Foundations of organisational development

Seventy years-old, organisational development as a concept and practice is still going strong and arguably always will be as long as we have the ‘organisation’ in some form or other. If it can be distilled down to a single sentence, organisational development (OD) is about using behavioural insights to transform an organisation’s systems and structures; the goal being to align that organisation’s capability with its strategy.

In other words, OD is about organisational performance and the factors that can be used to influence that performance. If that sounds like a broad field of study and application, it is. Aspects of organisational development include human behaviour and psychology, organisational and workplace culture, planning and strategy processes, change management (on a grand scale), not to mention sociology, motivation theory, learning and training, knowledge management, systems thinking, the list goes on.

So far, so good, so general…

To gain a little detail on the matter, let’s take a look at the taproots of organisational development, from its inception in the 1950s through the decades of research that guides the practice today.

Group dynamics and action research

Sometimes called the founding father of OD, Kurt Lewin developed the ideas of group dynamics and action research, the foundations of ‘organisational development’ when the phrase was finally coined in the 50s. Group dynamics is the scientific study of how groups, and individuals within groups, react to changing circumstances and was the basis for later research by Bruce Tuckman into group decision-making and development (the forming, storming, norming, performing framework). Action research is a practical problem-solving research approach based on a planning-action-results cycle that includes information-gathering and analysis and reflection in order to base decisions on practical data. Lewin’s use of ‘T-groups’ (training groups) used feedback, problem-solving and role play to enable groups of individuals to learn ab out themselves (and groups) through their interactions – concepts and processes which are still in use in organisational development and learning today. The term ‘organisational development’ was first coined by Richard Beckhard as part of a company-wide change project at General Mills in the 1950s.

Based on the fundamental pillars of analysis and data-driven decision-making and strategising, various researches in the ensuing decades added to the growing field of organisational development. For example:

  • Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs encouraged open organisations and the motivational recognition of individual contributions.
  • Warren Bennis’ work on organisational culture explored the complex reality of attempting to change beliefs, attitudes, and values.
  • Edgar Schein’s work in the 1980s delved into organisational values and how they drive and influence behaviour.

The Burke-Litwin model

The number of organisational development models may well be legion. One such that has proven durable (and effective!) was a cause and effect model developed in the 1960s by W. Warner Burke and George H. Litwin. The model identifies twelve key elements found in an organisation that influence any effort to create and maintain change. The elements are:

  1. External environment – business competitors, customers, the economy, politics, legislation.
  2. Mission and strategy – organisational goals and strategies, vision, mission statement.
  3. Leadership – the methods by which those in senior positions guide the organisation.
  4. Organisational culture – the organisation’s values, practices, ‘rules’ (both acknowledged and unacknowledged), and the way we do things around here.
  5. Structure – hierarchy of positions, roles, teams/departments and functions; influencing decision-making, communications and authority.
  6. Systems – policy and procedures.
  7. Management practices – how managers put strategies into action, how they manage resources (including human resources).
  8. Work unit climate – the employee experience of the working or organisational environment; including the factors that contribute to worker satisfaction.
  9. Task and individual skills – job/position requirements and the necessary skills and knowledge; are the right people in the right place at the right time?
  10. Individual needs and values – employee expectations and demands; including roles & responsibilities, quality of work, compensation, and work-life balance.
  11. Motivation – how, and to what degree, employees are motivated.
  12. Individual and general performance – individual, team and organisational levels of performance.

As the specific contents or expression of each element can easily be kept current, the Burke-Litwin model remains an extremely practical tool for guiding and embedding organisational change.

Taking the organisation as a whole

In essence, organisational development is a holistic discipline. No one factor or organisational element can be addressed alone (though one or more may be tackled as a priority, depending on circumstances). In this sense, an organisation is a single system with each part affecting and impacting on the others.

Looking toward the future… trends such as modern communication technologies and increasing automation and artificial intelligence are both having and are set to have significant impact on the workplace and organisations of tomorrow. Likewise, the slow but inexorable rise in flexible and remote working is affecting which OD interventions are likely to be effective in the modern business. In fact, given the sudden, forced increase in remote working caused by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, it’s entirely possible that organisational structures and functioning are set for a paradigm shift. The practice of OD will undoubtedly be keeping pace (or even leading the way) but what that will look like…? Stay tuned…

For more on the organisational development mindset and the use of OD processes and tools on real workplace challenges, check out our training programme Introduction to Organisational Development, or give us a call on 01582 463462 – we’re here to help!

Categories: HR

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