The art of Organisation Development (OD)

OD is the art of organisation development – the application of behavioural science to turn work into a positive and successful place in which people are fulfilled.

As a discipline, OD emerged in the 1950s as a product of an initiative in the United States known as the ‘quality of work life’ movement. The QWL movement was largely sponsored by the employee’s unions, but it gained widespread attention and was seen as a positive endorsement of, and stimulus to, progressive management practices.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the term ‘excellence‘ was applied simultaneously by the White House and by two management commentators, Bob Waterman and Tom Peters, to the idea that long-term corporate success followed from four key characteristics – customer obsession, employee empowerment, transformed leadership and institutionalised innovation. Those four tenets were the bedrock of the QWL movement too.

In the intervening years, other initiatives have been based on the same model, though sadly few people read the whole book before they apply their own interpretation to the title! Examples would be Total Quality (TQ), Business Process Reengineering (BPR), and the Balanced Scorecard, each of which assumed the four tenets as precursors for the environment they were proposing.

OD then, reflects a discipline concerned with helping organisations develop these four tenets. It is the application of science, but with a very clear set of values about people and work underlying it. Today, most people refer to OD, rather than QWL or ‘excellence‘.

For fairly simple psychological reasons, the modern management world distrusts the qualitative and favours the quantitative.

One consequence of this is that managers in ‘scientific‘ industries (such as manufacturing, finance and engineering) often give the impression that they consider themselves a step above those in the ‘soft‘ industries (such as leisure, arts, and healthcare).

For the same reasons, a science has evolved around the behaviour of people at work – this is known as OB (organisational behaviour). OB does not have the same underlying values implicit in it and can be applied in circumstances where an OD practitioner would refuse to be involved. Classic examples would be the application of performance improvement techniques in sweatshop factories.

As the old Sy Oliver song went: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”

HISTORY: This article was written and published elsewhere back in November 2004. It gets referred to from time-to-time, but I was slightly surprised to discover this week that it had been copied completely onto a Malaysian HR website! So, I thought I’d put it here as well – closer to its spiritual home!


  1. Thanks Graham
    I enjoyed this article. I agree that OD is the “application of behavioural science…..”. I would, however, like to see this definition expanded to include the the word “diagnose” (eg “the application of behavioural science to diagnose……”) as it’s the diagnostic part that is so often overlooked by the OD community as they scurry to “apply” the behavioural science.
    Cheers Shayne

  2. That’s an interesting point, Shayne.

    ‘Diagnostics’, certainly in my part of the world, got a bit of a poor reputation in the 90s, because the larger consultancies would charge a fortune for producing a massive report, usually prepared to a formula – the one I was familiar with ran to over a thousand pages with boxes to be completed by junior consultants based on a few days discussions with (mainly) heads of departments. The story used to go that these produced excellent door stops but were rarely read and never acted upon.

    The projects that I have tended to be involved in have been top down cultural changes when the senior-most executive(s) have already decided on their ‘people strategy’ – often on the basis of some kind of ‘diagnostic’, albeit written in their language and fairly subjective. This is why they have found me in the first place. “We know what we want; the guy to talk to is Graham Wilson”.

    In my terms, an OD project is all about creating an ‘exceptional place to work’, so by definition the first step is to establish the parameters that need to shift. I am not the one to define these – all I can provide is a process and prepare people to use it. Sometimes, this involves preparing a business case for change – in which case a diagnostic may well be embraced as part of the preparation of this.

    In many situations though, the ‘problem’ I encounter is that the people on the front line have relatively little exposure to (and belief in) alternative ways of doing things. In this case, the process of preparation has to include quite a substantial educational element before conclusions can be drawn. Generally this isn’t hard to up-sell, though sometimes it is.

    So what I’m saying is that while an analysis of the areas for change does need to happen, a diagnostic in the classic sense isn’t the answer that I prefer to employ.

    Thanks for raising such an interesting point.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.