Organizational development (OD) is a field of professional practice focused on facilitating organizational change and improvement. The theory and practice of OD is grounded in both the social and behavioral sciences. The field originated in the 1960s and has been evolving ever since. This evolution has been influenced by a wide range of disciplines including social psychology, group dynamics, industrial-organizational psychology, participative management theory, organization behavior, the sociology of organizations, and even clinical psychology.
As a result, the application of OD tools and methodologies (of which there are many) are carried out by a wide range of professionals. For example, although some I/O psychologists also consider themselves OD practitioners, there are many others practicing OD with for-profit and nonprofit client organizations with educational backgrounds as diverse as education, philosophy, training, the military, and human resources. In part, this level of diversity of backgrounds is because of an initial lack of agreement and formal training regarding the nature and boundaries of the field. Today, however, formal training in the field does exist, in doctoral and master’s-level programs as well as professional development curricula, including professional certification groups and training firms. In any case the value of the field of OD to continually embrace new perspectives, practitioners, and approaches is one of its defining characteristics; however, it is also a source of discussion among those currently practicing in and writing about the field.
Although there has been some debate over the last few decades as to what is and is not included under the definition of OD, many practitioners agree that the following definition captures the essence of the field: Organizational development is a planned process for driving humanistically oriented, system-based change in organizations through the use of social science theory and behaviorally based data collection and feedback techniques. This definition clearly reflects a number of specific assumptions. These include the importance of data and feedback to OD efforts, the notion of having a social systems perspective, and the humanistically oriented values-based nature of the field. Each assumption is described in more detail in the following text.
Data Driven Organizational Development
First, it is important to understand that OD is fundamentally a data-driven approach to organizational change. Although the source of that data can be quantitative or qualitative in nature, the information gathered and fed back to clients is an integral part of the OD consulting process. Unlike other types of consulting models, the OD approach is generally not prescriptive. In other words, there is no single model, technique, or solution that is consistently provided by OD practitioners. Rather, OD consulting projects are based on a participative approach. This approach is known as action research.
Conceptualized by Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist who specialized in studying group dynamics in the 1940s and 1950s, action research consists of the following stages:
- Systematically gathering data (of whatever form and using any number of tools and techniques) on the nature of an organizational problem or situation
- Analyzing that information to find key themes, patterns, and insights that tell a compelling story about the problem or situation in question
- Feeding back that analysis in a summary form of the results while engaging with the client to ensure ownership of the diagnosis of the problem
- Determining the appropriate intervention together based on a shared understanding of the issues
- Taking action to drive positive change in the organization or social system
Given this framework it is easy to understand how OD practitioners can use many different types of diagnostic tools and interventions to produce helpful insights and feedback. Many of these methods are also used by other types of social scientists and practitioners. The key difference when using these methodologies in an OD context is that the interpretation of the results and the determination of the intervention required is a shared process between practitioner and client, and the emphasis is on organizational improvement. Regardless of the methodology, the basic notion of using data-based feedback to move clients from their comfort zone and create a need for change is common to most OD efforts.
Systems Perspective on Organizational Development
The second major assumption inherent in the definition of OD is that the field is firmly grounded in social systems theory. From this perspective, each organization is conceptualized as a system of interdependent subsystems and components (e.g., people and systems related) that both influence each other and are influenced by the external environment in which they exist. This means that OD interventions are designed and implemented with a thorough understanding of the interplay between different factors in the organization that can either help or hinder the success of the change effort.
Although there are a number of different OD models reflecting systems theory, the Burke-Litwin model of organizational performance and change is one of the more comprehensive. Reflecting a systems thinking perspective, it outlines 12 distinct factors of organizations that need to be considered when designing and implementing any large-scale change effort. These factors reflect both transformational and transactional areas.
Transformational factors are those that are likely to be influenced by the external environment. When these factors are the focus of an OD-related change effort, new thinking and behaviors are typically required on the part of the individuals in that social system. These factors include the external environment, the mission and strategy of the organization, the senior leadership and what they represent, and the nature of the organizational culture. Changes in these factors (or a lack of alignment and integration among any of these during a change effort) tend to be more strategic and long term in nature and eventually create a ripple effect that drives change in other parts of the organization.
Transactional factors, in comparison, are those that are more day-to-day and short-term focused. These include elements such as the behaviors of middle management, the formal structure reflecting how managers and employees are organized, the systems and processes that reinforce the right types of behaviors (e.g., the performance appraisal process), work group climate, level of motivation, needs and values of employees, and finally the fit between employees and the jobs they are in.
All these factors and their interaction with one another ultimately influence both individual and organizational performance. As with most systems models, performance also has a subsequent impact on the external environment of that organization (e.g., competitors, industry regulations, economic trends, technology trends), which in turn affects the organization itself. In other words the systems approach to OD work reflects a constant feedback loop.
In sum, the systems approach is a unique aspect of OD that helps differentiate it from some of the more narrowly focused theory and practice areas of I/O psychology, human resource management, and organizational behavior. It also reflects a broader perspective for facilitating organizational change than many management consulting approaches, such as those of firms that focus only on structure or technology.
Values Based Organizational Development
The third defining characteristic of the field of OD, which is shared with I/O psychology, is the notion of a normative view to working with people and organizations. This means that the field and practice of OD is values-based in nature. Organizational development practitioners evaluate their efforts, including the choices of the clients they work with and the interventions they engage in, against a normative filter. In short, they ask this question of themselves: Will this effort result in a positive outcome for the organization and its employees?
