The Role of Organization Development in Large-Scale Organizational Change
©2001 Barbara Timony

edited 11/19/18

"Some 25 years ago came the birth of another discipline, called organizational development ... It is in fact the subject of change management, which is of profound interest to management scholars as well as to consultants who see organizational performance as the sum of individual performance." (Beckhard, Hard, & Trahant, 1996, p. 184.)

The focus of this paper is on the role of Organization Development (OD) in large-scale organizational change, and how change management strategies help leaders of organizations to achieve desired business objectives, which may ultimately dictate a merger or acquisition, a downsizing, or similar systemic change in order to maintain the organization's viability. Organization Development practitioners are typically involved early in these types of change processes, working with senior management to incorporate change management techniques at the systems level.

Still evolving as a practice, the goal of Organization Development " to focus on the gap that exists between where a group or organization is and where they would like to be" (Warrick & Thompson, 1980, p. 987). This is illustrative of a fundamental change process - moving from the 44as is" to the "to be" state.

In addition to exploring the history and current state of Organization Development and the role of the practitioner, the paper examines the implications of organizational change in business and educational settings, presents models and systematic approaches for dealing with change and transition, and examples of how planned, strategically-focused change management processes can result in successful outcomes.

Throughout the paper, the terms "Organization Development" and "OD" are used interchangeably. Some authors use the term "Organizational Development" when referring to 66013."

History and Evolution of Organization Development
"Over the years, OD has continued its growth and its orientation toward solving organizational problems. It is certainly an important way of changing and improving organizations... " (Umstat, 1988, p. 460).

OD As Practice

Organization Development (OD) is defined by Schein (1992) as "...a planned change process, managed from the top, taking into account both the technical and human sides of the organization..." (p. 316). With roots in psychology and sociology, and an outgrowth of the work of academic researchers, OD has been in existence for about 30 years, and has as its primary focus understanding organizations and the individuals within them.

Today, the practice of OD comprises unifying concepts and practices based on divergent philosophical orientations - one discusses learning prior to change, the other discusses learning after change. Experts like Argyris, Bennis, Blake, Mouton, and Schutz, whose orientation is human process and human relations, share the philosophy that "one must understand an organization in order to successfully change or improve it." The practice that evolves from this philosophical basis is a collaborative process among OD consultants and members of the organization. Experts like Bion, Cherns, and Davis, whose orientation is in technical and job processes, share a view that, "in order to understand an organization, one must try to change it and observe the results." The practice that evolves is one of analysis, problem solving, action planning, and evaluation (Adapted from Kur, 198 1, p. 87). Differing philosophical orientations provide practitioners with opportunities to develop unique approaches to the practice of OD.

The Role of the OD Practitioner

Margulies and Raia (1984) describe the OD practitioner as a "social architect" (p. 91). The role clearly has a political aspect, due in part to the sensitivity of the work, which is centered around the political structure of the organization. Margulies and Raia (1984) emphasize that "almost all OD efforts are political in nature, since they encourage collaboration and participation that 'enfranchise' participants" (p. 92). The OD practitioner needs to know where the political power bases are, who makes decisions, who has the most influence, and who needs to buy into strategies and can carry them forward. Due to the complexity of the OD practitioner's role, "...013 practitioners and change agents need to develop their skills in structured, directive change strategies, as well as to maintain their skills in interpersonal, participative change strategies..." (Hersey & Blanchard, 1993, p. 398) to ensure their success as well as the success of the OD work.

Bridges (2000), reflecting the all too common situation in which OD consultants are called in after a systemic change has been implemented, writes that "much that passes for organization development is really little more than organizational repair" (p. 89). For, without benefit of participation in early planning, the OD practitioner can only develop "band-aid" solutions for the deep issues that arise out of change implemented without a clear strategic plan. At that point, "much of the work... deals with knitting together diverse and sometimes warring subcultures, helping leaders, the dominant coalition or the whole managerial subculture client figure out how to integrate constructively the multiple agendas of different groups" (Schein, 1992, p. 316).

Management Theory and Change

The field of OD has expanded over time, in response to the needs of employers who not only want to move their organizations forward in terms of business objectives, but also in terms of employee engagement, as today's employers now understand the connection between employee involvement and organizational success.

The move to employee involvement in change, and the use of internal or external consultants to manage reactions to change, represents a shift in approach from early management theory. An example is Charles Taylor's scientific management approach, which became known as "Taylorism." This "command-and-control" approach drew a sharp line between managers and employees. The underlying philosophy was that "workers work, managers think." Taylor's method was a reflection of the times, i.e., the industrial age with its factories unions, and assembly lines - environments that needed tight management control (Silverstein, 1999).

Taylor's view was eventually replaced by the Human Relations movement, when organizational psychology and group dynamics evolved, paving the way for more worker involvement and benefits, and the theory of worker motivation. Peter Drucker, a management theorist, responding to the need for a more humanistic management approach, led the charge toward a strategy that took the collective intelligence of the workforce into account. No longer "servants" of the organization, employees have a voice, marking a dramatic shift to a more participative working environment and improved working relationships between managers and their employees.

The Nature of Organizational Change

"Any change, but especially major change, disrupts the work environment" (Beckhard, 1992, p.4).

Deep organizational changes have a profound impact on people within organizations. In fact, today most businesses have accepted the notion that the only thing constant is change. Nonstop change is often referred to as "white water turbulence [that is] forcing most leaders to examine the very essence of their organizations..." (Beckhard & Pritchard, 1992, p. 1). OD is a key factor in successful implementation of large-scale organizational changes such as mergers, acquisitions, downsizings, and restructurings.

