The State Of Organization Development Research Paper

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Today’s leadership is basically about change. Developing technologies and emerging markets demand that executives be able to anticipate new directions and opportunities. This requires not only producing change, but also managing the turbulence that results. Organization development (OD) is about change and has the twin goals of planning and executing successful change while also increasing the organization’s competence to handle future change.

This should produce an alignment of goals where leaders would welcome the wisdom and competence that OD professionals bring. Yet, as observed in our recent book, Reinventing Organization Development (Bradford & Burke, 2005), very few executives use (or may even be aware of) OD. Instead, they rely heavily on the major consulting firms. Why are the latter at the executive table while OD is largely ignored or relegated to the bowels of the organization often within the human resources function? We asked a dozen of the present and past leaders in the field to comment on this paradox. While their individual answers differed to some degree, many questioned whether the practice of OD truly spoke to the needs of most leaders.

In this research-paper, we will not review the specific arguments in this book (but urge readers to do so on their own), and instead, take the discussion further to understand this paradox. Our arguments will be built around three definitions of OD: (a) the espoused definition; (b) how it is defined when we look at the field in practice, and (c) how it needs to be defined if it is to be widely valued by executives. We will suggest that much of the present difficulty with OD is not only the contradiction between the first two definitions, but also problems embedded within these two definitions.

The Espoused Definition Of OD

Burke (in press) reviewed several of the formal definitions and concluded that most practitioners in the field would likely include in their definitions that OD is (a) planned, (b) a long-term process, (c) based on commonly held values (especially the value of participation), (d) based on a systems perspective, and (e) essentially about change and development with reliance on the application of the behavioral sciences.

The general model of intervention is one of initial diagnosis (often involving quantitative as well as qualitative data collection), followed by analysis, meaning a summary of what the data indicate, plus the use of a framework or model. The purposes of using some framework or model are to provide (a) conceptual meaning, (b) a systems perspective, and (c) an evidence-based and documented basis for action. Once the analysis of the data is complete, feedback to the client organization follows. Often this leads to joint planning as to the nature of the intervention (often with those impacted by the change effort). Action that initiates change in the organization is the final step in this sequence.

As we now know only too well, there are some difficulties with this nice, neat sequence. It is a sequence that is logical and, in principle, should be followed, but two realities must be taken into account.

First, as previously noted (Burke, 2008), we plan change in a linear manner—steps or phases in sequence—yet the implementation of organization change and development does not occur in a linear fashion. The initiation of change in a system has consequences, most of which are not anticipated. Thus, managing change is mostly about dealing with unanticipated consequences to actions taken.

Second, most OD consultants who enter a system to help initiate change discover that change is not only already underway, but also has been for quite some time and things are a mess. Using a modern-day baseball metaphor of “It’s the sixth inning and our team is in jeopardy of losing the game” may help to illustrate.

In today’s professional baseball, especially in the major leagues, a pitcher rarely pitches for all nine innings. Teams today have a large bullpen. While the facts might prove otherwise, it seems as though our starting pitcher often gets into trouble around the fifth or sixth inning. There are no outs, with two men on base, and our pitcher cannot seem to find the plate. The manager calls time out, walks to the mound, and signals for a replacement from the bullpen. Our relief pitcher is now faced with a very tough situation yet is expected to save the day. It is a lot like that for OD practitioners today. They enter the scene and find that many attempts to bring about change have been undertaken, yet chaos reigns, organizational members are frustrated, there are pleas for structure, not to mention leadership, and our OD consultants are expected to turn things around, to save the day—and to do this quickly without the luxury of a full diagnosis or extensive joint planning.

The difficulty is that our formal definitions of OD envision change as a discrete, episodic event with a clear beginning, middle, and ending. However, as noted previously, few consultants have the luxury of starting completely new in the first inning. Yet considering organization change as either continuous or discontinuous remains useful since different interventions are required for each of the two forms (Burke, 2008). In fact, in a recent review of the literature on organization change and development, Weick and Quinn (1999) organized their research-paper accordingly considering studies on both episodic and continuous change. They also addressed Lewin’s three-stage model of “unfreeze— change—refreeze.” It may be that Lewin’s earlier thinking is not irrelevant for today’s world of organization change but simply needs to be considered somewhat differently. Even in a situation of continuous change, episodic change of a perturbation or jolt to the system may be necessary and therefore where one begins (Tushman & Romanelli, 1985). And for continuous change to be successful, perhaps it is more like “freeze—rebalance—unfreeze.”

