Can someone tell me what this ‘organisational development’ is really about?

17 March 2016

Last year, I kept hearing people talk about ‘organisational development’, throwing it around in meetings to mean all sorts of things, and no one was questioning it.

And then, I was asked to write a report on organisational development for the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia. Finally, I got the chance to wade through the vast amount of literature on the subject and distil some of the most useful approaches.

What I found was, while organisational development is ripe with complexity and overlapping definitions, it is, in fact, central to what so many of us do in our everyday development work.


So what is it and what is it not?

Essentially, organisational development (or ‘OD’ if you want bonus jargon points) is a planned effort to help an organisation achieve its strategic goals more effectively and efficiently. That is, helping organisations do what they are designed to do, but better.

For example, if a think tank was set up to advocate for gender issues but strays into financial analysis, because that’s where the contracts are, OD can help the organisation work out how to get back to its original mandate. Other common examples include organisations needing to improve communications and outreach or to build stronger networks and partnerships.

But don’t confuse it with other types of action. OD is not, for example, a development plan for a single person or unit within an organisation. It may focus on a particular area or team, but working out what needs fixing and how to do it happens at the organisational level. Think macro.

Nor is it just an ad hoc set of activities that an organisation happens to be running. OD is intentional and usually follows an organisation-wide diagnosis of problems and areas for improvement. This is often done in a workshop setting, bringing together management and staff (even better, with an ODI specialist) to think about how to better achieve your strategic goals -are you on the right track, could you do things differently, what would that look like and how would you get there?

Where does it come from and where is it going?

The term formally emerged in the 1950s and is generally credited to US psychologist Kurt Lewin, although some theories date back to the 1920s.

How we talk about organisational development is constantly evolving (therein the confusion and overlapping definitions).

During the 1950s and 1960s a lot of the discussion used to be around ‘institution building’ – transplanting the ways organisations functioned in developed countries to developing countries.

In the 1970s, it was more about ‘institutional strengthening’, while in the 1980s it was more people-focussed, realising that developing institutions meant developing people within them.

These days, people tend to talk a lot about ‘capacity building’ activities. The emphasis is on continued learning and adapting, looking at an organisations’ results rather than just its outputs.

It’s hard to say what’s next for OD, but the current trajectory seems to be more about putting organisations themselves in the driver’s seat.

If we consider what future needs might look like, more organisations might like to introduce flexible working arrangements, new technologies or incentives for fostering innovation.

So what does it look like in action?

If done well, OD covers four main stages of activity:

  1. understanding the current situation and diagnosing the problem
  2. developing your vision for change and planning how to get there
  3. carrying out OD activities
  4. measuring and evaluating the change

Of course, given the plethora of organisations and their range of needs, there’s no exhaustive list of types of activities. But it may include things such as technical assistance on topics like management or IT literacy; or mentoring programmes and twinning arrangements with other institutions.

Where do I start?

One of the best approaches out there is Kotter’s Eight Stage Model.

After 15 years of research, Kotter found that more than 70% of all major organisational transformation efforts fail. The reason for this, according to Kotter was that they didn’t take a holistic approach to changing themselves, and they did not bring their staff along with them.

If you ever need to get involved in OD, Kotter’s not a bad place to start. For more on this, you can read our report, which synthesises the extensive OD literature and pulls out some of the most practical models and approaches.