What is Organization Development?

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

That’s a rhetorical question, but one intended to set the stage for a bigger question. What the heck is happening to the Human Resource Development side of Human Resources?

white_dice_custom_11721The Human Resource Management (HRM) side of Human Resources is pretty buttoned-up. SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) has defined the discipline succinctly, has established an infrastructure of learning and knowledge and a representation of the employer in legislative affairs, and elevated the profile of Human Resources. Yes, I realize that HR is being increasingly called to task for not adding value to organizations, but there is an answer that is staring us in the face – the other side of HR – Human Resources Development (HRD).

There seems to be a lack of cohesiveness to the field of HRD, though. At a workshop yesterday, sponsored by the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the speaker started with a slide entitled “Who are you?” On the slide, he listed the possible representations – Training, organization development, human resources, performance improvement….and a smattering of hands went up for each discipline.

Then I looked around the room, and some of the same people who were at the local Organization Development meetings were there. I don’t go to the local ASTD (American Society for Training and Development), but I suspect there were some duplications with that organization as well.

The speaker highlighted some of the nuanced differences between the disciplines, but they were REALLY nuanced. So nuanced in fact, that I would wager most HR departments don’t really understand the difference, so when they set up the HRD side of their department, they may call it training & development, learning & development, organization development, leadership development or other clever combinations to highlight the “other side” of HR.

But essentially, they serve the same purpose – improving human performance. Right?

How much more value-add could there be for an organization than improving human performance? Each of these areas has a contribution – training builds skills, development builds competence, OD maneuvers organizational change and learning, performance improvement focuses also on the environmental obstacles to performance.

Some develop and manage programs, some intervene for specific problems and issues. But it’s all about improving human performance and given that all work in organizations is done by people, what better way to add value?

Imagine the power of really understanding and harnessing the knowledge base of these different disciplines, and putting them to work developing human resources.

Imagine the how the folks on the HRM side could work together, aligning rewards and recognition with skilled leaders who understand how to drive performance.

Imagine looking holistically at performance at all levels – the individual, the team and the organization – and taking the collective thinking of all HR disciplines – HRM and HRM – to focus on that one thing – improving human performance.

For some time, I have been of the opinion that the HRM side doesn’t get it – they don’t see how the HRD side can really add value. I wonder though if it isn’t partly because the HRD side is fractured, with too many parallel tracks that should actually be coming together.

By its very nature, HRD should understand the value of looking holistically at a problem, defining the problem effectively, engaging the workforce in solving the problem, and evaluating the results. That’s what we all do.

I wonder what would happen if ASTD, ISPI, ODNetwork and even SHRM put their heads together to think collectively about improving human performance. I think that’d be pretty cool to see!

Note: The discipline of OD is Organization Development, not organizational development….Douglas McGregor and Richard Beckhard while “consulting together at General Mills in the 1950s, the two coined the term organization development (OD) to describe an innovative bottoms-up change effort that fit no traditional consulting categories” (Weisbord, 1987, p. 112).

Weisbord, Marvin. (1987). Productive Workplace: Organizing and managing for dignity, meaning and community. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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