By way of clarification as to what Weick and Quinn (1999) meant, to freeze continuous change is to find the patterns in day-to-day life in the organizations and to reinforce them. To rebalance is to change the patterns so that fewer restraints and barriers are present and the continuous change can flow more freely. To unfreeze after the rebalancing is to innovate and find new ways of ensuring continuous change. These new ways evolve from habits of continuing to look for means of improving the manner in which work gets done and of continuing to strengthen the critical inter-dependencies of organization members (Burke, 2008).

Another problem with our espoused definitions of OD arises out of the belief in participation. The benefit of involving those affected by the change rests on two key assumptions. First, this assumes that there is goal congruence between those needing to produce change and those being affected. Second, there is crucial information and expertise held by those affected and that utilizing that knowledge will make the change effort more effective and efficient.

It is likely that evolutionary change will meet the two assumptions that underlie the value of participation, but even in organizations where change is continuous, there still are occasions when there is a dramatic disconnect. An entirely new technology emerges that requires fundamentally different competences than held by the present workforce. Will participation be an asset or a hindrance to successful adaptation? Furthermore, we would argue that fundamental change often involves an incompatibility of goals and demands expertise not held by the present members. If the same change sequence can be both evolutionary and revolutionary, then it raises the question at what parts of the change effort is participation useful or counterproductive?

OD Defined In Practice

We have considered OD as defined in books and articles. Now let us address how OD is defined in practice. In a recent international study of OD practice, Fagenson-Eland, Ensher, and Burke (2004) found that the top four practices were training and development, team building, performance appraisal and reward systems, and organization structural change. The number one practice, training and development, concerns the individual, number two, the group level, and the other two touch on some aspect of the larger organization. With respect to practice, then, these data indicate that OD remains linked to its past. The early days of the field (1960s) was predominantly about training, individual development, and team building. While the range of OD practice today spans all organizational levels, it looks as though the primary levels of emphasis remain individual and group.

Thus, if we look at what OD practitioners actually do, three characteristics stand out.

  1. The focus is almost exclusively at the individual, interpersonal, or team level. Sometimes it involves intergroup issues and even more rarely an intact unit (or the entire company if quite small). It is not a systemic intervention.
  2. There is a dearth of OD consulting firms. Most work is done by individuals or a couple of colleagues in partnership.
  3. Humanistic values, not findings from the applied behavioral sciences, underlie many of the decisions being made.

These three characteristics pose a series of problems. In terms of the first, while many OD consultants would claim that they take a systems viewpoint, this turns out not to be the case in practice. Taking a systems viewpoint demands that one deals with (not just acknowledges) all parts of the system that are relevant. This not only includes structure and systems (e.g., IT, financial, performance management systems), but also the product or service of the organization, its strategy, and the market niche in which it operates. In other words, effective organization change needs to involve what an organization does and how the organization works and not just the interpersonal and team influence and decision-making processes.

This point speaks to another complication. OD consultants frequently make the assumption that if one improves individual, interpersonal, and team performance, those improvements will necessarily increase organizational performance, but this is crossing levels of analysis. It is possible for aware and developed individuals to be part of a dysfunctional team (and vice versa). Also, one can have a well-working team (or subunit) without that leading to an effective organization. Improvement at one level does not guarantee improvement at the other levels. As Richard Beckhard often commented, “Where is the organization in organization development?”

If one is to take the entire organization into consideration when dealing with change, we would suggest that an individual OD consultant is an oxymoron. There is a reason why the major consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, Accenture, IBM Business Consulting Services, Deloite, and Oliver Wyman are large. It is not just to leverage the payment schedule from junior associates; it is recognizing that no one individual can hold all the knowledge required in producing large-scale change. Such an intervention requires competence in assessing the appropriateness of what the organization does, the market it is in, its strategy, the systems that it uses to measure and control, and how it is structured. Thus, the way that most OD consultants work structurally prevents them from being able to work at a system level. As noted earlier, OD practice today remains linked to its past. Let us briefly consider this past.

OD And Its Past

OD grew from a variety of roots, but the two main ones were sensitivity training, or T-groups in the United States, and sociotechnical systems in the United Kingdom. In the United States, original OD practice emerged in the early 1960s and was primarily group based, that is, sensitivity training applied to organizations (Argyris, 1964). The work by Herbert Shepard and Harry Kolb at Esso (now ExxonMobil) consisted of small-group training programs based on T-group methodology as an attempt to change managers’ styles to a more participative approach. Douglas McGregor and Richard Beckhard took a similar approach at General Mills and Union Carbide. Although Eric Trist and others affiliated with the Tavistock Institute in London at the time (1950s and early 1960s) did not rely on T-group methodology, they did focus on small work teams and emphasized the importance of integrating the social component of work life with the technical side—particularly when attempting to change some aspect of technology in the workplace (coal mines and textile mills). Early OD practice, therefore, emphasized individual training and development, interpersonal sensitivity, and group dynamics.

