What is Organisational Development? Definitions,

What is Organisational Development?

“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes—it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable.

But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.”—Peter Ducker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes—it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable.

But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.”—Peter Ducker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century. Organisational Development (OD) comprises a special set of organizational change methods. It is a planned, systematic process of organizational change based on behavioral science research and theory.

The goal of OD is to create adaptive organizations capable of transforming and reinvesting themselves to remain effective. OD draws from psychology, sociology and anthropology. It is based on many well-established principles regarding the behavior of individuals and groups in organizations.

What was earlier popularly known as Organisation Development (OD) is currently christened as Organisational Change and Development (OCD), though the such label is widely used in academic institutions, primarily to focus on the changes the organizations are expected to embrace and their role as “drivers of change.” The field of OCD emerged as an independent discipline in the late 1950s.

Taking “insights from group dynamics and the theory and practice of planned change,” it has grown as an applied behavioral science used effectively to solve the critical problems confronting the various facets and dynamics which are both internal and external to organizations today.

OD involves organizational reflection, system improvement, planning, and self-analysis. In other words, it is the planned change to a company to enable growth (or change) in an effective way Relative to consulting. At the core of OD is the concept of an organization, defined as two or more people working together toward one or more shared goals.

Development in this context is the notion that an organization may become more effective over time at achieving its goals. OD is a long-range effort to improve an organization’s problem-solving and renewal processes, particularly through more effective and collaborative management of organizational culture, often with the assistance of a change agent or catalyst and the use of the theory and technology of applied behavioral science.

Organisation Development Definition

Organization development is a system-wide application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures, and processes for improving an organization’s effectiveness. (Cummings and Worley, Organisation Development and Change, Sixth Edition, South-Western Publishing, 1997, p.2.)

  • Definitions of Organisation Development

    • A planned effort.

    • Organisation-wide.

    • Managed from the top.

    • To increase the organization effectiveness and health.

    • Through planned interventions in the organization’s ‘processes’, using behavioral science knowledge.
  • According to Warren Bennis, Organisation Development (OD) is a complex strategy intended to change the beliefs, attitudes, values, and structure of organizations so that they can better adapt to new technologies, markets, and challenges.

  • Warner Burke emphasizes that OD is not just “anything done to better an organisation”; it is a particular kind of change process designed to bring about a particular kind of end result.

  • OD is a systematic application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures and processes for improving an organization’s effectiveness. (Cummings and Worley, 1993)

Analysis of OD Definition

The definitions so analyzed contain the elements which are important for OD. To summarize, here are the primary distinguishing characteristics of organizational development:

  1. OD focuses on culture and processes.

  2. OD focuses on the human and social side of the organization.

  3. OD realizes the action research model with extensive participation by the client system participation.

  4. OD takes a developmental view that aims at the betterment of both the individual and the organization i.e., “win-win” solutions.

  5. It encourages the involvement and participation of all levels of organisation in the problem-solving and decision-making.

Characteristics of OD

Below are the characteristics of organisation development:

  • OD is a long-term effort
  • Supported by top management
  • OD is a learning process
  • OD is visioning processes
  • OD is an empowerment process
  • Contractual Relationship
  • Change Agent
  • Sponsoring Organisation
  • Applied Behavioral Science
  • System Context
  • Improved Organisational Performance
  • Organizational Self Renewal

Long-term Effort

which means that organizational change and development take a long time it is a never-ending journey of continuous change for organization effectiveness.

Supported by Top Management

The OD programmers seek serious attention and commitment from the top management for achieving its objectives of improvements.

Learning Process

which means the process of interaction, listening and self-examining which facilitates individual, team and organizational learning.

Visioning Processes

which means the organisation members develop a picture of the desired future that includes the humanistic approach to make that picture a reality.

Empowerment Process

which means those leadership behaviors and human resource practices that enable organisation members to develop and use their talents as fully as possible towards organisational growth and success.

Contractual Relationship

Although neither the sponsoring organisation nor the change agent can be sure at the outset of the exact nature of the problem or problems to be dealt with or how long the change agent’s help will be needed, it is essential that some tentative agreement on these matters be reached.

