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Action Research and Organizational Development

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 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.