The Human Dimension
Wright, N. (2003) ‘The Human Dimension: A Case Study in OD’, Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, February, Vol 10, No1, pp33-40.
Managing the human dimensions of change can be a complex and difficult task. I believe that through disciplines including Organisation Development (OD), however, HRD practitioners can provide an insightful and valuable contribution that extends well beyond the confines of the training room.
I was invited by the Project Manager of an organisation-wide change process within an international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) to provide OD input into that process, just at the point at which its Executive Steering Group (ESG) was preparing to move from strategy development to implementation.
The perspective I brought to this venture, which forms the basis of this case-study article, is intended to stimulate interest, insight and ideas for others working as HRD professionals in the OD field.
What is OD?
OD is a professional discipline concerned with understanding the essentially human factors and dynamics that influence an organisation’s ability to be effective. It is this orientation that has been found to add particular value to leadership, management and teamworking strategies. Since the planned NGO change process was likely to have significant impact in each of these areas, I was invited to provide input as an HRD/OD specialist.
Key OD considerations
The following OD considerations are, generally-speaking, those that are fundamental to effective change processes. Typically, the degree to which these considerations are taken into account and managed effectively will have a significant effect on the outcome of the process:
Extensive research was conducted in the 1980s and 90s to try to understand why managers in organisations seemed to hold such different views about what they needed to be effective, what the main barriers were how they ought to be overcome.
An important conclusion of this research was that each person tends to look at an organisation through a unique set of psychological ‘spectacles’ that determine his or her analysis and understanding of the situations s/he encounters (e.g. Morgan (1986); Bolman & Deal (1991)). The ‘lenses’ are shaped by various factors including personality, culture, professional specialism, structural location and degree/experience of exposure to alternative perspectives.
The research went on to note that a significant number of managers:
Change is often planned, introduced, implemented and managed as a principally rational and technical process. The underlying rationale is that if strategy, funding, structures, job descriptions etc. are organised and articulated clearly, consistently and fairly, participants in the process will (or at least, should) have little cause for concern or complaint.
From an OD perspective, rational-technical considerations are vital, but they are not enough. As we saw in section 3.1 above, the temptation if all of these points have been covered is to consider any subsequent disquiet as evidence of resistance to change or a basic lack of commitment. Concerns about how change is enacted should not be interpreted necessarily as objections to the nature of those changes or to change per se. Negotiating the process of change is as important as negotiating its content.
It is true, of course, that sometimes individuals may behave in ways that are deliberately subversive but the psychological contract perspective cautions managers to avoid drawing this conclusion too quickly.
For those who may be unfamiliar with this term, a psychological contract (as distinct from a formal, written contract) is an implicit understanding between employer and employee that is often assumed and unspoken but which, nevertheless, ensures that organisational relationships and workings run smoothly. The fact that the contents and resulting expectations of a psychological contract are rarely articulated or explored means that, unfortunately, breaches can be difficult to avoid in practice and yet can result in fairly ‘bruising’ consequences.
In light of this psychological phenomenon, organisational change literature (e.g. Bolman & Deal (1991)) comments almost universally that what is critical to take into account from a human perspective is not just what will happen but what it will mean, especially for those who believe that they may be affected adversely. Examples at the ‘meaning’ level within the NGO were likely to include:
The question of corporate congruence is concerned principally with how to ensure that an organisation’s internal practices are consistent with:
Advocacy is concerned with enabling marginalized people to recognise their rights, articulate their needs and influence key decision-makers. From the congruency perspective, I posed the following questions:
b. Community development
Community development is concerned with establishing relationships and pooling/leverage of resources for individual and collective good. Values of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation and collaboration are at the heart of this approach. I asked:
c. Disaster management
Disaster management is concerned with increasing security and viability by minimising and mitigating against principal risks. I posed the following questions:
d. Economic development
Pro-poor economic development is concerned with improving sustainable livelihoods by enhancing resource development/deployment and creating infrastructure/opportunities for fair trade. In the context of the NGO change process, I asked:
As a result of considering these OD deliberations before embarking on detailed communication and strategy implementation, the NGO was able to avert some of the characteristic stress/pain associated with change and to develop a robust process that would help ensure maximum integrity, collaboration and success.
Although the case example presented here is NGO-specific, I believe that the principles offered can be applied to very diverse types of organisation. The challenge that I leave with my fellow AMED colleagues and readers is this: is it time for OD perspectives to be integrated as a matter of course into the management development arena as a whole?
Bolman, L & Deal, T. (1991). Reframing Organisations. Jossey Bass. California.
Bridges, W. (2002). Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. London.
Morgan, G. (1986). Images of Organisation. Sage Publications. London.
Moss-Kanter, R. (1984). Managing the Human Side of Change. In Kolb, D. et al. (1995). The Organisational Behaviour Reader. Prentice Hall International (UK) Ltd. London.