Or, “Why can’t OD practitioners agree on what is OD?”
Or even, “If OD is defined by whatever OD practitioners happen to be working on, is it any surprise that there is no unifying theory of OD?”
In reading this series of articles, you may well have gained a sense of what OD is to me, and you probably have your own views on the subject. For example, is OD an HR function, predominantly focused on training and development, facilitation and coaching? Is it a strategic function or an operational function, perhaps currently focused on digitisation of customer strategy or business processes? Maybe is it a change function that is modernising archaic project management disciplines by embracing Agile and Design Thinking? Are all of these examples of OD? Are any of these examples OD at all?
Where is OD located in your organisation?
OD is many things to many people and there is no unifying theory. Perhaps this is why OD practice is so divergent – nebulous even – and hence opens itself up to criticism? For example, locate OD within HR and it is more likely to be seen as people-orientated and have less power, whereas it is more likely to be seen as commercially focused and is probably more powerful if it is located in Strategy or Operations where it can demonstrate its impact more directly onto the bottom line. Unfortunately, the former is often seen as too soft and may even result in a lack of focus on the organisation’s primary purpose; the latter is too hard, perhaps even dehumanising organisations in cases where over-rationalised business processes take precedence over the people employed to work them.
Getting the balance right
I believe core to OD’s philosophy is a balance between psychoanalysis (see: P is for Psychoanalysis) and systems-thinking (see: J is for Joint Diagnosis). The dilemma OD faces is when one of these aspects dominates. Taking a systems-thinking perspective requires the OD practitioner to be at the table of power so she can influence strategic change. Taking a psychoanalytic perspective requires marginality, independence from the corporate agenda, so that she can challenge over-rationalised thinking that might dehumanise organisations. Achieving both simultaneously is hard to do… If OD has power – signified by a close relationship to leaders, a corporatist agenda and aligned to strategic or operational change – then its ability to challenge the group dynamics at play may be inhibited. On the other hand, if OD has marginality – perhaps traditionally located within HR and focused on challenging and developing management values and behaviours – then it is difficult to have true positive impact across the whole system. The traditional OD model weakens OD’s power; whereas the strategic model weakens OD’s philosophy.
Where should OD be located in an organisation?
However there may be an organisation design for OD that preserves its philosophy whilst offering it the power to achieve real sustainable change. I have seen this model work very well and endure. It involves an OD generalist located within HR and yet with an independent dual reporting line to the CEO. In large, decentralised organisations, OD generalists can be located in each division (again, within local HR and yet with independent reporting lines to divisional CEOs), influencing change locally and coming together under the stewardship of the central OD lead for coordination and as a community of practice. Such a model is best supported by external OD consultants for specific initiatives, enabling internal OD practitioners to be effective generalists and not overly-narrow specialists. Over-specialisation of internal OD practitioners (e.g. into coaching and facilitation, or projects and change) can undermine OD’s philosophy.
A possible unifying approach
I believe OD should go back to its roots. To do this, OD practitioners must focus on three praxes in relation to delivering sustainable change:
- Diagnosis must be grounded in psychoanalytic interpretation;
- Facilitation should be in structure and not content;
- Interventions must be humanistic.
The first praxis ensures OD is not subsumed totally into the corporate agenda and retains its ability to challenge organisational norms, routines and behaviours.
The second praxis ensures that OD is applicable to transformational change, where the consultant helps to establish structures and processes that consciously enable organisational members to operate using different perspectives. This aligns with process consultancy: the only expertise the consultant sells is psychodynamics and whole systems-thinking, whereas organisational members provide the content.
The third praxis guards against over rationalised systems-thinking dehumanising organisations.
For me, OD must reconnect with its psychoanalytic roots, its structuralist processes and its humanist values. I honestly believe unless all three are present, then it’s just not OD.
OD Thought Leader: Dave Ulrich (b. 1953)
Ulrich is an author, university professor and management consultant. He is the creator of the HR model currently favoured by the vast majority of large corporate HR departments, which he set out in his 1997 work Human Resource Campions.
In this model, he argues there are four roles for HR to fulfil (administration, employee champion, change agent and strategic partner). This has been interpreted and implemented by many through centralising and automating HR administration into shared service centres with manager self-service solutions for processing HR transactions (leavers, absence, etc), centres of excellence for employee relations, etc, OD functions (more or less like I described above) and HR Business Partners to act as the strategic interface between organisational managers and HR specialists.
Whilst predominantly in the ‘corporatist’ mould (i.e. the whole structure and philosophy is aimed at creating and organisation fit to meet the corporate agenda efficiently and effectively), the structure clearly puts human beings at the centre of its thinking, and creates a home for OD.
However, in A to Z of OD: U is for unifying Theory of OD (there isn’t one) above, we saw that when corporatist thinking prevails, the OD agenda can become marginalised. In his seminal work on how to organise the HR function, Ulrich outlines how the HR agenda can build employee engagement through balancing demands and resources to avoid over- and underutilisation of human resources, demonstrating that underutilisation leads to apathy and over-utilisation leads to burnout. For me this provides further evidence for the need to increase focus on the psychoanalytic and human-centred agenda.
Ulrich recommends HR professionals focus on reducing demands on people, increasing resources and turning demands into resources. He suggests these goals can be achieved through OD practice by:
- Emancipatory diagnostic interventions to help people prioritise what is important to them and focus their energies on the shared goals and values they have with the organisation
- Working with the organisation to provide employees challenging work, fun culture, shared goals and shared control of work processes
- Encouraging organisations to become more human, involve employees in key decisions that affect them and recognise the impact of decisions on employees’ non-work lives/families.
These days, Ulrich sometimes gets bad press for his HR model, usually surrounding the lack of capability within HR to facilitate system-wide change, or bottlenecks created because HR business partners are working beyond their capacity. However, I note that his three OD recommendations align with my suggested three OD praxes and suggest his model is indeed a good one. Perhaps it is more of a failure in implementation and investment in OD skills that is the real issue?
Recommended reading: Ulrich, D (1997), Human Resource Champions, Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA.
Next time in the A to Z of OD: V is for Vision and Values; W is for Weisbord