The real definition of Organisational Development?

If there is one term that I hear more and more, but means less and less it is “Organisational Development”.  I’m not sure I was ever taught what it meant all those years ago when I sat my IPD exams nor did I ever witness anyone talking about it as I cut my teeth in the profession. Yet in the last couple of years I seemed to have been invited to more conferences, training days, seminars and webinars on Organisational Development than anything else.

But the thing is….and not for the first time…..we don’t seem to know what we’re talking about.

At a recent conference I attended, the session on OD was the most popular of the lot. Not because of the quality of the speakers, they were neither spectacular nor dismal, but because we were all there hoping someone was going to tell us what it was all about (for the record: they didn’t, so I’m none the wiser).

One of the biggest mistakes that we make, in my small and completely humble opinion, is the confusion between OD and OD interventions.  Typical of the profession, we are happy getting down and dirty with the practicalities and less happy talking about the more ethereal overall concepts. One of the questions raised by a delegate prior to the conference was how to evaluate the success of an OD programme. I guess my answer would be that the problem is the question not the evaluation.

I’m not a big believer in making things complex, there are theorists out there who will tell you the models and thinkers that are best positioned on OD….when I have time to read, it is not going to be on that topic. I tend to take a simple view of all things HR and that includes OD.

If you look at the development of a human it is an organic (by definition) process. We know that humans develop differently; at different speeds, in different ways and with different results.  Within a lifetime there are various stages of development and we “do stuff” to support and aid that development. Whether that is early years stuff, learning the first words etc. Whether that is educational stuff, schooling, further or higher education. Or indeed, whether it is more experiential stuff such as the first job.

And this “stuff” is the group of interventions that support development, sure they can be evaluated and measured (if you absolutely feel the need to) but in themselves they are not the development.  You can measure exam results, but what is done with the learning is the important thing.  Likewise in Organisations, there are interventions that support the development but these in themselves, I would argue, are not Organisational Development.

Instead the overall journey that grows and develops and organisation and the big and tiny interventions as well as the less substantive, but no less important, natural development and growth of the organisation through experience, trial and error, but – and this is an important factor – in a semi-cohesive progression towards an agreed general strategic direction. That for me, comes closer to trying to encapsulate this concept of OD.

And if that all sounds woolly, I guess that is because to a certain extent I think it is. On the other hand, we could just go back to measuring process badly. Because we know how to do that.


  1. Pingback: XpertHR - Employment Intelligence
  2. Pingback: XpertHR - Employment Intelligence
  3. Pingback: XpertHR - Employment Intelligence
  4. Robert Blevin · April 14, 2011

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for once again giving me something interesting, thought provoking and difficult to disagree with to read over my morning porridge. It’s becoming something of a habit.

    We produced a podcast last summer under the title “HR and organisation development: separate past, joint future?”. You can listen to it here:

    I’d be interested in your view (and those of other readers) as to how helpful this is to the point you’re making.

    Without wishing to sound like a stuck record, I think there’s an awful lot of overlap between what you’re saying here (and over at XpertHR), and what we’re saying in the Next Generation HR research ( – particularly on the importance of both shared purpose and the development of a more insight-led approach to HR (, drawing heavily on the intersection between organisation savvy, contextual savvy, and business savvy.

    Robert Blevin

    • Neil · April 18, 2011


      Thanks for commenting. I haven’t listen to the podcast yet, but I have read the paper of next generation HR. What is the CIPD intending on doing with this? It seems like an interesting start point, but requiring a lot more flesh on the bones.

  5. David Goddin · April 14, 2011

    I love your language Neil around organisational development being a journey in the context of the business strategic direction.

    Too often organisational development is viewed solely through the lens of the HR function. So it’s not surprising that the business (let alone HR) either doesn’t fully understand or even appreciate OD. How can it then form part of the businesses strategic direction?

    I see organisational development as the responsibility of the organisation and in particular the management and leadership of the organisation. This includes raising awareness, building understanding and encouraging curiosity in organisational development in its broadest sense, not just training or leadership programmes.

    An “Insight-led approach” is arguably what most OD functions have been doing or trying to do but I’ve also seen how insight can be constrained by passion for metrics.

    So being OD savvy seems more appropriate and encompassing but isn’t this already a responsibility for all of us?

    • Neil · April 18, 2011

      Interestingly I think that OD is a perfect intersection for a lot of areas of business. You could say it was a great chance to knit people practices into the fabric of an organisation?

  6. Sukh Pabial · April 14, 2011

    A good post Neil, and it mirrors some thoughts I have on the topic. I’m still trying to collect some thoughts on it so I can discuss it better myself. I think the point you make about OD practitioners themselves not being able to define it presents the very problem a lot of people have with the topic, that it’s so broad and with a big remit, you can’t really know if the actions taking place are OD or not. I have other thoughts on the topic, but they’re a bit scattered at the moment.

    • Neil · April 18, 2011

      I guess that is why talking about it is important. Also being comfortable with the unease and not rushing to pin the definition on an intervention or other.

  7. Terrence Seamon · April 16, 2011

    Hi Neil,
    Good post!

    Like you, I have been thinking about OD. For example:

    Your distinction between what an Organization does as it organically develops toward its strategic direction (“true” OD) and what an Organization Development specialist does (OD interventions), is intriguing…and one that many would agree with, I think.


    • Neil · April 18, 2011

      Thanks for commenting Terry. I think separating out the intervention from the overall direction is pretty key, but as I say we seem to feel happier with process…its easier.

  8. Pingback: XpertHR - Employment Intelligence
  9. Pingback: XpertHR - Employment Intelligence
  10. megP · April 26, 2011

    I think OD is the past, the present and the future of organisations if you accept that there is potential in everyone, and that human behaviour is a major factor in organisational performance. It’s the past because of experiences, stories, and what happened shapes how we view the world and react to stimuli, it’s the present because it’s tomorrow’s stories happening today influenced by yesterday, and it’s the future because we can help people to define their future stories, the experiences they will have and the way an organisation will achieve it’s potential. OD is in my view both a philosophical set of values and beliefs about how organisations work, and the method of growing the potential to increase effectiveness. It’s a deep methodology that views the whole system, and it doesn’t just involve leadership values workshops and restructures or other mechanistic processes. It’s a way of engaging the organisation in dialogue. The act of engaging in organisational development is the way of helping people understand it, which is why it feels opaque because it’s something people need to learn about like any art or science. HR has too much involvement in policy and procedure to be an influencer – as a function I mean, sure you can do it individually, but HR is a command and control system, just as surely as OD is a way of running organisations.

  11. Pingback: #HRD11 final thoughts Part 2 | Thinking About Learning
  12. Pingback: To Blog To Serve « T Recs
  13. Ali Germain · August 25, 2014

    Really enjoyed this thought provoking post. I am an OD Director, 16 years in HR and this year after mind boggling research in to what IT is, I decided for the sake of my own sanity that OD is about driving organisational performance. Most recently I notice Learning leaning in to the space as it strives to connect initiatives to business agenda and measure outcomes. It’s all the same in my view. Here are my thoughts on definition:

    Be human
    Be connected
    Think holistically
    Understand the organisation thread….history, current state of affairs, therefore informing next steps
    Did I mention be human?

    It’s generic, it’s vague, but that is OD. It is what is needs to be based on the environment. I think.

    • Neil · September 7, 2014

      Thanks Ali, what you say makes a lot of sense.

  14. Pingback: So what the hell is OD? | change-effect

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s