforward definition appears in the Roffey Park Institute's report Best Practice in OD Evaluation.

OD describes activities engaged in by stakeholders in order to build and maintain the health of an organisation as a total system. It is characterised by a focus on behavioural processes and humanistic values. It seeks to develop problem solving ability and explore opportunities for growth.

The UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) struggling with a definition of OD has a useful paper that "seeks to clarify confusion around the term [OD]" suggesting themes common to most definitions:

OD applies to changes in the strategy, structure, and/or processes of an entire system, such as an organisation, a single plant of a multi-plant firm, a department or work group, or individual role or job.

  • OD is based on the application and transfer of behavioural science knowledge and practice (such as leadership, group dynamics and work design), and is distinguished by its ability to transfer such knowledge and skill so that the system is capable of carrying out more planned change in the future.
  • OD is concerned with managing planned change, in a flexible manner that can be revised as new information is gathered.
  • OD involves both the creation and the subsequent reinforcement of change by institutionalising change. OD is orientated to improving organisational effectiveness by: helping members of the organisation to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to solve problems by involving them in the change process, and by promoting high performance including financial returns, high quality products and services, high productivity, continuous improvement and a high quality of working life.

Lack of definition makes it difficult for Organization Development consultants to say precisely what they do in a way that lends itself to what clients are interested in – ROI discussions, cost/benefit analysis, defense by rigorous quantitative analytics, and any of the other data driven, numeric metrics beloved by the Chief Financial Officer, or line managers determining how to apportion their budgets? (See Davenport, T. H. (2006).Competing on Analytics, Harvard Business Review, January)