What Is Organizational Development?

Contrary to a current thinking, the discipline of Organizational Development (OD) is not “the new buzz-phrase” in Human Resources. Rather, OD has a long history and evolution behind it.  Organizational Development, in its broadest form, significantly extends beyond the Human Resources community.  As Business and Management tools often are, OD can be misconstrued, and its true meaning and service to both the organization, and to the people who work in the organization, has been misinterpreted.

It is not hard to see why this could happen.  One classic definition of OD that is often found in many textbooks comes from Richard Beckhard’s 1969 Organization Development: Strategies and Models. This definition positions OD as a business effort that is planned, organization-wide, managed from the top, and which increases organization effectiveness and health through planned interventions in the organization’s “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

Although well-known and recognized, this definition is often translated for specific uses, and not always for the better.  This has led to multiple permutations of the phrase, and arguably misapplication of the discipline.  A recent study and field survey conducted by the Organizational Development Network identified no less than 38 different documented definitions of “Organizational Development.”  The output of that survey work distilled those into a single statement that articulates the concept more precisely than any other I have seen:

Organization Development (OD) refers to the interdisciplinary field of scholars and practitioners who work collaboratively with organizations and communities to develop their system-wide capacity for effectiveness and vitality. It is grounded in the organization and social sciences.

Elements of OD can be found in several fields, from Human Resources to Information Technology, although it is important to understand that OD holistically encompasses more than any single one of those specialties.  OD is guided by the values and constructs of humanism, holistic organizational scope, inquiry-based process and collaboration, focus on development of the individual and the workplace, systems orientation, and progress that is research- and evidence-informed.  Although the field of OD has been around since WWII, it is continually evolving to meet the new needs of organizations and communities, such as a growing investment in understanding and enacting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) theories and practices.

As the definition suggests, the field of OD encapsulates scholars and practitioners, as well as internal and external consultants, and OD-adjacent professionals in leadership positions whose vested interest is in support of the holistic growth and capacity of the organization and the individual.  OD interweaves with many other disciplines, including lean, six Sigma, process improvement, and change management, to name a few, and in many ways can be seen as the glue that connects people to those initiatives. 

Particularly in these turbulent and often uncertain times, it is incumbent on business leaders to define and deliver a clear, intentional approach to operating their businesses, and embrace and leverage the potential that solid OD principles can provide. 

Content reference credit to: https://www.odnetwork.org/

Author Terry Smith is a senior Human Resources leader, specializing in Organizational Development, as well as strategic and operational change management.