About the Field of Organization Development (OD)
Written by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD
Sections of This Topic Include:
Definitions and Descriptions of the Field
Simply put, an Organization Development practitioner is to an organization as a physician is to a human body. The practitioner "diagnoses" (or discovers) the most important priorities to address in the organization, suggests a change-management plan, and then guides the organization through the necessary change. There are different definitions and views on how the change should occur.
Broader Perspectives on the Field
Competencies and Practices of OD Practitioners
An Old Standard Definition of OD
The nature and needs of organizations are changing dramatically. Correspondingly, the profession of organization development (OD) has been changing to meet the changing needs of organizations. Therefore, it may be most useful to consider several definitions of organization development. Here's a standard definition. The next section gives some contrasting definitions.
For many years, the following definition was perhaps the standard definition for OD. The following definition was developed in 1969 at a time when an organization was considered to be much like a stable machine comprised of interlocking parts.
“Organization Development is an effort planned, organization-wide, and managed from the top, to increase organization effectiveness and health through planned interventions in the organization's 'processes,' using behavioral-science knowledge.”
-- Beckhard, “Organization development: Strategies and Models”, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969, p. 9.
New Definitions of OD
Today's organizations operate in a rapidly changing environment. Consequently, one of the most important assets for an organization is the ability to manage change -- and for people to remain healthy and authentic. Consider the following definition of OD:
“Organization Development is the attempt to influence the members of an organization to expand their candidness with each other about their views of the organization and their experience in it, and to take greater responsibility for their own actions as organization members. The assumption behind OD is that when people pursue both of these objectives simultaneously, they are likely to discover new ways of working together that they experience as more effective for achieving their own and their shared (organizational) goals. And that when this does not happen, such activity helps them to understand why and to make meaningful choices about what to do in light of this understanding.”
-- Neilsen, “Becoming an OD Practitioner”, Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 2-3.
Experts might agree that the following definitions of OD represent the major focus and thrust of many of today's OD practitioners.
"Organization development is a system-wide application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures, and processes for improving an organization's effectiveness."
-- Cummings and Worley, "Organization Development and Change", Sixth Edition, South-Western Publishing, 1997, p.2.
"Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance."
-- Matt Minahan, MM & Associates, Silver Spring, Maryland
Here are some other perspectives on the definition of OD.
Definition of Organization Development
Organization Development -- the Management of Change
Definition of OD
OD Practitioners: "Organizational Physicians"?
The system of organizations is very similar, if not the same as, the system of human beings -- after all, organizations are made up of humans! Therefore, when trying to understand the field of organization development, it might be useful to compare aspects of the field of organization development to aspects of the field of medicine.
For example, the study of the theories and structures of organizations (often in courses called "organizational theory") is similar to the study of anatomy and physiology of human systems. Similarly, the study of organizational behavior is similar to the study of psychology and sociology in human systems. Finally, the study and field of organization development compares to the study and field of medicine regarding human systems.
That is, in OD, practitioners might work in a manner similar to "organizational physicians" intending to improve the effectiveness of people and organizations by:
1) Establishing relationships with key personnel in the organization (often called "entering" and "contracting" with the organization);
2) Researching and evaluating systems in the organization to understand dysfunctions and/or goals of the systems in the organization ("diagnosing" the systems in the organization);
3) Identifying approaches (or "interventions") to improve effectiveness of the organization and its people;
4) Applying approaches to improve effectiveness (methods of "planned change" in the organization),
5) Evaluating the ongoing effectiveness of the approaches and their results.
From "Linear" to "Holistic" OD?
Note that the above-mentioned, "linear" approach to organization development is coming under fire. Not all organization development practitioners appreciate terms such as "diagnosing" an organization, "interventions" to improve effectiveness, etc.
For a new perspective on OD, read Holistic OD: Paradigm for the Future.
"OD 101" Presentation
This PowerPoint file can be used in a 2-hour presentation to provide a brief overview of the profession of OD, its history, typical consulting approach, various types of interventions and an overview of organizational change. Additional resources are suggested. To see the presentation, click
Maturation of the Field
OD has a rich field of research, theory, models and practice, with roots in community and management development. The Organization Development Institute provides an historical view of organization development.
The topic of organizational change has received a great deal of attention over the past several decades, as organizations face new and complex challenges like never before. Correspondingly, the field of Organization Development is receiving a great deal of attention now, too. As the field has grown, so has the diversity of perspectives on the field. The question "What is OD?" is now quite common in discussions among those interested in the field.
OD does not have a standard code of ethics or universal accrediting body. Thus, many assert that OD is a field, rather than a profession. The OD Institute admirably does suggest levels of certification for OD practitioners, (see the next section, Suggested Competencies for OD Practitioners), but these do not appear to have become standard for practitioners who consider themselves to be OD professionals. The OD Institute has also suggested an International Organization Development Code of Ethics. The Organization Development Network is a large organization that also focuses on developing the field and serving its members, many of whom are OD practitioners.
Many people assert that OD is a field that works from a systems perspective and according to humanistic values to help people change. Other people respond that other fields or professions, such as trainers and community organizers, also work from a systems perspective and according to humanistic values and, thus, that description is not unique to OD. They assert that OD must proclaim a scope for their field and suggest that a more apt description of OD is that it is a field that works from a systems perspective and according to humanistic values to enhance the performance of organizations.
Another area of diversity about perspectives on Organization Development is in regard to how people view organizations. Some focus on the structures, operations, positions, procedures, etc., while others focus on the human relations and interactions. Still others focus on the politics and power, while others focus on the cultures and values of the organization. The following article gives more information about these perspectives: Understand the Preferred Lens Through Which You View Organizations
Concurrently, there seems to be strong focus on "soft" skills in OD, for example, coaching, leadership development, facilitation, conflict management, process consulting, etc. However, many would assert that the "hard" skills, such as Balanced Scorecard, quality management initiatives (TQM, Six Sigma, etc.), strategic analysis, etc., should also be a focus in OD. The following article gives more information about these perspectives: What Type of OD Practitioner Are You?
Concurrent to these diverse views, there seems to be strong agreement that the phrase "organizational change and development" describes the core purpose and practice of what OD practitioners do -- so much that the phrase "organizational development" is often used interchangeably to refer to the field itself.
Comprehensive Lists of Competencies
There are a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities that one might consider when learning about OD. The following links are to guidelines and suggestions from a variety of OD experts.
Knowledge and Skills Necessary for Competence in OD
Learn Business Skills, Too
Efforts at organizational change can fail, not only because of people's beliefs and feelings and perceptions (which seems to be the primary focus of many OD training programs today), but also because of business goals and structures and operations. In this case, it might even be damaging to focus only on OD models that get peoples' buy-in to the change, help people overcome resistance to the change, etc., but don't really consider the "business" side of things. Therefore, it would be wise for the OD practitioners to get at least some basic understanding of certain business topics. The following links are to online programs to start and development organizations, and include focus on the business aspects, as well.
The Library topic of "Organizational Change and Development" includes an extensive array of well-organized information about successfully guiding significant change in organizations. The following link also includes a great deal more information for OD practitioners, including about the broad context for organizational change, professionalism for practitioners, various overviews of change management, example of a planned and systemic change process, many types of activities ("interventions") during organizational change, and many general resources for those working to guide change.
Organizational Change and Development