The sponsoring organisation needs to know generally what the change agent’s preliminary plan is, what its own commitments are in relation to personal commitments and responsibility for the program, and what the change agent’s fee will be.

The change agent must assure himself that the organisation’s, and particularly the top executives’, commitment to change is strong enough to support the kind of self analysis and personal involvement requisite to success of the program.

Recognizing the uncertainties lying ahead on both sides, a termination agreement permitting either side to withdraw at any time is usually included.

Change Agent

A change agent in the sense used here is not a technical expert skilled in such functional areas as accounting, production, or finance. He is a behavioral scientist who knows how to get people in an organization involved in solving their problems. His main strength is a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior, supported by several intervention techniques.

The change agent can be either external or internal to the organization. An internal change agent is usually a staff person who has expertise in the behavioral sciences and the intervention technology of OD. Beckhard reports several cases in which line people have been trained in OD and have returned to their organizations to engage in successful change assignments.

In the natural evolution of change mechanisms in organizations, this would seem to approach the ideal arrangement. Qualified change agents can be found on some university faculties, or they may be private consultants associated with such organizations as the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science Washington, University Associates (San Diego, California), and similar organizations.

The change agent may be a staff or line member of the organization who is schooled in OD theory and technique. In such a case, the “contractual relationship” is an in-house agreement that should probably be explicit concerning all of the conditions involved except the fee.

Sponsoring Organisation

The initiative for OD programs comes from an organisation that has a problem. This means that top management or someone authorized by top management is aware that a problem exists and has decided to seek help in solving it.

There is a direct analogy here to the practice of psychotherapy: The client or patient must actively seek help in finding a solution to his problems. This indicates a willingness on the part of the client organization to accept help and assures the organization that management is actively concerned.

Applied Behavioral Science

One of the outstanding characteristics of OD that distinguishes it from most other improvement programs is that it is based on a “helping relationship.” The change agent is not a physician to the organization’s ills; he does not examine the “patient,” make a diagnosis and write a prescription.

Nor does he try to teach organizational members a new inventory of knowledge which they then transfer to the job situation.

Using theory and methods drawn from such behavioral sciences as psychology, sociology, communication, cultural anthropology, organizational behavior economics, and political science, the change agent’s main function is to help the organization define and solve its problems.The basic method used is known as action research.

This approach, which is described in detail later, consists of a preliminary diagnosis, collection of data, feedback of the data to the client, data exploration by the client group, action planning based on the data, and taking action.

System Context

OD deals with a total system — the organization as a whole, including its relevant environment — or with a sub-system or systems — departments or work groups — in the context of the total system.

Parts of systems, for example, individuals, cliques, structures, norms, values, and products are not considered in isolation; the principle of interdependency, that is, that change in one part of a system affects the other parts, is fully recognized.

Thus, OD interventions focus on the total culture and cultural processes of organizations. The focus is also on groups since the relevant behavior of individuals in organizations and groups is generally a product of group influences rather than personality.

Improved Organisational Performance

The objective of OD is to improve the organization’s capacity to handle its internal and external functioning and relationships.

This would include such things as improved interpersonal and group processes, more effective communication, enhanced ability to cope with organizational problems of all kinds, more effective decision processes, more appropriate leadership style, improved skill in dealing with destructive conflict, and higher levels of trust and cooperation among organizational members.

These objectives stem from a value system based on an optimistic view of the nature of man — that man in a supportive environment is capable of achieving higher levels of development and accomplishment.

Also essential to organization development and effectiveness is the scientific method — inquiry, a rigorous search for causes, experimental testing of hypotheses, and review of results. Finally, the democratic process is viewed as having a legitimate, and perhaps dominant, role in the highly effective organization.

Organizational Self Renewal

The ultimate aim of the outside OD practitioner is to “work himself out of a job” by leaving the client organization with a set of tools, behaviors, attitudes, and an action plan with which to monitor its state of health and to take corrective steps toward its renewal and development. This is consistent with the system’s concept of feedback as a regulatory and corrective mechanism.