Unlike some types of organizational consulting approaches that can be financially driven or very senior management focused, such as downsizing efforts or mergers and acquisitions, OD practitioners are particularly focused on the human relations component of their work. This means that for many, if the nature of the project will result in negative outcomes for a given set of employees, the OD practitioner is likely to turn down the project. Although counterintuitive from a business model perspective, this is one of the hallmarks of the OD profession and one of the key reasons why OD work is appealing to some people.
This emphasis on positivistic change is evident in areas such as the International OD Code of Ethics, sponsored by the Organization Development Institute, as well as described in many articles and books in the field. Although an area of debate for some, research has consistently shown that the majority of practitioners would endorse such OD values as improving the state of human dignity, democracy, honesty, integrity, and empowerment in organizations.
Overall, this normative filter helps OD practitioners balance the need for increasing organizational productivity and effectiveness (which is one of the most common reasons why an external or internal consultant would be engaged in the first place) with a humanistic values focus on helping improve the satisfaction and development of individuals in an organization.
Organizational Development Consulting Approach
Although it is important to understand the underpinnings of the field from a philosophical perspective, it is equally important to have a firm grasp of the tactical side of the OD profession. One of the best ways to do this is to understand the OD consulting model. There are seven phases to the OD consulting approach, which consist of
- data collection,
- data analysis,
- data feedback,
- intervention, and
This seven-phase model is particularly relevant for OD because it
- reinforces the centrality of data or information as a key component for driving change,
- shows where and when data should be used to inform decision making, and
- reflects a systems approach to thinking about issues and interventions.
Each of these phases of the OD consulting approach are described in the following text.
Entry represents the first meeting between the OD practitioner and the client. If an external consulting engagement, this is usually the first exposure to the overall social system, and as a result, represents an important first step in the consulting relationship. During this phase the OD practitioner and client determine their ability to work together collaboratively, and get a shared understanding of the issues or problems at hand. The quality of the relationship established during entry will determine whether or not the OD effort will occur.
Contracting is the phase where roles, expectations, and anticipated outcomes are agreed on between the OD practitioner and his or her client. Typically, this is where individual capabilities are reviewed and difficult questions are tested. For example, most OD consultants will discuss with their clients the difference between a symp-tom, such as the problem at hand that resulted in their being contacted, and a root cause including the real reason and best place for an intervention to occur.
Once entry and contracting are done, the OD practitioner next needs to determine a data-gathering strategy. The focus here is determining the best method, tool, or technique for gaining new insights into the issue or problem at hand. The collected data can be either quantitative or qualitative in nature, or some combination of both. Some of the most common OD-related methodologies include the following:
- Multisource or 360-degree feedback
- Organizational surveys
- Personality assessments
- Individual observations
- Interviews with key individuals
- Focus groups
- Process consultation during meetings
- Large-group interventions
- Appreciative inquiry
Once the data is collected, it needs to be analyzed. The nature of the analysis and the techniques applied will depend on
- the type of data collected,
- the analysis skills and experience of the OD practitioner, and
- the receptivity and sophistication of the client.
Analysis techniques can range from reporting simple averages or content code summaries of comments or observations; to sophisticated statistical modeling of relationships among key predictors, such as leadership behaviors and employee engagement; and outcome variables including regional sales, plant safety incidents, and executive turnover. Whatever the approach used, the outcome is the same. Organizational development practitioners are focused on determining the best analysis method to produce the most useful and actionable insights to share with their clients.
The next phase in the process is delivering the insights gleaned from the data collection and analysis with the client. From an OD perspective, it is important to work with the client during the feedback stage to help gain a shared understanding of the diagnosis rather than simply delivering the answer. As a result, one of the critical skills needed to be successful in the field of OD is the ability to tell a meaningful story with data. Although not delivering the answer per se, the OD practitioner does need to be able to convey the key findings from the data in a manner that brings the client along. This represents one of the unique aspects of the OD approach compared with other consulting models where the answer is clearly recommended during the feedback process. Organizational development practitioners are much more likely to suggest ideas and work together with their clients through the issues as a part of the feedback process. The focus here is delivering a compelling story that creates a need for change and a direction for that change. The discussion during the feedback stage is what leads to the selection of the appropriate intervention.
The intervention phase involves determining together the appropriate solution based on the data fed back and a shared understanding of its implications. The important point to remember here is that regardless of what intervention is chosen, the determination should be based on the issues identified in the data, and what the practitioner and client think will result in the most impact. This shared approach drives client ownership and commitment, which is critical to ensuring success of the OD change effort.
The last stage of an OD effort is a formal evaluation process. Although often overlooked by many consultants, it is a crucial step for both the client and the practitioner. From the client’s perspective, it is helpful toward quantifying the successful outcome of the effort. From the OD practitioner’s perspective, it represents both a measure of success and a key source of learning and development.
In sum, the theory and practice of OD represents a data-driven, systemic thinking, and values-based approach to helping improve organizations and the people that work in them. Fundamentally, the OD consulting model is collaborative in nature and grounded in data-based information.
- Burke, W. W. (1994). Organization development: A process of learning and changing (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Cummings, T., & Worley, C. (1997). Organization development and change (6th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.
- French, W. L., & Bell, C. H., Jr. (1998). Organization development: Behavioral science interventions for organization improvement (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Waclawski, J., & Church, A. H. (Eds.). (2002). Organization development: A data-driven approach to organizational change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.