Wright, N. (2010), ‘Towards Organisation Development’, Training Journal, Fenman, February, pp47-51.
At the start of 2010, the word on the street is that an increasing number of Learning & Development professionals are keen to learn more about Organisation Development and increase their knowledge, experience and skill in this arena. From my point of view, that’s an encouraging development. What is OD, however, and why are L&D people attracted to it? What does OD look like in practice and what seems to makes it effective? How can its success be evaluated and what can L&D professionals do to develop their confidence, capability and credibility in this field? These are the key issues I will aim to address in this brief article.
What is OD?
‘OD’ – what is that? ‘Odd, Over Dose, Oh Dear?’ These are some of the questions I’m asked by friends or colleagues when I mention the field of practice I’m involved in at World Vision UK. When I try to describe what it means, I see bemused smiles and can almost hear what they’re thinking, ‘Yep, definitely sounds Odd’. To some more comfortable dealing with immediate, transactional activity, OD’s reflective spirit can appear mysterious, slow or complex, ‘It feels like Over Dose’. To others its characteristically non-directive approach can feel frustrating, ‘Oh Dear, please don’t reflect my question back to me again!’
I’m not alone in this experience. At the May 2009 meeting of the OD Innovations Network, the Institute for Employment Studies presented research (Fish or Bird – Perspectives on Organisational Development) which confirmed that, after 30 years of development in the UK, OD still remains ill-defined as a coherent body of research and practice. OD professionals, line-managers and HR colleagues have differing views and expectations of OD and there’s no single institute that represents the profession in the UK.
What’s the attraction?
So, given the ambiguous and less-than-ideal state of OD, what is nevertheless attracting L&D professionals to gravitate towards it? Perhaps it’s something to do with a growing recognition that organisational dynamics and change are complex phenomena. Trying to achieve strategic organisational change through personal development or training alone can feel inadequate or simplistic. If L&D efforts and investments don’t achieve the changes that stakeholders desire, the value of L&D will be undermined.
I once discussed this with an L&D Manager in a local authority and tried to convince her to involve key stakeholders in evaluating and demonstrating the impact of her team’s interventions. She became defensive, arguing that this wasn’t needed in her organisation because everyone liked and appreciated what the team did and it was obvious to everyone what the benefits were. Not long afterwards, the team including the L&D Manager was made redundant. It was a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of L&D if it doesn’t find ways to demonstrate tangible business benefits in stakeholder terms.
What’s its scope?
The shift from L&D to OD parallels the shift from training to L&D. It’s about understanding the impact of context on what happens in a particular situation. If we understand the wider context, we can act within it to improve the chances of success. The traditional trainer noticed that the effectiveness and impact of training interventions depends as much on what happens outside of the room (e.g. the degree to which managers take an interest in participants’ learning) as within it. L&D emerged as a wider professional discipline, managing and integrating training interventions within a wider learning agenda.
OD is a further broadening of perspective, seeing the whole organisation as a learning organism and inquiring into what enhances or inhibits its performance and development at a wider systemic level. Exploring the dynamic interplay between different dimensions can feel energising, fulfilling and holistic.
In reality however, understanding what makes the difference in a particular set of circumstances is complex and demands an action research mindset and a spirit of inquiry that extends beyond a simple ‘do X and Y will result’ approach. In light of this, OD can feel more experimental and emergent than traditional L&D programmes.
What does it look like?
As one of my colleagues put it recently, ‘OD can look and feel different in different circumstances because, in order to be effective, it necessarily has to morph into whatever is required’. This demands an ability to live and work with high degrees of ambiguity and flexibility and to navigate oneself and others through nebulous mists of organisational reality.
Charles Whitehead, former L&D Manager at Plan International, summarised it well in this way: “OD is a field of practice which embraces a range of disciplines. It has a body of knowledge and skills which it draws on depending on what is needed. Clients often buy what they experience in the person – their personal qualities, not just expertise. The boundaries are dotted and thin so that the qualities one looks for and experiences in the good OD practitioner can be found in others too – e.g. good insight, good listener, good people awareness and skill. In fact, inherent in the OD role is developing these qualities and capabilities in others.” (ODiN Network, May 2009).
In World Vision UK, OD practitioners shift between coach/consultant, business partner and service provider modes depending on what’s needed in a specific situation. The trick is to manage mutual expectations by contracting openly and explicitly with clients so that each party is clear and agreed on what role each will take at which stage and why. We’ve found that without such contracting, there’s a risk of misunderstanding, confusion or important things falling between stools, e.g. ‘I thought you were going to produce a change plan for my team yet I find you coaching me on how to create a change plan instead.’
What frameworks could I use?
I’ve developed an OD strategy framework (see below) which provides a focus for my own OD interventions alongside HR and L&D colleagues and line managers. This provides a basis for planning (which aspects to prioritise and work on in the coming year) and action research (formulate a hypothesis, try it out, evaluate what happens, identify critical factors, learn from the results). It is articulated in terms of an overarching goal, key outcomes that will support the goal and key conditions that underpin the outcomes.
The real opportunity lies in using this framework creatively as a springboard for conversation with leaders and staff, e.g. ‘when have we been at our best in the past 12 months; what seems to have made the difference; what was noticeable about how people worked together; what personal qualities did people bring that helped or hindered progress; what was ‘my’ part in what happened; what’s the main opportunity we want to grasp in the coming year; what’s going to help or hinder us getting there; what’s the greatest risk we need to manage; what will success look and feel like; who needs to be involved to make this work; what do we need to develop, stop or improve; where should we invest our resources?’ etc.
