Desperately seeking OD – Shaking off the HR best-practice straight jacket

shutterstock_247125100This post offers a brief summary of the similarities and differences between OD and HR as fields of practice. It also offers a view on the challenges HR is currently facing and how the field of OD could be the source of insight it badly needs.

Let’s first look at the similarities. There is one line of thinking, put forward by many in the HR profession, that follows a circular argument in which they conclude that OD is HR and that HR is OD. I don’t subscribe to this.

What I do agree with is the fact that both OD and HR have the same aim. This is to develop the effectiveness and efficiency of client organisations, principally through their people. This is the basis of the above circular argument. For me, this misses the point. What is important, is how each goes about this task and how ‘best practice’ is utilised. This is where we move into the differences between OD and HR.

OD practitioners go about the task of OD by basing their work on a very broad, well-researched field of theory and practice. They choose intervention strategies from this broad field to help in understanding the client system and in supporting change in that system. Their use of best practice is restricted to recognised, robust intervention methodologies, or in other words, how the consultant interacts with the client system.

Best practice in OD does not extend to assuming there is a pre-determined end process to be adopted by the client system. OD is focused on exploring, creating and recreating realities, and then supporting the client as they move towards action. What there isn’t is a pre-determined list of processes that should be embedded into the client system in a lift-and-drop exercise.

HR, on the other hand, relies on best practice for both interaction with the client system and in what the resulting, embedded end process should be. It utilises best practice for both its interactions with the client system and in its use of lift-and-drop processes.

For HR, interaction with the client systems is almost uniquely through the Ulrich model (Ulrich, 1996) with its associated back-office administrative functions, centres of excellence and customer-facing business partners. Similarly limited, is HR’s range of lift-and-drop processes that typically includes:

  • organisation design (hierarchies, functions, roles)
  • performance management (the cascade of strategic goals into individual objectives)
  • performance appraisal
  • talent management
  • succession planning
  • competency frameworks
  • values frameworks
  • employee engagement surveys and action planning cycles
  • reward and recognition frameworks

So, whilst OD and HR share the same basic aims, it is the differences in approach that differentiate them from each other.

This difference in approach gives rise to challenges for both OD and HR in the eyes of their mutual clients.

The field of OD is broad and constantly evolving and without a recognisable ‘product’, OD is challenged with marketing itself to client organisations. Clients (CEO’s and HRD’s) are programmed to look for solutions that support improvement in the typical HR practices listed above. Few clients are open to discussions about alternatives, especially when OD interventions challenge accepted realities and look to leaders, first and foremost, for changes in thinking and behaviour.

There is also the challenge that leading edge OD theory and practice can appear rather ‘way out there’ or ‘lacking in substance’. I am constantly challenged as an OD practitioner as clients (again, both CEO’s and HRD’s) struggle to accept that a change in mindset or shift in accepted reality, is often all that is needed to drive new behaviours and outcomes. This is often generated through nothing more than dialogue. Without the comfort blanket of change management programmes, Gantt charts, communications plans and indicative behaviour frameworks, clients and their HR functions can struggle to comprehend how OD can actually deliver results.

However, I see this refusal to box itself into neat product offerings and its constantly evolving base of theory and practice as key strengths for the field of OD.

HR, on the other hand, appears to have become stuck in a pavlovian, behaviourist paradigm. OD goes about developing organisation effectiveness and efficiency by applying appropriate, evolving and emergent OD interventions. HR has fixated on a reasonably narrow, long-standing area of OD theory and practice that revolves around a mechanistic approach to managing and changing people’s behaviours. The list of HR best practice above is primarily designed to drive adherence to pre-determined behaviours and competency frameworks.

This fixation reflects the way in which HR has become very good at copying HR through the creation of so-called best practice. This copying tendency is evident in the regularity with which almost identical sets of practices can be found in the vast majority of organisations above a certain size.

OD is also good at copying OD, but this is focused on sharing research and robust intervention methodologies. Sharing of best practice in the field of OD is not resulting in a narrowing of the field as it is in HR. This tendency within OD to not accept the status quo in its thinking is evidenced by the current discussion within the field around the emergence of ‘dialogic OD’ and its relationship with the more prevalent ‘diagnostic OD’ (Marshak & Bushe, 2013).

Interestingly, dialogic OD is a potential source of new thinking for the HR profession. The fixation HR has with the behaviourist paradigm is rooted in the older diagnostic area of OD. As the field of OD evolves, I wonder whether the HR profession might evolve with it?

I find myself frustrated at HR’s narrow perspective. I also wonder how OD can better market itself to client organisations. Given how engrained HR has become in the typical business model, it seems OD must embrace HR to achieve a more widespread impact in organisations. I wonder how OD might better inform HR practice such that it might break out of its best practice straight jacket and at the same time support OD having a wider impact in organisations? Does OD have to court HR or does HR need to look more to OD for its alternative sources of practice? Maybe it is both?

Despite my frustrations with HR, I am optimistic that OD can support a broadening of thinking and practice within HR and therefore within our organisations.

I see this broadening of thinking in some HR functions. Many HR Directors are reshaping their functions and adding in OD teams. Some have moved away from the title of HR altogether. This is a good move, but only if these changes in name bring about genuine injections of new thinking from the field of OD.

If, as I suspect, many are simply disguising more of the same HR ‘best practice’ under a different name, then we are not making any progress.


Marshak, R. J. & Bushe, G. R. (2013) An Introduction to Advances in Dialogic OD. OD Practitioner, Vol. 45, No. 1., pp 1-4.
Ulrich, D. (1996) Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results. Harvard Business School Press.

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