History of Organisation Development

Early Development

The history of organization development is rich with the contributions of behavioral scientists and practitioners. Systematic organization development activities have recent history. Kurt Lewin played a key role in the evolution of organization development as it is known today.

As early as World War II, Lewin experimented with a collaborative change process (involving himself as a consultant and a client group) based on a three-step process of planning, taking action, and measuring results. This was the forerunner of action research, an important element of OD, which will be discussed later.

Lewin then participated in the beginnings of laboratory training, or T-Groups, and, after his death in 1947, his close associates helped to develop survey-research methods at the University of Michigan.

These procedures became important parts of OD as developments in this field continued at the National Training Laboratories and in growing numbers of universities and private consulting firms across the country. The failure of off-site laboratory training to live up to its early promise was one of the important forces stimulating the development of OD.

Laboratory training is learning from a person’s “here and now” experience as a member of an ongoing training group. Such groups usually meet without a specific agenda. Their purpose is for the members to learn about themselves from their spontaneous “here and now” responses to an ambiguous hypothetical situation.

Problems of leadership, structure, status, communication and self-serving behavior typically arise in such a group. The members have an opportunity to learn something about themselves and to practice such skills as listening, observing others, and functioning as effective group members.

As formerly practiced (and occasionally still practiced for special purposes), laboratory training was conducted in “stranger groups,” or groups composed of individuals from different organizations, situations, and backgrounds.

A major difficulty developed, however, in transferring knowledge gained from these “stranger labs” to the actual situation “back home”. This required a transfer between two different cultures, the relatively safe and protected environment of the T-Group (or training group) and the give-and-take of the organizational environment with its traditional values.

This led the early pioneers in this type of learning to begin to apply it to “family groups” — that is, groups located within an organization. From this shift in the locale of the training site and the realization that culture was an important factor in influencing group members (along with some other developments in the behavioral sciences) emerged the concept of organization development.

Systematic organization development activities have a recent history and, to use the analogy of the mangrove tree, have at least four important trunk stems. They are as follows:

  • Laboratory training stem
  • Survey research and feedback stem
  • Action research stem
  • Socio technical and socio-clinical stem

Laboratory Training Stem

Laboratory training began to develop about 1946 from various experiments. It is important to involve unstructured small-group situations in which participants learn from their actions and the group’s evolving dynamics. The major contributions to this concept were from behavioral scientists Kurt Lewin followed by experts Robert Tannebaum, Chris Argyris, Douglas Mc Gregor, Herbert Shepard, Robert Blake, Jane Mouton and Richard Beckhard.

Survey research and feedback stem

It is the second major stem in the history of Organisation development. It involves a specialized form of organization research. The research was conducted for years by staff members at the Survey Research center of the University of Michigan.

The effectiveness of these studies was more than the traditional training courses as they involved the system of human relationships as a whole and deals with each manager, supervisor, and employee in the context of his job, his problems, and his work relationships.

The major contributors were Rensis Likert, Floyd Mann and others.

Action research stem

Action research is the third stem which is a collaborative, client-consultant inquiry. The scholars and practitioners who have invented and utilized action research in the evolution of OD were William F. Whyte and Hamilton. Kurt Lewin also conducted several experiments in the mid-1940s and early 1950s. This approach, today is one of the most important methods for OD interventions in organizations.

Socio technical and Socio-clinical stem

This is the fourth stem in the history of OD to help groups and organizations. The major contributions were made by W.R. Bion, John Richman, Eric Trist and others. The socio-technical approach focussed on the non-executive ranks of organizations and especially the redesign of work.

Modern Development-Second Generation OD

In recent years, serious questioning has emerged about the relevance of OD in managing change in modern organizations. The need for “reinventing” the field has become a topic that even some of its “founding fathers” are discussing critically. Since the environment is becoming turbulent the context of OD has dramatically changed throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The second generation OD has focused on Organisational Transformation, Organisation culture, Learning organizations, intensified interest in teams, Total Quality Management (TQM), Quality of work life etc.