Also, it should be noted that most of the pioneers in OD at the time were faculty members at universities across the United States (McGregor at MIT, Argyris at Yale, Shepard later at Case Western Reserve, Tannenbaum at UCLA, and French at the University of Michigan, a protégé of Kurt Lewin and developer of action research, to name a few). This aspect of history meant that OD was rooted in the academic world of the behavioral sciences. Applying this knowledge became the mantra of OD.

A gradual change in this history of OD began to occur in the late 1960s (the decade of much change at the societal level in the United States and no doubt a contextual influence on the field of OD). Humanistic psychology led by Abraham Maslow and others emerged, and the article “Values, Man, and Organizations” by Tannenbaum and Davis (1969) signaled this influence on OD. Also, university faculties became more research-based and theoretical. Today, few OD practitioners are members of academia, and as a consequence, OD has lost much of its grounding in the behavioral sciences.

The Effect Of Humanistic Values

There was a fundamental (and we would argue, deleterious) effect on the field of OD by this emphasis on humanistic values. Science describes what is, whereas values define what should be. Values are important. They help individuals make personal choices (including what clients they would want and not want to work with), and they assist organizations in setting aspirations about what they want to become. But problems arise when values are used to define present reality. Consultants need to objectively assess what works and what does not.

But such objectivity has been largely lost in the field of OD. We have heard more than one senior OD consultant proclaim that “there has been no successful change that wasn’t basically participative.” Such a statement defies reality (and over 5,000 years of recorded human history)! Confusing what one wishes with what is has a series of major costs.

First, it causes such consultants to lose credibility. What CEO, who has spent years making autonomous decisions that have helped build a successful company, would invite a consultant who makes such a claim to the executive table to assist in making crucial change decisions?

Second, it severely limits the range of approaches that OD consultants use. We would argue that there are times for involvement and times when change should be imposed. There are times for transparency and times when information should be withheld. There are times to work out ways to avoid layoffs and times for quick action in reducing the workforce.

This failure to objectively assess what is occurring has a third cost. The field lacks a sophisticated theory of change. (Instead, there is a reliance on the overly simplistic model of unfreeze—change—refreeze.) An effective theory of change would have to be conditional. Under what conditions should change be imposed and when should it be collaborative? When collaborative, who should one involve and who should not be involved? What are the conditions when information should be shared and when should it be withheld?

The lack of a sophisticated and integrated theory of change has led OD to move from one technique to another. That is the point that Harvey (2005) makes, in his wickedly satirical article, “The Future of OD or Why Don’t They Take the Tubes out of Grandma?” The field in the past several decades has swerved from one elixir to another, be it the Grid, quality circles, visioning, the Enneagram, and most recently, appreciative inquiry.

But probably the most damaging effect of the focus on humanistic values is that it has deflected OD from its goal of making the organization more effective. But the emphasis, as stated above, has increasingly been on the individual or the team. In fact, one has only to attend meetings of OD practitioners (or read their e-mails) to see how many are implicitly, or explicitly, in opposition to organizational goals. One rarely hears OD consultants talk about return on investment, increased profitability, growth in market share, mission and strategy, or increased stock price valuation—all concepts that are the primary concern of company executives.

This has caused the field to miss out on several of the major changes that organizations have faced. In the 1990s, U.S. corporations went through a rigorous campaign of reengineering (downsizing or rightsizing) to increase their competitive position. Accompanying that was a wave of mergers and acquisitions. OD consultants were largely absent from these ventures because both would have led to layoffs. Questions have been raised about whether full economic benefits have been achieved by such actions (Burke & Biggart, 1997). Would they have better achieved these economic benefits with the involvement of OD consultants who held the organization’s financial goals? OD might have added major benefits to these efforts if those consultants did not have such a reflexive rejection of anything that might lead to layoffs.

For all these reasons, the way that the field is now practiced has largely made it irrelevant to leaders in today’s organization. But this does not mean that OD has to be this way. What we will suggest is that a new definition of OD could make it a highly relevant field so that it would have a place at the executive table.

How The Field Should Be Defined

Organization development is a systemwide intervention, based on the findings from the applied behavioral sciences, that seeks to achieve the dual goals of successfully completing this change effort while increasing the organization’s competence to function more effectively and to better handle change in the future.

