Defining OD: What is it and is HR doing enough?

Confusion abounds about what organisational development is, who should be doing it, and why

"What’s this OD malarkey I keep hearing so much about lately?" The question might be asked casually enough, as an HR professional sits down to browse the Web, or flick through a textbook or two. It might even be their opening gambit to a group of other HR practitioners…

What will greet them is likely to be anything but simple though. And could leave them feeling more than a little overwhelmed, if not slightly sore of head.

“It’s how the constituent parts of the organisation relate to each other and create the conditions for improvement – in a directional way, or by understanding the system well enough to allow it to grow more organically,” says membership director at the CIPD David D’Souza, a former OD practitioner himself, in response to this question from HR magazine.

He adds: “That’s a really long definition, which is part of the problem.”

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“There’s about 50 different definitions of organisational development,” concedes Linda Holbeche, adjunct professor at Imperial College, former research and policy director at the CIPD and former director of research and strategy at Roffey Park. “It depends on the different schools of thought.”

This, as D’Souza alludes to, is partly why still nowhere near enough HR people have a good handle on what organisational development (OD) is.

“OD capability is still the missing skill for HR,” says Paul Sparrow, emeritus professor of international HRM at Lancaster University Management School. “Some of the larger multinationals have trained their HR people in OD, but it’s still relatively few.”

While a few plucky HR professionals will have cottoned on and sought out relevant personal development in OD themselves (or will have benefited from landing in an HR department wise to the power of OD) they’re still sadly in the minority, agrees Holbeche.

“It’s never been seen as core to CIPD qualifications for example; it’s been an optional extra,” she says.

“So you’ve got this generation of people for whom their understanding of how to bring about change in their organisation – how to shift the employment relationship, how to build the foundations of employee engagement – is not what it could be… It’s never been seen as central to HR.”

This could prove even more of an issue in today’s operating climate and wider socio-economic and political environment, according to many. If there was ever a time to become highly skilled in OD now is apparently it.

Which also explains why the term may be making it on to the radars of previously unaware and uninitiated HR professionals –not least in the form of a new set of professional standards being launched this month by the CIPD, to rectify the situation bemoaned by Holbeche and many others over the years.

A complicated history

So what exactly is OD and why is it increasingly important for HR? Confusion and obliviousness around OD still reigning in HR circles is perhaps unsurprising given OD’s illustrious and long history. Most people don’t realise that the discipline actually emerged after the Second World War, explains Holbeche.

“Many of the leading thinkers were German Jews caught up in the Holocaust; people like Kurt Lewin,” she explains. “They came away from those appalling experiences thinking: ‘how did human beings come to do these things to one another in such a mechanistic way?"

So a lot of the language around OD is understanding how mindsets develop… There’s been tonnes of OD stuff happening, mostly in the States, from about 1946 until now.”

Holbeche adds that “people involved in OD were typically not HR people. They’d be strategists or anthropologists, or system engineers…” HR didn’t arrive to the party until the ‘90s – in recognition that major restructures kickstarted by globalisation and outsourcing hadn’t worked so well from a people point of view.

“So HR got interested in OD quite late in the day, when problems started to occur with things like low morale and lousy productivity… The awareness started to build around the importance of engagement, but also how you have to think about what else might be happening in the organisation that might affect this,” says Holbeche.

For her good OD is about: “Working largely with groups but not just with groups to help them develop new understandings, new behaviours, new ways of relating to each other and the business, such that they’re able to help the organisation succeed.

“This isn’t a mechanical way of working, but recognising that all the bits of the system – whether it’s the shareholders, executives or resources – have a knock-on effect on the work and the people delivering that work,” she adds.

“That’s why the field of OD is pretty vast and can become complicated. Because it pulls in things like business strategy, the environment, the pressures on businesses and adopting new technologies… dealing with political uncertainties like Brexit.”

For Gervase Bushe, professor of leadership and organization development at the Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, it’s about ongoing improvement, development and learning. What it’s not about is simply ‘managing change’.

“One of the things that happened in OD in both the US and the UK was that in the ‘80s when other competing techniques for creating great teams and organisations appeared – like lean manufacturing and process re-engineering – OD began to be increasingly identified with change,” he reports. “Which was unfortunate in the long run for OD because that in many ways created the lack of clarity around what it is.

“OD is a never-ending process because the situation keeps changing and any solution to a problem creates a new problem, so it’s a dialectical process,” he adds. “It’s always ongoing if you’re doing it well… The capacity to learn and perform at the same time is a big paradox… but at the core of OD is engagement and enquiry. That’s how we create learning in the midst of performing.”

