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The Future of OD

From the beginning, OD developed and applied its theories of people and change to organisational life and functioning. Many of the interventions originally pioneered and practised by OD professionals are based on the field’s firm commitment to the human side of the enterprise. Though being criticised as ‘too narrow’ sometimes, many of its interventions have now become mainstream, shaping the way we all think about how organisations work. This included ‘change management’ (the term was coined by Linda Ackerman Anderson in 1968), which emerged as a subfield of OD. It also included organisation/role design, defining how tasks, authority and systems will be organised and integrated across organisational units and within individual jobs. As Edgar Schein (2006) points out, OD has been and will remain extremely influential in organisational life:

‘…how many elements of OD have evolved into organizational routines that are nowadays taken for granted: better communications, team building, management of inter-group relationships, change management, survey research, meeting designs, feedback and learning loops, organization design, effective group processes, conflict resolution…to name but a few.’

Future

It is in fact hard to imagine how organisations will be the same, especially in the West, if we take away the seminal influence of those early OD thinkers and practitioners. Much has changed since OD’s beginnings in the 1950s. There are the ruthless pursuit of efficiency, in the form of business reengineering in the 1980s, rationalisation in the 1990s, and aggressive outsourcing in the 2000s – all these stemmed from the combined impact of changes in technology, globalisation, competitive pressures, unpredictable socio-political and economic factors, which together with other factions have all altered the world of work and the ways we organise work groups. However, despite the changing challenges, the following concerns remain constant for leaders and OD practitioners. How do we:

  • build a sustainable high-performance organisation in which individual workers take an active part in achieving the required output?
  • appropriately build engaged, proactive, empowered staff when there are limited reward levers organisation can pull while needing to hold staff accountable?
  • solve the problems of aligning and integrating diverse cultural elements?
  • ensure there are fluid two-way communication channels – so that information can flow upward as well as downward within hierarchies?
  • help organisations to be externally sensitive and internally agile?
  • build organisational climates that will release human potential and creativity at work and foster continuous learning and renewal culture within organisations?

In the past few decades, the OD practitioners and academic community have continued to hold true to their value while shaping and adapting their approaches and methods to address key organisation issues that affect organisation success. The rich heritage of OD will continue to help organisations to meet these challenges, and new concepts and tools will continue to be invented to tackle ever tougher problems of change and organisational dynamics in an increasingly complex, global and diverse world. OD practitioners believe that human capital, and the quality of relationships between people, and between people and organisations, will be more important than ever in predicting organisational success. We must therefore continue to build and strengthen the field of OD and maintain its core values while seeking innovative solutions to resolve the new sets of challenges facing organisations.

OD is not obsolete.  But a claim that OD is alive and relevant requires us to ask  tough questions about how it works and what it can still do.  Without a tough approach to exploring and understanding the current state of the field and its possibilities, we might indeed start singing OD’s demise.  In fact, OD’s focus on promoting organizational adaptability, learning, and integration carries potential benefits that modern and future businesses clearly need.  Without “O-change” (changes in the “softer” organizational processes, practice, and strategies), hard economic or “E” change efforts often fall flat.  In the modern organizational world, Bradford and Burke write, O-change and E-change need to go hand-in-hand.

For OD to continue as a healthy and equal contributor to E-change, it needs to overcome three key problems:

(1)  Too little “O” in OD: few consultants are engaged in the system-wide efforts that are OD; most are using OD techniques in limited ways because of

  • “reductionist thinking legacy”: always start with the individual
  • the common lack of business perspective
  • the common failure to integrate social systems with technical systems
  • limitations of consultants to bring all the capacities needed to work in complex organizations.

(2) Too exclusive an emphasis on human processes

  • excludes task and content contributions
  • prevents integration of social and technical systems
  • potentially distorts/over-simplifies diagnoses

(3) Rigid adherence to humanistic values, making field’s strength a weakness

  • blindness to forces and perspectives beyond human factors
  • humanistic values can “trump” research on what works and doesn’t
  • advocacy for the “right” values vs. helping clients
  • anti-leadership bias can lead to seeing the client as the enemy
  • “double-loop” learning is blocked
  • limit OD’s capacity to objectively assess the impact of its intervention efforts
  • devalue organizational politics         

If OD can address these shortcomings and overcome competency, strategy, and leadership barriers, OD will continue to be a major player in the change world for years to come.  With its powerful and influential heritage, solid core and evolving applications and approaches, OD will continue to play a vital role in equipping HR professionals to support their organisations in today’s competitive, turbulent and constantly changing world. Professor David Cooperrider (1998) believed that OD’s focus on building healthy organisations contributes to society as a whole: ‘The best path to the good society is the construction of great organisations that nurture and magnify the best in human beings.’


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