Overview of the Field of Organization Development

Sections of this topic
    Much of the content
    of this topic came from this book:
    Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover

    Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

    Focus and Scope of This Topic

    The purpose of this topic is to acquaint the reader with the field of Organization Development, a field with a rich history of research, publications, and highly qualified practitioners dedicated to improving the performance of organizations, whether they are teams, departmental units, or the overall organizations.

    The information in those topics is not sufficient to develop competencies in guiding successful significant change. Those competencies come from extensive experience in applying those types of information.

    NOTE: This topic distinguishes the difference between “organizational development” and “Organization Development.” The former phrase refers to the context, focus, and purpose of the change while developing an organization. The latter phrase refers to a field of people with expertise in guiding successful organizational development. An organization can be a team, a departmental unit within an entire organization, the entire organization itself, or a collaboration of organizations. However, there are various articles below that refer to “organizational development”, but it is clear that their content relates directly to the field of Organization Development itself. Thus, those articles are included in this topic.

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Overviews of Organization Development

    General Resources

    Other Highly Recommended Readings

    Also consider

    What is Organization Development?

    A Traditional Definition

    Like many relatively long-standing fields, the members of each are constantly discussing what their field really is. However, the following definition is standard and often used as the starting point for further discussions about the definition of Organization Development.

    “Organization Development is an effort planned, organization-wide, and managed from the top, to increase organization effectiveness and health through planned interventions in the organization’s ‘processes,’ using behavioral-science knowledge.”
    — Beckhard, “Organization development: Strategies and Models”, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969, p. 9.

    Some More Modern Definitions

    Today’s organizations operate in a rapidly changing environment. Consequently, one of the most important assets for an organization is the ability to manage change — and for people to remain healthy and authentic. Consider the following definition of Organization Development:

    “Organization Development is the attempt to influence the members of an organization to expand their candidness with each other about their views of the organization and their experience in it, and to take greater responsibility for their own actions as organization members. The assumption behind Organization Development is that when people pursue both of these objectives simultaneously, they are likely to discover new ways of working together that they experience as more effective for achieving their own and their shared (organizational) goals. And that when this does not happen, such activity helps them to understand why and to make meaningful choices about what to do in light of this understanding.”

    — Neilsen, “Becoming an Organization Development Practitioner”, Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 2-3.

    Experts might agree that the following definitions of Organization Development represent the major
    focus and thrust of many of today’s Organization Development practitioners.

    “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, “Organization Development and Change”, Sixth Edition, South-Western Publishing, 1997, p.2.

    “Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exists within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. Organization Development interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”
    — Matt Minahan, MM & Associates, Silver Spring, Maryland

    Organization Development Practitioners as “Organizational Physicians”?

    There is a complex integration of various systems in an organization. Likewise, there is a complex integration in the human body. Therefore, when trying to understand the field of Organization Development, it might be useful to compare aspects of the field of Organization Development to aspects of the field of medicine.

    For example, the study of the theories and structures of organizations (often in courses called “organizational theory”) is somewhat similar to the study of the anatomy and physiology of human systems. Similarly, the study of organizational behavior is somewhat similar to the study of psychology and sociology in human systems.

    So in Organization Development, its practitioners might be considered to be “organizational physicians” intending to improve the effectiveness of the organization by:

    1. Establishing relationships with key personnel in the organization (sometimes occurring in phases called “start-up”, “entering” and/or “contracting” with the client organization);
    2. Researching and evaluating systems in the organization to understand dysfunctions and/or goals of the systems in the organization (“diagnosing” the systems in the organization);
    3. Identifying approaches (or “interventions”) to improve the effectiveness of the organization and its people;
    4. Applying approaches to improve effectiveness (methods of “planned change” in the organization); and
    5. Evaluating the ongoing effectiveness of the approaches and their results.

    There are many practitioners who would oppose that comparison, believing that physicians too often take a mechanical, linear, and detached approach when treating their patients. Those practitioners would assert that approaches in Organization Development are much more dynamic in nature.

    Additional Perspectives On What Organization Development Is

    Other Overviews of the Field of Organization Development

    It is useful now to build from those various definitions to consider various overviews of the field. The field itself is so large that an overview should start with a relatively small scope and then broaden from that.

    Basic Overviews

    Broader Overviews

    Diverse Perspectives on Organization Development

    The topic of organizational change has received a great deal of attention over the past several decades as organizations face new and complex challenges like never before. Correspondingly, the field of Organization Development is receiving a great deal of attention now, too. As the field has grown, so has the diversity of perspectives on the field. The question “What is Organization Development?” is now common in discussions among those interested in the field.

    Field or Profession? (Ethics and Certification)

    Organization Development is sometimes referred to as a profession. Yet others assert that it is a field because it does not have a standard code of ethics or a universal accrediting body. Early practitioners recommended a Credo, which is widely respected. The Organization Development Institute has also recommended an International Organization Development Code of Ethics.

    The Organization Development Institute admirably suggests levels of certification for Organization Development practitioners, but these do not appear to have become standard for practitioners. The Organization Development Network is a large organization that also focuses on developing the field and serving its members, including by developing a framework of competencies.

    Scope of the Field?

    Some have distinguished Organization Development from other fields because it works from a systems perspective and according to humanistic values to help people to change for the better. Others might respond that other fields or professions, however, such as trainers and community organizers, also work from a systems perspective and according to humanistic values — and, thus, that description is not unique to Organization Development. Those people might assert that Organization Development must proclaim a scope for their field, in particular, a scope for changing organizations.

    Focus on the People Side and/or Business Side?

