Organization Development : Theory and Practice

For too long and in too many quarters, organization development has been considered an extension of the psychological sideshows reported so dramatically in the popular press. The encounter movement permits people— or their employers—to pay for the privilege of enduring abusive indictments of their social and sexual selves. These days learning for adults seems to require getting “grounded” as the guru-for-the-day intones sonorously, “Now relax, and let your buttocks really feel the floor.”

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This mentality has distorted OD the way it tainted another valuable—and valid—educational technique. Is any¬one buying T-groups this year? Of course not. Because T-groups in the late sixties and the seventies weren’t the same educational medium spawned by Kurt Lewin and developed by Lee Bradford and a group of educators in the late forties.

The emphasis on the word “educators” is intentional. Since the result of training, education, and therapy is supposed to be changed be¬havior, then the critical variable in an episode of behavior changing must be the role concept of the person-in-charge. Consequently, there’s a troublesome look-alike quality that, taken out of context, makes it difficult to distinguish what prevails—educa¬tion, training or therapy?

Few corporate training directors would quibble over the distinctions be¬tween education and training. But one rarely examines the lines between training education and therapy. The accumulated tarnish produced by this lack of differentiation practically has obliterated the golden learning and growing opportunities provided by the Lewin-Bradford social invention. Hence, when people talk about OD to¬day, many seem to hear “tarnished T-group” instead of something more comprehensive and contemporary.

OD is a comprehensive, theory-based approach to increasing organi¬zational effectiveness. The strategies and specific interventions involved in a single OD effort might be based on the contents in a shelf-full of books. OD, as a contemporary approach to or-ganizational problem solving, is predicated on the reality that simplistic, single-shot, one-mode solutions rarely work in complex social systems.

Reality suggests that, in such sys¬tems, there are no “simple” problems of communication, morale, or attitude. Otherwise, communications courses, motivational seminars, and “attitude adjustment hours” would solve all the people and production issues. In fact, simple diagnoses of organizational problems generally reveal only symptoms. And treating symptoms rarely solves problems.

OD, then, is primarily a mechanism, a social invention, for identifying and solving problems in complex socio-technical systems. In a world where everything is increasingly related to everything else, problem solving, too, must be a multifaceted, data-based re-sponse that deals with people, their work, the technology they use, and the quantity and quality of their product.

At this point, OD is most clearly distinguishable from manager devel¬opment, education, and training. New technology requires retraining of existing personnel; and to convert the best workers into managers of other workers requires their obtaining skills beyond those necessary to per¬form their original technological roles. Viewed in this context, management is something like doing the same job

The higher the level of abstraction, the greater the number of conceptual interdependencies that must be consid¬ered in the decision-making process.

For example, suppose you want to solve the problem of a turnover rate of nearly 80% among bank tellers. Im¬mediately, a host of variables comes to mind: selection, compensation, train¬ing, promotional opportunities, work culture, physical facilities, manage-ment’s view of the problem, exit interview data, industry averages, other job opportunities in your city, and probably many more. Improved teller training alone will not substan¬tially change the turnover rate. Neither will conducting courses to teach managers to be more attentive and humane.

Indeed, the turnover problem will only be resolved by a complex, inter¬connected series of events, processes, and procedural changes tailored to fit the specific bank. This would be an example of OD at work.

Or consider this one: Two high technology R&D groups are being forced to merge. A history of competition and vastly different management styles must be accommodated, as well as role changes (and role reductions) for professional and sub-professional staff members. Additionally, a physi¬cal move is scheduled for one staff, and a disruption of projects-in-process for both groups is unavoidable.

A two-day, team-building session won’t make a dent in these problems. Sure, the problems eventually will be resolved somehow. But if manage¬ment wants to influence the resolution and the resulting impact on the productivity of the new collective, OD can provide some leverage.

Or suppose you have a small com¬pany, growing rapidly and profitably, but you sense that your people and management costs are going to increase at an unacceptable rate. Suddenly, the laissez-faire notion of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” seems to be promoting a level of performance that is almost unacceptable. You need to change the implicit— and perhaps the explicit— contract between your employees and your company. But you certainly don’t want to do anything that will cause your people to invite in an external advocate.

In this instance, a “love your com¬pany” campaign or a unilateral attempt at greater efficiency won’t work arid might even prompt ridicule and widen the distance between your company and its staff. This too, would be an excellent arena for OD.
But there are other decisions to be made. In the first instance, the bank’s directors may decide that the addi¬tional cost required to lower the turn¬over rate is not justified. Likewise, the R&D management may conclude that, because engineers aren’t really people, anything done to or for them that sounds like human relations probably will be wasted. And the small business owner may conclude that the ROI is so good that things really won’t get out of hand for years.
And these might be appropriate de¬cisions, because OD is not inexpensive.

OD is necessarily labor-intensive. Data collection and processing, designing and executing intervention strategies, educating and retraining, reorienting and reorganizing all re¬quire time. And the required maintenance, over the long term, is not in¬considerable. Consequently, OD must be considered an investment.

Not to understand that OD is an energy-consuming and temporarily disruptive amalgam of processes rather than a pre-packaged episode in the life of the organization is to invite failure.

A corollary source of failure, which can be sensed but not documented, is the inability or unwillingness of many managers to move away from au¬thoritarian, hierarchical models of leadership. The stress on the man¬agement system of a full-blown OD ef¬fort will underscore managerial inef¬fectiveness. Without vigorous top management constraint, more author¬ity will be imposed to deal with the stress, and the outcome of the OD ef¬fort will be worse than zero. It will be minus.

For these reasons, most OD prac¬titioners and theorists say that it is mandatory that top management does business with whatever data— evidence—are produced by the OD effort. Some bad news is unavoidable, and some uncomfortable problem-solving sessions are inevitable.

But there will be good news, too. People do care, and most of those who don’t seem to can be turned around. People do want to do good, praisewor¬thy work. And they want to feel good about themselves and the work they do. They also want their companies to succeed in the marketplace.

Given a chance, OD can unlock these realities and free both managers and non-managers to work together more constructively and profitably. OD can help return old-fashioned wholeness and wholesomeness to work and to the work place. Consider the following examples:

• Bill Crockett, vice president for human resources at SAGA Corp., has demonstrated repeatedly that even minimum-wage employees can be ex¬cited by and involved in making deci¬sions affecting their jobs.
• Joe Reed, director of OD.ESA, U.S. Department of Labor, has proved that OD techniques and concepts can pro¬duce impressive results by helping union leaders understand their roles and discover new dimensions in member representation.
• Tom Donovan, corporate manager, organization and sales development, AMPEX Corp., has proved that OD works well not only with sales organi¬zations but in building necessary bridges between sales and production organizations.
• Dan Mclntosh, director of manage¬ment, organization and planning con¬sulting services in the Atlanta Office of Towers Perrin Forster & Crosby, says that real managers are always excited by the opportunity to sharpen their skills in setting and tracking goals and achieving results.

While these practitioners have tapped OD’s potential in an exemplary way, this potential too often remains not only untapped, but unrecognized. Recognition must begin with a solid belief among managers in the dignity and .fundamental decency of their employees. Only from this beginning can OD produce a “homegrown” problem-solving capacity that reaches deep into the organization. When this infra-structure of problem solvers is developed, large amounts of individ¬ual and collective energy will be re¬leased for constructive, productive re¬sults.
But choose your practitioners care¬ fully. Make sure the consultants you hire or the OD people on your payroll have the conceptual and psychological integrity to give you OD instead of “tarnished T-groups.”

Source : Training Magazine, February 1979. By : Woody Sears.

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