· Features

Building organisational development capability: swimming and flying

With the closure of the News of the World last week – and the media attention - yet another deeply shocking scandal rocks the corporate world with repercussions and retributions extending to the highest political level, public trust, already at a low following the banking crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandals, is further dented.

People fear there has been a widespread loss of integrity and values in public and corporate life and organisational development (OD), rooted in humanistic values, has an important role to play.

From its post-war origins in combating worker alienation resulting from scientific management principles, to a modern day practice of enabling whole system change in order to increase organisational effectiveness, OD offers an unashamedly values-driven approach to developing healthy organisations.

The continued fascination with OD is partly down to its ability to reinvent itself with new approaches and techniques. While it still draws heavily on the behavioural sciences it is equally at home with the new sciences such as complexity and chaos theory, which offer new ways of thinking about our turbulent economic environment. It is also partly due to the difficulty that people have in describing what OD is. For some OD retains a mystique, not fitting easily into any one function but rather working in between and at or across the traditional boundaries of functions and organisations.

The title of IES' first phase of research, Fish or Bird? Perspectives on Organisational Development, reflects the highly contextual and multi-faceted nature of OD. It also clearly shows that individual practitioners bringing a variety of skills, knowledge, approaches, tools and personal experience, ensure that the scope and feel of OD initiatives look and feel very different in every organisation.

The absence of any real career path, standard qualification or professional home for OD means that it can prove frustrating for those seeking to develop a career in OD and perplexing for leaders looking to develop OD capability in their organisations. Our latest report Learning to swim, learning to fly: building a career in OD, therefore, has investigated what it means to be an OD professional and offers some practical advice gleaned from those who have been successful in the field.

We captured the stories of three experienced senior OD professionals and talked with them about the influences in their lives and careers, from their educational choices, people and thinkers who have influenced them, key turning points and career decisions. Only one had gone through the personnel/HR route but they had all acquired expertise along the way that enabled them to understand what makes an organisation work. Some of the specific skills they brought to OD were: commercial awareness to engage with the business and strategy; process improvement and re-engineering experience; organisation design; cultural understanding and diversity awareness from international postings; strong relationship building and partnering ability; operational experience and audit skills.

As organisations wrestle with complexity and turbulence, OD professionals who can work at this level are much in demand. But as one public sector HR manager said, 'surely people who can do these things are highly paid and with McKinsey!' There is, however, often more capability within an organisation that is initially apparent and potential change champions can be found in all kinds of roles and at all levels. Practitioners told us that there are four key things to look for:

People who think differently: they understand social dynamics and politics (small 'p'); they stay open to a variety of models, frameworks and ways of working; they are analytical and are good at interpreting and making connections.

People who do things differently: they listen, question, challenge 'compassionately' and coach others.

People who relate well to others, build relationships and consult. They are networkers, collaborators, work across teams and boundaries and work through others.

People who are self-aware, curious, show emotional intelligence, intuition, integrity and personal presence.

This raises the question of whether OD practitioners are born or made. The answer, of course, is a bit of both. Organisations wanting to build OD capacity should first look at what capability they have internally that could be nurtured through corporate or change projects and development or by working alongside an experienced OD practitioner. A broad range of operational experience, a good grasp of theory and a well-stocked tool kit are all important basics but there is something too about an 'OD mindset'.

Successful OD practitioners are curious about people, intuitive about intangibles, willing to take risks, tolerant of ambiguity and want to make a different in organisations.

Valerie Garrow, principal associate fellow, Institute of Employment Studies