Organization Development: Part 2, No Theory

Continuing from yesterday's theme one reason why there is confusion around organization development (OD) definition is that there is a lack of an underpinning theory that would give rise to a consistent, coherent, bounded, but perhaps 'agile' or 'adaptive' one. Linda Holbeche calls OD "a 'scavenger' discipline". Going on to say, "It is an eclectic field that borrows from many other disciplines and theories". (Impact, Issue 26).

So, is it an issue that there are no rigorous or unifying theories of OD – as there are theories of philosophy, religion, or medicine? Well yes, if there were a body of work that formed the basis of yardsticks for judgment and comparison, it would make for easier distinction between the types of practitioners – in the same way that, say, once someone with a medical issue is clear that they are interested in acupuncture over homeopathy, they can select the practitioner based on other factors (location, price, 'chemistry', reputation, etc). Alternatively it may not be an issue if the OD practitioner him or herself can be specific about what his/her form of OD looks and feels like in practice – in order to give potential clients accurate information on whether, to continue the analogy, they are getting a homeopathic practitioner or an acupuncturist to cure their headaches.

Can individual OD consultants give this clarity? Well, possibly but it is unlikely to be in a way that benefits the client because without the common background in an underpinning theory, an accepted 'language', and a track record in achievement of one approach over another, it is difficult for a client to comparison shop. This inability to compare is, I think, compounded because in the words of the Oregon OD Network "OD consultants come from varied backgrounds with experience and training in applied behavioral science, cultural anthropology, organization development, organization behavior, psychology, adult education, social work, management and/or human resources". I'm not arguing against diversity and richness of difference but I do wonder whether the doors are open for anyone to set up an OD shop shielded from the disciplines of a collective professionalism.

Does this matter? Not necessarily, because, in my experience, OD consultants have a 'tool kit' of approaches often derived from a training course here, or a book there. (Think Appreciative Inquiry, NLP, Family Constellations, Open Space, Future Conference, etc) and deploy the ones they feel most comfortable with. Many of these programs have their own certifications and attract people with high personal standards and ethics. Practitioners in these various approaches can be apparently very successful and make good incomes – although as we know it is a difficult task to evaluate the effectiveness of their outcomes.

However, I don't think this is enough. Before there are howls of indignation let me state firmly that I am not decrying this toolkit approach. I have an extensive toolkit myself derived in just the way I've said. And for each individual consultant it is usually a sufficient toolkit and experience to be convincing, and professional. But is it enough to be collectively convincing and professional? No, I don't think so. Why? Because, like it or not, businesses require measurable standards, codes of ethics, and other paraphernalia of 'professional standing' against which to evaluate performance or promised results from the professionals in the discipline that they are hiring.