OD and complexity

Which is ever more important in today’s climate, asserts Bushe: “As the world becomes increasingly complex we need leaders that are increasingly complex. That’s one of the reasons OD is re-emerging and gaining more profile.

It’s this recognition of the need for human development past the stage that was effective for bureaucratic organising, to ones that are networked and more organically run”.

Executive vice president and group HR and comms director at Skanska UK, Harvey Francis (who came to HR through falling in love with OD) agrees.

“In this VUCA world the complexity of what people are facing is so much greater than even 10 years ago,” he says. “And you’ve got different generational approaches now that turn approaches to the world of work on their heads; it changes the balance of power between the employer and employee.”

Paul Taylor-Pitt is assistant director of organisational development at NHS Employers and led the creation of a movement called ‘Do OD’, designed to help NHS OD professionals ‘connect, share, learn and grow’.

He points to an evolving health landscape and changing demographics as drivers for the rise of OD within healthcare. “The population is changing so we’re having to move from a fix and cure system to one that supports people to look after their own health and manage their own conditions,” he says. “And the change is more constant.”

Unfortunately elsewhere, even among HR practitioners who are familiar with the term and its tenants – and even among some who have this in their job title – many aren’t doing what others would perhaps term ‘proper OD’.

“I think there are many HRDs who’ve inherited the OD responsibility but still struggle to know what it is,” says Steve Benfield, chief executive of the Institute for Organisational Development, which was recently given government go-ahead to become the professional body for OD. (Indeed this new Institute itself has attracted criticism from some for not practising the field according to its true, perhaps more complex, roots.)

Just as people often conflate OD with change, there’s still much confusion within HR about what the ‘organisational’ part means, laments Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, founder of Quality and Equality and longstanding ‘scholar-educator-practitioner’ in the field.

“A lot of people think they’re doing OD but they’re doing it without the ‘O’,” she points out. “They have elements of OD and even embrace OD values… But there’s no strategic content. So you’ve really engaged people with the change but you haven’t investigated what needs to change from the customer’s point of view, you haven’t benchmarked the competitive position of the organisation…”

She adds that there is still a worrying level of confusion between OD as denoting ‘organisational development’, and OD as ‘organisational design’. Indeed the CIPD’s been criticised for focusing chiefly on the design side of things.

“HR people are being trained just in organisational design, which is quite sad to me because that’s only a subset of organisational development,” says Cheung-Judge. HR is then tasked only with putting in “the structural elements like job descriptions, new reward mechanisms, and new performance management systems,” explains Holbeche.

While those “do affect people’s behaviours”, she says, it creates a disconnect if no thought has been given to wider organisational development, meaning “people are often put into structures but not given the skills they need to do the new job, or not communicated with very well about what they’re meant to be contributing.”

When is OD ‘strategic HR’?

As to why it’s taken the CIPD so long in some people’s eyes to embrace such a potentially valuable discipline, and to move away from the purely ‘design’ side of things, D’Souza responds: “It’s not feedback I don’t recognise”. But he adds that “the organisation’s made great strides and part of that learning has been that the best L&D solutions come as part of a systemic solution; and the best HR solutions do as well.

“Whether that’s been recognised as a discipline over the past few years is less important than the fact we now recognise that it should be at the heart of every professional standard,” he says.

Which means the body is “completely updating its profession map” so that eventually all materials, training and support will be geared around these new OD standards.

But what many HR professionals might find themselves pondering as they learn more about these new standards (and indeed in relation to all of the descriptions of ‘true OD’ above), is that all of this sounds uncannily similar to what they – in line with the evolution of the wider profession over recent years – already do day to day.

Professionals sitting at the strategic end of HR should already be heavily focused on how every element of the organisation interacts in complex ways, and on ongoing, continual change and improvement.

Holbeche agrees there may well be many skilled HR professionals practising OD without necessarily knowing it. “Many of the things we take for granted as normal stuff, like team working and conflict mediation, are OD things and they’ve been around so long people don’t recognise them as part of the field,” she explains.

“There are a lot of people doing HR work where actually what they’re doing is OD, we just don’t call it that,” agrees Lancaster University’s Sparrow. “The question becomes: at what point does OD stop being a centre of excellence specialism and to what extent does it become what HR does as HR at its best?” muses Marijke Cazemier, director of organisational effectiveness at Inmarsat.

So discussion of the importance of OD in HR is perhaps analogous to those wider debates rumbling on for several years on the emergence of the function into two distinct disciplines: the transactional and the strategic sides.

This is very much how the HR department is now split at Inmarsat. “You always need that hard side, but in combination with the development and change management processes and systems, to ensure the business can meet its competitive needs,” Cazemier says.

