A New Era for the Practice of Organization Development

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It has been a little over 45 years since the term Organization Development (OD) was first used in print to refer to that distinctive profession and consulting practice which aims to help organizations become more effective by means of systematic interventions focusing on organizational culture, processes and structure.  During its short history, the OD profession has maintained a predominant focus on whole system interventions that serve the purpose of aligning organizational structure, strategy, culture, and processes to optimize organizational performance. This focus on alignment reflected a tendency on the part of OD professionals and their clients to assume that organizational problems are for the most part internally generated, and that external factors constituting the organization’s environment remain relatively stable over time. At the height of the industrial era, it was reasonable to believe that a one-time OD intervention targeted at achieving optimal alignment of structure, strategy, culture and processes could place an organization on a path of virtually perpetual growth. 

However, in the short period of a single generation, the world has changed in profound ways, and a new era is upon us. Today, organizations large and small must contend with the unprecedented 21st century context of a knowledge world that is dynamic, changing and fast-paced. Our current, prevailing context for OD is knowledge driven, technologically and electronically connected, globalized, boundary-less, human/intellectual capital intensive, interdependent, complex and culturally and ideologically diverse. Yet, even within this novel context, many managers continue to operate within the old paradigm that seeks to optimize organizational functioning in the same way that one might fine tune a machine contained within a static box. 

Today, OD professionals serve their clients and communities best when they challenge the outdated assumptions of a bygone era that are out of step with present conditions, and when they apply their specialized knowledge and skills in ways that help their clients break free from the old mindset. 

To those who have embraced new paradigm thinking, an organization is a complex social system oriented towards multiple purposes (social, environmental, economic), driven by the holistic, generative capacity of its human capital in the face of perpetual uncertainty and existing in dynamic relationship to an ever-changing, chaotic environment. OD professionals today are challenged to relinquish their past role as experts hired from the outside to assess and intervene with fixes that will optimize organizational performance. 

We are challenged to embrace a new role as co-learners and process consultants who, because of our training and experience, are able to guide clients as they learn new habits of thinking, relating and acting, that in turn will allow organizations to thrive in the face of chaos and uncertainty within the new knowledge world paradigm.  

But what constitutes thriving?  How do we know what constitutes successful intervention if the conditions that form the context of organizational life are in constant flux?

In a 1996 paper entitled Working today as if tomorrow mattered: A challenge to the OD profession, Dr. John Adams provided a sobering assessment of the role of the OD profession in facing the unprecedented challenges of the new century. He criticized the conventional OD role limited to improving organizational effectiveness, by means of an ethical argument. According to Adams, incremental improvement in organizational effectiveness would be an exercise in futility, unless such improvement is accompanied by a clear sense of the destination guided by the image of a sustainable future.

To employ OD tools and practices without consideration for the unsustainable trends that are the global context of today’s client systems would constituted a misuse of the knowledge and skills of a profession rooted in the humanistic tradition and dedicated to strengthening the capacity of organizations to thrive as well-functioning social systems over the long term. Dr. Adams sounded an alarm by criticizing the complacency of some within the profession, while simultaneously acknowledging the tremendous potential that our profession has to consciously lead change toward a sustainable future. 

Today, the sustainability movement has considerable momentum on a global scale, and is reflected in a rise of sustainable consciousness among business managers and OD professionals alike, a remarkable trend described in Peter Senge’s 2010 work, “the Necessary Revolution.” 

So where are we now? What must we in the OD profession do to be effective change agents during the next decade and beyond, given the above mentioned challenges of a dynamically changing knowledge economy and the rise of sustainable consciousness at all levels of society?  How might we build on our early successes and uphold the core humanistic values of our profession? 

In a 2009 article entitled “New paradigms in organization development: Positivity, spirituality, and complexity” Fahri Karakas states that “[t]he field of Organization development is becoming fuzzy, more dynamic and trans-disciplinary… .”  He suggests that “[t]o enable a positive context of organization development; management consultants and professionals should focus on creating sustainable learning communities and inspirational learning contexts in organizations for the 21st century. In the socio-technical-ecological context of a rapidly changing interconnected world, the above prescription reflects the counterpart notions that sustainability requires organizational learning and that organizational learning can be made sustainable

In other words, for a given organization to thrive over the long term within a knowledge rich and continuously changing environment, it must function as a community with the acquired capacity to take in new knowledge, and adjust to changing circumstances while remaining centered on its core mission. When organizations function as learning communities, they unleash hidden human potentials that allow them not only to effectively respond to external changes, but also to align their activities with the deepest passions and highest aspirations of their community members. The latter notion, that organizational learning can be made sustainable, implies that managers and OD professionals must give careful attention to social dynamics, structures and processes that either facilitate or impair the emergence of inspirational learning contexts, and foster the emergence and evolution of sustainable organizational culture. 

Because these ideal conditions that form the inspirational learning context involve numerous intangible qualities of human experience, such as shared vision, trust and meaningfulness, it cannot be assumed that such conditions will arise on their own. To be sure, there are forces operating in this turbulent global economy that are affecting individuals and organizations in the opposite direction, leaving many with less coherence, less commonality of vision, less meaningfulness, and less hope. 

Despite the encouraging rise in sustainable consciousness mentioned above, deleterious social trends are evident at all levels within the society at large that will almost certainly pose formidable challenges for many years to come.  High visibility issues such as the runaway fiscal deficits in the US and Europe, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and neglected infrastructure may ultimately pale in significance when compared to the full extent of the corresponding social deficits, including ignorance, disillusionment, apathy, and loss of civility, that threaten to undermine our most valuable resource:  human potential. 

As we encounter the new conditions of the information age, it should come as no surprise that increasing stress occasioned by accelerated change on the global scale may contribute to a loss of capacity for constructive dialogue at all levels of society that threatens to exacerbate the challenges faced by organizations seeking to anticipate and strategically plan for future contingencies. The turbulent conditions of the information age are such that we can no longer assume that communication within groups (or between groups) will be effective based on shared meaning structures, any more than we can assume that stable characteristics will prevail within our shared socio-technical-ecological environments. 

The hierarchies and centralized control structures of the past are no longer viable as organizational strategies, and a move towards more participatory governance structures require us to skillfully confront what Dr. Aleco Christakis refers to as the “unshakable human burdens of dialogue.” These burdens include the limits of human cognition, group pathologies and unequal power relations that prevent many well intentioned collaborative efforts from attaining their democratic ideals.  

Despite these challenges, it is within the province of the OD profession, given its humanistic traditions, to engage organizations as social systems struggling to manage complexity and thrive as learning communities. We can do this by facilitating a shift away from reliance on rigidly defined inter-personal relationships and meaning structures, towards a greater reliance on common processes and shared skills that allow people with divergent worldviews to sustain generative dialogue and co-creative learning. The new OD practice must involve interventions that track with the self-organizing potentials of chaotic systems, where long held assumptions can be brought to the surface and critically examines under conditions of relational safety. The emerging field of transformative learning theory and practice, as well as tools such as Structured Design Process offer useful guidance for OD practitioners engaged in this new paradigm practice. 

By simultaneously questioning assumptions, while honoring the integrity of each person at the most basic level of our common humanity, the OD professional of the 21st century can help our organizational clients realize emergent synergies that have yet to be imagined against the foreseeable dire consequences of inaction.

Read other posts by Brett R. Joseph

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