What is OD?
Ask ten organizational development (OD) consultants to define OD and you're likely to get ten different definitions. Not even the experts agree. How can a field that promises so much have difficulty agreeing upon what it is?
For one thing, organizational development is relatively new. Exactly when it started is a subject for debate. But most think it began with the work of Kurt Lewin (1898-1947), a social psychologist from the German Gestalt School. During World War II, Lewin experimented with a collaborative change process based on a three-step process of planning, taking action, and measuring results. This was the forerunner of action research, an important element of OD. Lewin is widely recognized as the founding father of OD, although he died before the concept became current in the mid-1950s. From Lewin came the ideas of group dynamics and action research, which underpin the basic OD process and its collaborative ethos.
Organizational development migrated into mainstream businesses and institutions in the 1960's and 1970's, in parallel with major cultural shifts of the time, such as the equal rights, peace, and human rights movements. Not surprisingly, the thrust of early interventions was democratization of the workplace and improvement of human relations. Many early OD consultants believed that if people felt better about their work, participation, collaboration, and performance would rise. Another aim was to make organizational structures and cultures less hierarchical, bureaucratic, and patriarchal so as to improve work-life satisfaction, a win-win for all but the status quo.
In actual practice, early OD efforts had mixed results. Certainly some consultants tied organizational change to performance results. But there also were no shortage of feel-good efforts that aimed to put people in touch with their feelings, enhance creativity, and create community. Skeptics soon had their fill of such "group grope" events, and OD turned off as many as it turned on. Often, well-intentioned human resources professionals who wanted to create more democratic organizational cultures pushed these interventions in the name of productivity. A few studies show that happy people are productive people. But most show that happiness and productivity correlate poorly, if at all. Apparently people feel better when they feel better and work better when they work better.
Organizational development today
Certainly, OD has not completely outgrown feel-good, event-driven interventions and consultants. But as the field has professionalized, one thing is generally agreed upon—the intended purposes of OD. These are:
- To produce performance gains within the organization that last.
- To increase effectiveness, that is, the ability of the organization to meet intended goals.
These two objectives are related, but not always coincident.
We believe that contemporary organizational development practice is at a crossroad. On one side are old-school practitioners from the human relations tradition who view OD as a value system based on humanistic ideals. On the other are firms that worship at the alter of efficiency and act a lot like management consultants. Many of the latter are downsizing and efficiency experts. We think there's a vast space in between and that it's possible to honor humanist values and enhance bottom-line value. Indeed, one can argue that this is the only route to sustainable change. In this respect, we choose to frame OD as a functional and accountable business practice that's indispensable in organizations today.