    Another area of diversity in perspectives on Organization Development is in regard to how people view organizations. Some focus especially on the structures, strategies, policies, and procedures (the “business side”), while others focus especially on human relations and interactions (the “people side”). Still, others focus especially on politics and power, while others focus especially on the cultures and values of the organization. The following article gives more information about these perspectives:
    Understand the Preferred Lens Through Which You View Organizations

    Currently, there seems to be a strong focus on “soft” skills in Organization Development, for example, coaching, leadership development, facilitation, conflict management, and process consulting. However, many would assert that the “hard” skills, such as organizational theory, strategizing, and various quality management initiatives should also be a focus in Organization Development. The following article gives more information about these perspectives.
    What Type of Organization Development Practitioner Are You?

    Organization Development Versus Change Management?

    Recently, there have emerged many opinions that Organization Development and change management are two somewhat different disciplines. The opinions are that Organization Development is focused primarily on changing a whole system, for example, a team, departmental unit, or organization, while change management is focused on the necessary changes among people in the organization in order to accomplish the overall change in the organization.

    Others believe that change management is not a separate discipline and is actually an aspect of what Organization Development naturally focuses on when changing the entire system, that is, Organization Development also focuses a great deal on what is needed to change people. Other views on change management might sound much like how others would define Organization Development, for example, “Organizational Change Management is about an organization achieving a desired future state from its current state with minimal disruption or negative impact to the organization” … “Change Management … is not organization-wide or enterprise-wide. It changes specific to a project or program” (Rona Puntawe).

    Various Perspectives on Organization Development

    History and Theories of Organization Development

    There is a rich history in the field of Organization Development. Professional practitioners in the field should know that history, including the early beginnings of the field and the major players in it. They should know its history and evolution, including its major phases of development over the years that bring us up to the dynamic changes that are now occurring in the field.

    Future and Emerging Theories of Organization Development

    Dialogic Organization Development

    As quoted from the website Dialogic Organization Development, “Dialogic Organization Development is the next step in the evolution of organizational change theory, from thinking of organizations as organisms that adapt to their environments to organizations as conversations where individual, group, and organizational actions result from self-organizing, socially constructed realities created and sustained by the prevailing narratives, stories, and conversations through which people make meaning about their experiences.”

    Other Perspectives on the Future of Organization Development

    Other Fields and Organization Development

    The field of Organization Development includes a wide range of perspectives on the scope and, in particular, how it relates — or does not relate — to other fields. Many believe that an activity could be classified as an “Organization Development” activity if it is focused especially on changing a significant part or all of an organization. Others believe that activities focused especially on changing a person or people (such as learning and development, coaching, training, and facilitation) within an organization also change the organization itself, and, thus, each of those activities could be classified as an “Organization Development” activity. Here are some articles that further portray differences in perspective.

    Recommended Competencies for Organization Development Practitioners

    Almost as diverse as the opinions about the focus, scope, and nature of Organization Development are the opinions about the competencies that its practitioners should have. The following link will take you to a list of recommended competencies from different organizations and professionals in the field.

    Organizations Focused on Organization Development

    The following lists are by no means complete, rather they are a good starting point for learning even more about Organization Development.


    Educational Organizations

    Organization Development Education Association lists many Organization Development educational organizations.

    Some Organizations With Many Resources about Organization Development

    Books Focused on the Field of Organization Development

    The field of Organization Development encompasses a wide variety of business-, management- and organization-related practices. Therefore, a list of Organization Development-related books could well be exhaustive in length. The following are some of the major books focused primarily on the field of Organization Development.

    This short list is by no means meant to represent the singular “foundation” texts in the field. Rather, the list is a good starting point from which to gain some basic understanding of the field.

    Organization Development-Specific Books

    Much of the content of this Library topic came from this book:
    Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover

    Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development by Carter McNamara, Authenticity Consulting, 2006. This book is about the field of Organization Development and combines major practices from the field with major practices from the field of consulting, as well. (The author of this book is the author of much of the content in this Library.)
    Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development

    Organization Development and Change
    Sixth Edition, by Cummings and Worley. South-Western Publishing, 1997. Available from Amazon Books. This is one of the best books about the background, movements, theories, models, and case studies regarding Organization Development.

    Organization Development Classics: The Practice and Theory of Change — The Best of the Organization Development Practitioner
    by Van Eynde (Editor), Judith C. Hoy (Editor), Dixie Cody Van Eynde (Editor), Donald Van Eynde (Editor). Jossey-Bass, 1997. Available from Amazon Books. This is a collection of classic articles from the pioneers in the field of Organization Development. Together, they provide a very meaningful overview of the field.

    Practicing Organization Development : A Guide for Consultants
    by Rothwell (Editor), Roland Sullivan (Editor), Gary N. McLean. Pfeiffer & Co., 1995. Available from Amazon
    . This is one of the best books with guidelines and practicals about applying all phases of Organization Development.

    Annotated Lists of Organization Development-Related Books

    Peter Vaill provides an extensive, annotated bibliography of organizational behavior and development books. (To read the bibliography, you will need the free program Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
    An Annotated Bibliography of Foundational Literature in Organizational Behavior and Development

    Another list of Organization Development books is recommended by members of a LinkedIn group about Organization Development.
    List of recommended Organization Development books

    Other Highly Recommended Readings

    Learn More in the Library’s Blogs Related to Organization

    In addition to the articles on this current page, see the following blogs which have posts related to Organization Development. Scan down the blog’s page to see various posts. Also, see the section “Recent Blog Posts” in the sidebar of the blog or click on “Next” near the bottom of a post in the blog.

    For the Category of Organizational Development:

    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

    Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.