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Develop HR teams with an OD mindset

Some HR people make fantastic OD practitioners, many do not

Not many would dispute that strawberries are better with cream. They’re a winning combination. The same is true for HR and OD (organisational development). Both are important disciplines that have developed significantly over time. While HR is now seen as more strategic and influential, OD involves a systematic process of building organisational effectiveness and health simultaneously.

Having trained in OD early in my career, I’ve always seen both as important. But that’s not to say they’re the same. Some HR people make fantastic OD practitioners, many do not. I’m not surprised there’s constant debate about how the two work together.

To have the best of all worlds we have a number of options: bringing in OD consultants to do specific pieces of work or building in-house OD capability. But for me one of the best things we can do is develop our own HR teams with an OD mindset.

So how might this differ from our traditional approach? The HR/OD practitioner steps back and asks a series of questions to understand the wider context. This can take more time in the short term but certainly speeds up the process later.

That’s because we understand an organisation is made up of different systems that have their own unique cultures. How these groups work together (or don’t) has a major impact on the organisation’s ability to deliver its strategy. No one area can deliver alone. There’s always interdependency.

It’s important to collect data from these groups through surveys, workshops and interviews to understand what’s really going on. This not only produces a more sound diagnosis but actively involves everyone, working together, in creating solutions and the new future.

Unfortunately, you can’t plan transformation like you plan other HR projects. It’s helpful to have a rough framework, but this will change as you go and as you involve others.Things will emerge you hadn’t foreseen and you need to be flexible.

This can be one of the most challenging things for us as HR professionals. To accept that we don’t have all the answers at the beginning and instead believe that the process that emerges will be even better. I’ve found techniques such as Open Space (Harrison Owen), Appreciative Inquiry (David Cooperrider) and Future Search (Marvin Weisbord) are useful diagnostic and dialogical tools.

For example, we used Appreciative Inquiry at the BBC for a company-wide change initiative called ‘Making it happen’. Ideas came from all levels as to how we could make the BBC a better place. The same was true at Time Inc., where we used Future Search to help map the market.

I see our role as HR/OD practitioners becoming that of designers, data collectors and conductors. But we need to translate OD into the client’s world. We must avoid jargon or limited thinking, be eloquent without judgement, and not have to have expert answers. This includes the ability to say no, take risks, challenge the status quo, and not defer to senior people.

HR leaders need to:

  • Reposition our HR business teams. They know the organisation best and understand the context and culture.
  • Ensure that in-house HR and OD teams work together closely on the agenda and deliver joint interventions where possible.
  • Develop our HR teams through shadowing both in-house and external OD consultants.
  • Create networks with other HR/OD professionals both inside and outside the organisation.
  • Run regular workshops for teams on latest OD tools and thinking.
  • Recognise that OD is as much about the qualities of the practitioner as the interventions used.

The combination of the two approaches increases our impact and supports the leader and organisation better. HR and OD have a great future together.

Lesley Swarbrick is HR director at Time Inc.