Organisation Development

by Rosie Stevens

Organisation Development - a brief history

Organisation Development (OD) is a subject and approach that has emerged in its own right over the last 40 or so years. As it emerged as a discipline in the late 1960s, Richard Beckhard defined its key characteristics as being

  • Planned
  • Organisation-wide
  • Managed from the top

in order to

  • Increase organisational effectiveness and health through interventions in the organisation’s processes, using behavioural science knowledge.

Nevertheless, pioneers of OD in the 1960s were still mainly pre-occupied with interventions at either an individual or group level, chiefly to facilitate incremental change, rather than the ‘whole system’, large-scale interventions which characterise the strategic change efforts and initiatives that are used today.

Organisation Development was described by French and Bell in 1978 as...


A long range effort to improve an organisation’s problem solving and renewal processes [through] collaborative management of organisational culture... with the assistance of a change agent or catalyst, [influenced and shaped by the emerging] theory and technology of applied behavioural science.

It came to be known as Organisation Development through the work of some key people in the 1960s, through the development of T groups (also in the 1960s) and the learnings gained from those groups, from Lewin’s work on change and Force Field Analysis and from emerging understandings of organisations as open systems.

The 1970s were characterised in this context by an emphasis on team development, training for personal growth and self-directed learning and by strategies that were designed to achieve fundamental change and shifts in organisations.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to systems thinking (in other words, the organisation as a whole system, with people being a system sub-set), the importance of vision and visioning, understanding (and being able to affect) organisational culture and behaviour, and by Total Quality Management.

In other words, throughout the world, people were starting to pay more attention to the effectiveness of certain behaviours and their significance to organisations:

  • The ways in which people learned and whether an organisation was creating the best conditions for learning to take place
  • The ways in which people were led and managed
  • The extent to which they were included and able to participate as important players and contributors in ‘the whole system’
  • The ways in which people related to each other
  • The way they reacted and behaved in certain situations and contexts
  • The extent to which people in organisations (other than its senior leaders) were able to participate and collaborate in order to inform and collectively develop the organisation’s purpose or mission, vision and values and to develop strategies and plans in order to deliver them.
Key point

Those studying organisation development came to appreciate the importance of how people constructed their reality and the culture of the organisation by their interactions, conversations and behavioural ‘norms’ within an organisation.

By the 1990s, there was increased interest in the idea and contribution of values-driven approaches and organisational learning, but all this sometimes sat uncomfortably alongside ‘Downsizing’, Business Process Re-engineering, ‘Rationalisation’ (an increasingly global phenomenon) and the growing use of particular, single approaches and methodologies.

The increasing use of management consultants to solve problems or to manage a change process sometimes led to a lack of employee engagement and inclusion, and to particular models and frameworks being imposed top-down, with little other ownership or contribution. This in turn led to employee sabotage of the change effort. Mechanistic approaches of this type were criticised for being too rigid and for taking an over-simplified view of leadership, management and organisations.

Such problems gave rise to increasing research and interest in collaborative approaches, complexity thinking and understanding organisations as complex systems which cannot be rigidly controlled. It began to be clear that if organisations were to be able to develop a culture of genuine empowerment, risk-taking and experimentation, it was necessary to develop facilitative leaders and managers, rather than managers whose role was to plan change.

Burns (1996) said that key organisational activities were information-gathering about the external environment and internal objectives and capabilities; communication – the transmission, analysis and discussion of information and learning... [and] the ability to develop new skills, identify appropriate responses and draw knowledge from their own and others’ past and present actions.

Back to the future

It can be seen from this brief canter through history that Organisation Development has moved on from its early beginnings in the 1960s. Each decade built upon theories, research and learning from the previous decade. OD today is often characterised by system-wide, transformational interventions and strategies, with a clear focus on empowerment, inclusion, participation, values and ethics and on developing leaders and people in order to develop the organisation and deliver high levels of customer and stakeholder satisfaction.

Consequently, key skills for leaders and managers in the 21st century and key issues for OD strategy development today encompass

  • Conducting thorough and frequent environmental scans and diagnoses (both internal and external)
  • Capturing and translating the information gleaned and sharing it appropriately. Involving others in identifying appropriate responses, including reviewing the core purpose, vision, strategies and goals of the organisation, where necessary
  • Learning and applying learning and knowledge, and embedding a learning culture
  • Skilfully facilitating – teams, discussions, processes, change, the development of people and organisational potential
  • Empowering, developing and trusting people, enabling them to participate fully, to be creative, take risks, experiment and learn
  • Embedding and demonstrating a flexible and adaptable leadership approach.