“What I’ve noticed over the past say five to 10 years of my career is that the generalist HR role is changing. It’s no longer about the transactional anymore…”

But there is still a difference for many between impressive, strategic people practice and HR consciously and deliberately informed by OD. The chief difference, explains former Time Inc HRD Lesley Swarbrick, is the very conscious approach taken by an OD practitioner to realise the complex interaction between the self and the group, and as part of that the impact of what the OD practitioner themselves might be bringing to any given dynamic.

“It’s really very intentional,” she says. “Everything you’ve done you need to know why you’ve done it. I don’t mean by having a set plan; you have a loose structure and framework and it kind of emerges and evolves as you go.

“And it’s the idea that you not only think about the technical information, but also what you’re putting into the mix. Because even if you’re an outsider [to a group or organisation] you’re bringing something in. So you better know what that is.”

“You’re a bit like a divining instrument in an organisation,” says Vanessa Williams, course director for the HR Business Partner Skills Programme at Roffey Park. “You learn how to use the data that comes to you through your senses to work out what’s going on in the organisation.”

Her colleague, course director of the Organisational Development Practitioners programme at Roffey Park, Cindy Cox adds: “You need to understand your own triggers so they’re not having an impact without you knowing, and so they’re not having an unwanted impact. Then you can understand what’s your reaction, and what’s actually sitting in the room; so it’s separating the oil and water.”

Learning the ropes

All attempts to upskill in OD must be strongly informed by this element of self-awareness. Which has inevitably been a large part of the problem when it comes to HR professionals developing their capabilities.

Learning a new technical discipline – even a very academic one – can often be done on a course or by delving into the literature. But gaining OD capability is necessarily more involved, explains Bushe.

“It’s about being able to step into a high-anxiety situation and not get caught up in the transference taking place; being able to notice your own anxiety but not get caught up in it. And that’s not something you can learn in a classroom,” he says. “Good OD people have done deep experiential learning, not just textbook learning. There’s that commitment to personal growth.”

“People will gain much more from job shadowing; working with an OD professional who works with the business and then next time doing it themselves,” feels Cazemier. “That’s probably a lot more practical and useful to a lot of HR generalists than training courses.”

“There’s probably no substitute for actually doing the role,” agrees Martyn Dicker, former director of people and learning at The Prince’s Trust and now founder of The POD Consultancy.

“When I got the role at Fairtrade [in 2011] initially I was just HRD, but then we were going through massive change and so what was expected of me was a lot more on the OD side of things.

"I was fortunate to be trusted to cut my teeth on this stuff at Fairtrade.” This did also involve a fair amount of in-depth reading and studying, and taking a course, in Dicker’s case.

Indeed being part of a carefully-crafted group experience on a training course can be an important part of ‘learning by doing’, says Cox. “That’s where the group itself becomes the laboratory for learning,” she says. “We’re using models and theory but bringing it to life in the room. There’s knowing about OD, but there’s also ‘feeling about OD’ and having immersive experiences.”

“Books are also still a really good way to learn this stuff though,” adds Cazemier. “And I think sometimes we don’t read enough in HR.”

What HR must potentially be wary of when immersing themselves in OD, however, is the role of the consultant in all of this. The danger is that less-reputable consultants, with one particular way of doing things or tool, will roll this out regardless of whether it suits the context, says Cheung-Judge.

“We’ve seen a complete resurrection of the tendency to want tools. But with the world getting so complex you can’t rely on tools and formulas anymore,” she says. “The danger is that anyone can call themselves an OD consultant,” adds Bushe.

This issue is also, says head of organisation development and research at Allianz Richard Cotter, that consultants often end up ‘doing the doing’, something that sits at odds with building capability in all relevant stakeholders – who are the ones best-placed, because of their in-depth knowledge of the organisation, to implement change.

“To say there are problems with consultants doesn’t mean they don’t add value,” says Cotter. “But if you allow them too much scope they undermine your credibility. If you’re constantly outsourcing you’re not developing those skills.”

This approach from some consultants is particularly dangerous because, for OD to be truly effective, these skillsets must be embedded throughout the organisation – much less likely if portioned off to one external troubleshooter.

“If you have an HR business partner model they all need to be senior HR practitioners,” asserts Dicker. “Otherwise you end up with business partners dealing with changes and one lone OD person saying ‘that’s not right, that won’t work’.”

“Although I don’t expect them to be leaders on it all, my business partners have had training on this,” concurs Kerry Smith, director of people and organisational development at the British Heart Foundation. “We do expect them to be internal consultants to see where OD is needed.”