I’ve created another framework (see below) which aims to capture and articulate the qualities and characteristics we are seeking to attract, recruit, nurture and retain in and between people within World Vision UK, drawing on the organisation’s brand personality and core capabilities framework. This model can prove helpful when, say, thinking through with leaders what their aspiration is for a team, what key qualities they would like to develop and embed in the team’s culture, where key problems may lie when things go wrong.
For instance, when recruiting for talent, is raw capability enough? What else will make the difference to a person’s effectiveness within World Vision? Who will they need to influence or engage with in practice? What’s the desired impact of this person’s work and approach on others? What would ‘culture fit’ look like? Is that about compliance or contribution? What would living out World Vision values look like in this role? When talking about developing and managing performance, what does good performance actually look like?
What makes it effective?
In light of all this, how can I explain what OD is and what makes it effective? I won’t try to do this in a definitive sense for the reasons already explained above. I can, however, say something on the basis of my own experience and what I’ve drawn from fellow OD practitioners over the years. One of the IES researchers mentioned earlier commented that, ‘There’s something about OD that you can’t put into a competency framework’. I agree with that and find it helpful, instead, to think of OD in terms of three interrelated dimensions: person, perspective and practice.
Person. I’m interested in feedback from clients on what I’ve contributed that’s added value and notice how similar their first responses are to what I hear from OD colleagues elsewhere. Words like warmth, openness, presence, insight, wisdom, empathy, integrity, humour; words that actually sound more like spiritual qualities, personality and character than technical knowledge or skill. It’s something about personal beliefs, values and intention that build rapport, credibility and trust – critical prerequisites for influence and positive impact.
Perspective. OD as a field of research draws on social and behavioural sciences to understand and explain how human systems work. My own post-graduate studies in this field drew on psychodynamics, social psychology, social anthropology and systems theory. Fundamental questions tend to focus around things like, ‘what do we notice and why?’, ‘why are things as they are?’, ‘what creates and sustains change in this context?’, ‘what’s the impact of a certain type of intervention?’ Open and intuitive inquiry is a core attitude, skill and discipline – the ability to pause and reflect before, during and after action. OD explores paradigms, reframes the status quo and stimulates new ways of thinking and behaving.
Practice. OD practitioners can be found operating in a number of different roles and modes, the most common being consultant, coach, mentor, facilitator, mediator and business partner. They tend to work more closely with leaders than individual staff, although they may engage in teambuilding or staff engagement activities aimed at building stronger and more effective working relationships between different people and parties across the organisation. Some OD practitioners work alongside or within HR teams whereas others work directly with directors and CEO. Many operate as independent consultants and coaches, enabling them to stand outside of organisational systems and provide insight and challenge from that perspective.
How’s it evaluated?
OD like L&D can prove difficult to evaluate organisationally but Roffey Park has produced a seminal paper (Best Practice in OD Evaluation) that’s worth looking at for ideas in this area. Meaningful evaluation tends to come down to ‘contribution’ rather than ‘attribution’ owing to the diverse range of stakeholder relationships and influences involved in complex OD change initiatives. In World Vision UK, we test the overall results of OD’s interventions at an organisational level by proxy via a quarterly pulse check (mini staff survey) and annual Best Companies survey (www.bestcompanies.co.uk).
As a personal level, I periodically ask key stakeholders for open, honest feedback, e.g. ‘over the past year, in what ways have I added value?’, ‘what would make the biggest improvement to my contribution in the coming year?’, ‘on a scale of 1-10, how am I doing?’ This builds a picture of my performance from different stakeholder perspectives, enables vision-casting for the year ahead and creates a focus for my own personal development plan (see ‘how can I develop’ below).
At an implicit level, OD practitioners may gauge how their input is valued by whether or not they are invited to the table where key leadership conversations take place on strategy, policy, performance and development. If you’re not involved in strategic-level conversations, you could approach those who lead the agenda with a question along these lines: ‘I believe I could bring a valuable contribution to these conversations – what could I do (more of/less of/differently) to raise OD’s profile or instil that confidence in others?’
How can I develop?
So, where to from here for the L&D practitioner who’s interested in moving towards OD? What can he or she do to develop their own insight, practice and influence? I will offer some ideas and pointers below which draw on my own experience.
To review my practice with people I’ve worked with, I’ve developed a simple scorecard that I use periodically (see below). It can be created easily on Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) and sent directly to a range of stakeholders (including those who appear to most and least value your contribution as well as those between), inviting them to score each attribute numerically or highlight your top 5 strengths and development priorities. The results can be illuminating and provide a focus for future development efforts.
I also find it helpful to bring reflective questions to a situation, either in my mind or in overt conversation with the client and to note which seem to be most effective in bringing about positive change, e.g. ‘what’s really going on here; what’s my contribution to what I’m experiencing; what’s in and out of our focus; what aren’t we taking about; what’s my intuition telling me; what are people’s actions or reactions revealing about what matters most to them; what paradigm is this person thinking and operating in; what does what’s happening say about the implicit culture of the organisation; what would make me more effective here?’
Roffey Park has produced an excellent introductory briefing (Making Sense of Organisational Development) that can be downloaded gratis from its website (www.roffeypark.com). There are libraries of books available but the best classic texts I’ve found in the field are Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation and Edgar Schein’s Process Consultation. The Association for Management Education & Development (www.amed.org.uk) provides opportunities for peer networking and a number of UK universities provide postgraduate courses in OD and change.