Values, Assumptions and Beliefs in Od

A set of values, assumptions and beliefs constitutes an integral part of organization development, shaping the goals and methods of the field and distinguishing OD from other improvement strategies. Let us define the terms values, beliefs and assumptions.

  • A belief is a proposition about how the world works that the individual accepts as true; it is a cognitive fact of the person.

  • Values are also beliefs and are defined as “Beliefs about what a desirable is or a good and what an undesirable is or a bad (e.g.; dishonesty).

  • Assumptions are beliefs that are regarded as so valuable and correct that they are taken for granted and rarely examined or questioned.

OD Assumptions

  • People react to how they are treated. (Better treatment results in better productivity.)

  • Work must meet the individual’s needs and the organization’s needs.

  • Most people are motivated by challenging and meaningful work; not control threats and punishment.

  • Basic building blocks of the organization are groups—therefore the units of change are groups.

  • Organisations suppress feelings, but this also suppresses commitment.

  • Groups that learn to work using open and constructive feedback become better able to be productive.

  • People work best in supportive and trusting environments.

  • Change is best implemented when people are part of the change process.

Values of OD

Values have always been an integral part of OD. The three important early statements regarding OD values that had a major impact on the field given are as follows:

  • According to Warren Bennis OD practitioners or change agents share a set of normative goals based on their humanistic/democratic philosophy. He listed the normative goals as follows:

    • Improvement in interpersonal competence.

    • A shift in values so that human factors and feelings come to be considered legitimate.

    • Development of increased understanding between the working groups in organizations to reduce tensions.

    • Development of better methods of conflict resolution.

    • Development of organic rather than a mechanical system.
  • According to Richard Beckhard emphasize on the values held by OD practitioners are as follows:

    • The basic building blocks of organizations are teams.

    • People affected by the change should be allowed active participation and a sense of ownership of the change.
  • According to Robert Tannebaum, the important shifts in values were occurring and he listed these values in transition as follows:

    • Away from a view of people as essentially bad towards a view of people as basically good.

    • Away from avoidance of negative evaluation of individuals towards confirming them as human beings.

    • Away from avoidance of risk-taking towards willingness to take a risk.

These values and assumptions may not seem profound today, but in the 1950’s they represented a radical departure from accepted beliefs and assumptions.

Implications of Od Values and Assumptions

The implications of OD values and assumptions may vary for dealing with individuals, groups and organizations.

Implication for Dealing with Individuals

It is based on the assumption that most individuals have driven towards personal growth and development if provided with a supportive and conducive environment.

Implications for Dealing with Groups

It is based on the assumption that most people wish to be accepted and to interact with at least one small reference group and are capable of making greater contributions to group effectiveness and development.

Implications for Dealing with Organisations

It is based on the assumption that most people wish to be accepted and to interact with at least one small reference group and are capable of making greater contributions to group effectiveness and development.

The basic value of OD theory and practice is that of choice.

Learning is seen as an integral part of choice. Therefore, OD utilizes various strategies to intervene into the ongoing activities of the organisation in order to facilitate learning and to help the organisation (groups within it, as well as individuals who make up the groups) to be able to make better choices about alternative ways to proceed more effectively. Because choice is a fundamental value, OD works with the organisation to find out how the organisation wishes to proceed. OD is not prescriptive in its purest form. (Organisations in crisis often demand a more prescriptive approach and this is always a difficult decision for the OD practitioner to weigh).


Investortonight requires its writers to base their articles on primary sources. This includes government documents, data, direct observations, and interviews with industry leaders. Additionally, we also incorporate research from reputable sources when appropriate. Our editorial guidelines detail the standards we maintain to ensure unbiased and accurate content.

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  • Cummings, Thomas G., & Worley, Christopher G. (2000), Organisation Development and Change (7th Edition), South-Western Educational Publishing.

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  • Sinha, Dharni P. (1986), T-Group, Team Building and Organisation Development New Delhi, India: ISABS.

  • Hatch, Mary J. (1997), Organisation Theory, New York: OUP.

  • S. Ramanarayan, T.V. Rao, Kuldeep Singh, Organisational Development Interventions and Strategies.

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