Inmarsat has taken this a step further. The business has OD champions in a range of functions. “They’re not HR people,” explains Cazemier. “Because if you just do it from an HR perspective it’s probably never going to do very much. I can come up with wonderful frameworks but it has to resonate in the business.”

Making OD accessible

To come back to the knotty issue of defining OD, this is where HR and OD professionals will need to think very carefully about how to make it resonate with colleagues. “There are so many theories and models and that puts chief executives for example, off,” says Smith. “That’s where you need a light touch and to find a language that works for the audience.”

Allianz’s Cotter stresses the importance of making OD accessible. “If you’re practising OD you don’t have the luxury, if you can call it that, of tossing around different definitions,” he says. “You’ve got to hang your hat on something that’s practical and inclusive. Because I think one of OD’s problems is it doesn’t sell itself very well… OD has to be economic within a commercial entity.”

“Our definition at the NHS is we’re about enabling people to transform systems,” says Taylor-Pitt. “So it’s a one-sentence definition but it took us a while to get there. It depends who’s asking what the definition is. If you take it a level deeper it’s about behavioural science, the amplification of humanity in organisations and systems. But ultimately it’s about helping the organisation achieve its goals.”

In some situations selling the commercial or operational necessity of OD to a senior leadership team won’t be the issue, however. One of the main drivers behind a rise in OD, for Francis, besides the quickening pace of wider technological, economic and political change, is that more CEOs are becoming alive to its power and demanding this expertise from others.

“The other thing driving the change is more informed CEOs and boards, who are recognising that they need OD because the old ways of working just aren’t cutting it anymore,” says Francis.

Which means that some HR professionals, persuaded of the value of OD and keen to upskill, may sit in organisations with significant OD capability already and perhaps a distinct OD function separate from HR. Cue much debate regarding where OD should sit and who should ‘own’ it.

But for Roffey Park’s Cox “the ownership of OD is possibly a bit of a red herring if we’re interested in organisational effectiveness”. “I think we can get in our own way a bit when we think: we must retain this, we must defend our territory and make sure we get there first,” she says.

Holbeche recommends that if someone else is already doing OD, HR should take this as the starting point for their own learning journey. “Work alongside those already doing it,” she advises.

She adds that HR folk not doing this could be left behind. Again it boils down to wider debates around the profession’s future, and whether it seizes the opportunity to contribute strategically or gets relegated in some quarters to administrative obscurity, feel many.

“I would argue that if HR doesn’t start to move in that direction then ultimately, as has happened in some corporations, it’s OD that sits on the board not HR,” says Holbeche. “HR people have to really notice the carriage is starting to move out of the station and jump on the train.”

Issues of HR influence aside, many would point to the danger of OD not being done effectively if HR isn’t a significant stakeholder. “The danger is that non-HR people might not have some of the underlying knowledge on the people management side,” asserts Sparrow. “Operations people might not realise how what they’re manipulating could create all sorts of behaviours and side-effects.”

Time to do OD

So the time for HR to seize the mantle and become part of these conversations – if not lead them – is now. OD’s recent resurgence (or rise to even higher prominence) in HR circles is only going to pick up speed. The need for really smart, expert OD intervention is only going to intensify.

“OD is an idea whose time has come,” asserts Cotter. “It started in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and died off a little, and now it’s coming back. The world has always been discontinuous and there’s always been change. But I think it’s now more complex than ever.”

What is needed, urges Cheung-Judge, is sustained focus from HR professionals to continually keep these skillsets sharpened and front of mind. “It’s like anything. If you don’t teach Rolls-Royce engineers from entry point and keep giving them excellence training regularly it will get lost.”

She sounds a hopeful note around achieving such a sustained focus: “We are seeing the efforts of 12 years ago, with the NHS’ OD plan for example,” she says. “So it is trickling through… But people leave organisations so we must be vigilant.”

A hugely important part of sustaining good OD in the NHS for Taylor-Pitt has been forming the Do OD group not just as a space for learning, but so practitioners can support each other in what is ultimately a demanding discipline, and one that doesn’t always gain the recognition it perhaps deserves.

“A few years ago people were feeling isolated, they were having to sustain their own energy,” he says. “So we’ve been working together to give people a network to grow, and to create resources that the community needs.”

The ultimate reward for those HR professionals that do keep these skillsets polished and core to their practice is a much more effective and fulfilling career, feels Francis.

“It’s the bit that gets me out of bed in the morning. Because it’s the bit that makes the real difference and ultimately is how we will help organisations survive, be sustainable and deliver returns for shareholders – and also make somewhere a great place to work and develop a career,” he says. “It ticks so many boxes in terms of creating a healthy sustainable organisation.”

And if that’s not a persuasive call to arms to ‘do OD’ we don’t know what is.