In what ways is this definition different than the initial espoused definition? By stressing that it is a systemwide intervention, not just perspective, the definition concretizes the fact that there cannot be an individual OD consultant. That person has to be part of an OD firm. This could be a boutique firm as small as one-half dozen people that focuses on a specific industry. But if the intervention has to include the relevant functional areas, no one individual can be successful in completing an OD intervention. An independent consultant might say, “I do team building, coaching, intergroup work, visioning, and other techniques that have developed from the OD field,” but they cannot say, “I am an independent OD consultant.”

Taking a systems approach requires the OD firm to move beyond process consultation. Presently, there is the (often implicit) attitude that one can ignore what the organization does, the technology it deals with, and the market it is in. (“It makes no difference whether we are dealing with potato chips or computer chips.”) But these other factors are crucial if one is to produce an integrated change effort.

Second, this definition does not mention humanistic values. Insofar as the intervention takes account of theory and research in the applied behavioral sciences, it will use techniques of involvement, participation, transparency, and the like when that is necessary to achieve a successful outcome. OD consultants might personally hold humanistic values as the way that they want to lead their life, but they will not confuse those with scientific knowledge of what works (and under what conditions that is appropriate).

Third, the emphasis is on increasing the organization’s competence so it does not make the mistake of confusing levels of analysis. While a successful intervention in Company X may require increasing individual and team capabilities, that is done, not as an end in and of itself, but when doing so would be necessary components to increased organizational effectiveness. Furthermore, it sees as primary the achievement of the organization’s goals—including financial objectives as well as the value the institution produces for society.

This definition does raise the question of how the actions of an OD-based firm can be differentiated from what the major consulting firms do. Most of the latter have a practice in organizational effectiveness and would claim that they too are basing their work on the applied behavioral sciences.

Again, we would argue that there is a difference between their espoused values and their theory in practice. There is a tendency for the major consulting firms to implement top-down imposed change with participation being used more to gain acceptance of previously determined change goals than to tap into the knowledge of the workforce. Some consulting firms have attempted to integrate OD practice with their more standard strategic work, but the integration has been problematic. McKinsey could serve as an example.

Another difference is around the transfer of competencies. Even though many of the major consulting firms espouse such transfer, there is a tendency, instead, to build dependency. Consulting firms that are based on a business model that leverages use of junior analysts require repeated engagements that use much of the same technology. Transferring those competencies to the client could be seen as limiting financial growth.

We would suggest that the OD firm has an advantage not held by the major consulting firms. The challenges with change are due as much, if not more, to issues of implementation as they are with the change objectives themselves. Many recommendations from consulting firms collect dust—or even worse—have a negative outcome to the organization. The added value from the OD firm is its expertise on the process of change (especially if it uses all the knowledge from the applied behavioral sciences). It does not matter whether our (boutique) OD firm specializes in strategy, information technology, accounting and financial systems, workflow processes, or the like, if it integrates content expertise in those areas with knowledge about the process of change.

A second advantage is that historically OD developed from research which showed that the quality of the outcome often increased when one utilized the knowledge held by those being affected by the change. Thus, participation is valued, not as a manipulative technique to gain compliance, but as a way to integrate the expertise of the change agents with the expertise embedded within the organization.

Finally, since OD places a high value on collaboration, our OD firm is better equipped to pass on its expertise to the client system. This meets the second goal of an OD intervention of increasing the organization’s competence.

Will The Field Of OD Change?

We concluded our book Reinventing Organization Development on a pessimistic note questioning whether the field will change. We felt that there were too many forces keeping it in its present state. Too many OD consultants have an emotional attachment to humanistic values to give them up for the “cooler” applied behavioral sciences. National OD meetings appear to focus more on self-congratulation than on taking a hard look at the field.

Another reason why we are not sanguine about any basic redefinition of the field is that the third definition of OD requires, not an evolutionary change, but one that is quite basic. As noted above, such fundamental change rarely occurs through a participatory process because such change usually results in significant decrease in power of key participants and/or a requirement to learn new competencies. Those are the forces that fuel resistance. In those cases, redirecting the ship on a dramatically new path usually needs an individual or small group to drive such change. But the very value of participation that underlies the humanistic values held by most OD practitioners (let alone the antiauthority tendencies of most members) decreases the chance that such change agent(s) will emerge.

Thus, we must settle on the benefits that the present practice of OD produces. Value is added through coaching, team building, visioning, and the like. These do help individuals and teams operate more effectively (at least in the short run). However, that does not allow the field to help organizations develop in the way they must if they are to survive in today’s increasingly turbulent world, and they do not help the OD consultant find a place at the executive’s table where the key change decisions are made.


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