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The state we are in: how the field of people and organisational and development has contributed to this and how might it help us get out of it?

The definition of organisational development has evolved over time, from a rather mechanistic, top-down, 'board knows best' approach to the recognition that the organisation is a far more complex, organic system that requires a holistic, people-focused and inclusive approach to create meaningful, sustainable change. This shift in perspective also informs and impacts the way we develop the individuals who make up our organisations.

Yet while the definition of the field has clearly moved on, a retrospective analysis of the global recession - the most obvious definition of ‘the state we're in' - suggests that real-world practice has not always made such obvious strides in some of the companies at the heart of the modern world's interdependent economy.

I will argue that the field of people and organisational development has contributed to the state we are in through failing to fully engage the companies in making the most of the latest and most effective practice in both of these areas.

First, the field has failed to successfully challenge and change many of the outdated assumptions about effective modern practice in organisational development that are made on a daily basis in the financial sector. At a recent recruitment conference, recruitment experts from a leading investment bank outlined their thinking. They had identified the personality types of the ‘high achievers' in their bank, the ambitious, go-getting risk-takers who had proved the most successful in their careers.  They were now using this as a model in a pattern-cutter fashion to identify new recruits.  From a holistic, complex-systems OD practitioner's perspective, this immediately raises some worrying questions. How would a team solely made up of one personality type work effectively together? How would such a limited corporate gene pool survive a sudden change in the external business environment?  Not one of the recruiters from the many leading firms in the room questioned the strategy: the simplistic, cookie-cutter approach appeared to make perfect sense to them.

This is far from an isolated example of the practice of organisational design remaining informed by an archaic definition of the field. A retrospective analysis of some of the key organisational factors that have contributed to the current global crisis using one of the modern OD practitioner's best-known analysis tools, the Burke-Letwin model, immediately suggests a wide range of possibilities for positive future change that have been overlooked in the wider political debate about life post-credit crunch. 


These include many of the more holistic and humanistic focuses - such as organisation culture, mission and strategy and individual needs and values - that might help foster a sense of responsibility and personal accountability that seems to have evaded the risk-takers in the over-exposed banks. Yet the public debate among bankers, politicians and commentators focuses overwhelmingly on the more mechanistic areas of organisational design: levers that can be easily - and visibly - pulled by those at the top, such as rules on compensation; and those levers that can push the responsibility further outside the banks onto the regulatory authorities. 

Second, in terms of personal development, the powerful means the field offers for engaging the strengths and motivations of individuals have failed dramatically to find their way into the majority of organisations. A recent study reported the proportion of disengaged employees is 70% in the UK and 57% in the US.  Other work details the significant economic costs of this disengagement. 

Despite this, a surprisingly small number of leading organisations seem prepared to take even small, simple steps that can make a powerful difference here. A fellow coach whose background is in internal talent development has been amazed to discover the lack of proactive interest from his executive clients' companies in having even a short conversation about how they can put their ideas and strengths into practice to create real value in their everyday work. This leaves many employees de-motivated, frustrated and keen to leave. Yet the solution can be swift and simple: many have been surprised and delighted to find themselves on ‘dream' projects - simply because, through coaching, they have been prompted to take the initiative themselves to identify and approach senior figures in their organisations with specific suggestions that they are passionate about. 

I have argued that the field - while offering fresh, relevant research and thinking - has not yet sufficiently influenced either the broader political debate or the organisations at the heart of our global economy. This is both the bad news and the good: the field's thinking offers powerful and valuable ways to innovate out of the state we are currently in, from diagnostic tools to improve the viability of our financial organisations to ways of engaging individuals to drastically increase their productivity, to name just two.  To see this realized, however, practitioners and academics must be prepared to act as wider change agents themselves, and apply the principles of their field to the wider ‘organisation' of society as a whole.   

For this to happen, the scope of the definition of the field itself needs to be widened to explicitly balance the current emphasis on outcomes that benefit the organisation with those that benefit the people who make up the organisations and the societies they serve. With the awareness that ‘what gets measured gets done', it is clear that without this balance, no matter how holistic and humanistic the approach aims to be, the end result is in danger of being crafted to serve the interests of the organisation over those of the individual. 

Holly Crane is career and professional development coach at Imperial College London.

Her essay was the winner in the HR magazine/Roffey Park competition and she has just started an MSc in People and Organisational Development at Roffey Park as her prize

Read Holly's blog at community.hrmagazine.co.uk