Deciding on a direction, or making an organizational change is one thing; managing employees' personal reactions is yet another. Having the appropriate resources, i.e., an OD practitioner working with the senior team to develop a strategic change management plan, can be the difference between a successful and satisfying result and one that leaves employees feeling disenfranchised, forgotten, and wounded.

A critical part of any OD change intervention is ensuring that everyone who needs to be part of the process is included. While certainly part of the process, the OD practitioner is best served by realizing that he or she is not the change "owner" but rather a vehicle for the change that organizational leaders create and own. Warrick and Thompson (1980) point out that, "as practitioners we need to view OD as a process and to change our practices to reflect this view ... by developing "internal change agents" that can carry on the process, and by making planned disengagement and follow-up one of the most important phases of the effort" (p. 98).

Usually, the OD practitioner's best course of action is to develop a team of internal change agents who will take the work forward after the initial change event has completed. In fact, contrary to previous views that planning and implementing change processes was their sole purview, "some OD practitioners are beginning to realize that the real change agents are the managers and supervisors in the organization and that the OD practitioner is more of a 'change catalyst,' whose primary role is to assist the real change agents" (Warrick & Thompson, 1980, p. 95).

Change Management Models and Approaches
"Caught in the vortex offierce global competition and the ever-increasing speed of new technology, organizations find themselves in a situation where they can survive only by adapting, and adapting fast" (Carr, Hard, & Trahant, 1996, p. 43).

Optimum OD effectiveness is the product of several processes: A deep understanding of organizational issues; diagnosis of issues related to the change; understanding the impact that change will have on individuals and the organization; a strategic change management plan tailored to the needs of the organization. Hersey and Blanchard (1993) support this premise, stating, "effective OD interventions depend on diagnosing the situation and determining the highest probability success approach for the particular environment" (p. 398). Essential to a discussion about change, whether organizational or personal, is an understanding of what happens during times of change - to organizations and to the people who work in them. Bridges (1991) claims that "change is external, transition is internal" (p. 3).

This operating premise is the foundation for his work with organizational transitions, where he maintains that IhiM can change overnight, but individual responses to the change, what it means, how it impacts them, is a personal transition that takes longer and cannot be ignored.

When an organization decides to make a strategic change, there is a planning process that results in implementation - literally, flipping the switch. The "switch" might be changing the way work is done as in reengineering, or changing reporting relationships through re-structuring or downsizing. However, experts like Bridges are of the opinion that organizations don't give the same level of planning to personal transitions, that is, the time it takes for individuals to accept and deal with change as they do to the technical, or work aspects of change.

The Bridaes Transition Model

The process of moving from the comfort of the old - or what "used to be" to the ambiguity of the new, has been compared to being between trapezes - there's nothing to hold on to! The Bridges' (1991) Transition Model is widely accepted by individuals and organizations as a succinct and easy way to think about change and its impact. The model illustrates that transition begins with letting go - a necessary (and the most difficult) step to moving on to a new beginning. The model actually is a three-stage design, and behaviors that are characteristic of all major transitions are identified.

The first stage of the model is the "Ending" or letting go of the past, which acknowledges that change begins with starting something new, but transition starts with an ending. This process can be very difficult because of the ambiguity it renders. Generally, people have difficulty letting go of the past because it is comfortable; the future is unknown. The second phase, which is referred to as the "Neutral Zone" is one of transition, and is marked by low stability, personal stress, and conflict. The third stage is the "New Beginning," marking a time when real change begins, and there is a focus on the future. Creativity flourishes in this phase, as individuals feel a sense of relief and promise.

The Action Research Model

A time-tested and widely accepted process for developing and implementing a change strategy, Umstat (1996) describes "action research [as] the process of gathering data, feeding data back to the client, problem solving or dealing with issues that arise from the data, developing action plans to resolve problems, and following up to see if the action has worked as planned" (p. 461). Burke (1992) breaks the process down as follows, stating, "data on the nature of certain problems are systematically collected and then action is taken as a function of what the analyzed data indicate" (p. 8).

Understanding what the organizational change management needs are, and the impact that the change will have on the organization at large, the OD practitioner can begin to develop a change strategy, and this is where Action Research Model can serve as a guide to thought leaders. The specific techniques used within this methodological model are:

Interview both individuals and groups, observe the situation, then analyze and
organize the data collected.
Report back to those from whom the data were obtained on the organization's
collective sense of the organizational problems.
Analyze what the data mean and then plan the steps to be taken as a consequence.
Take those steps (p. 8).

Great Pacific Shipbuilding: Successful OD in Action

The Great Pacific Shipbuilding organization is a good example of the role of the OD practitioner in a change effort, and how the Action Research Model was implemented to ensure a successful outcome to change.

It began when the CEO contacted a consultant who was an expert in organizational change (and probably OD). Together they developed a strategy for involving the right people (the stakeholders) and gathering data about performance through interviews. The next step ... an action-research process, was an offsite, three-day retreat. The consultant fed back the data he had gathered, and the group spent the rest of the retreat working on important issues that were raised. The problem solving resulted in an action plan for reorganizing the company and creating a transition team. Actions were taken by the CEO and the transition team to make sure the action plan was proceeding as desired. Follow-up was accomplished by several offsite, one-day workshops (Umstat, 1996, p. 463). Note the author's use of the parenthetical phrase, "and probably OD" to describe the expert in the case study. Inasmuch as OD is virtually synonymous with change management, and that the action research model is an OD tool, the author makes the assumption that the "expert in organizational change" is also an expert in OD. The action research model used here helped the consultant to understand, at a deeper level, the issues associated with this organization's change effort, to support the transition team in its work, and to develop the- change agents needed for the work to be carried forward.

Change Models for Higher Education

OD can also be applied to higher education, however, Lueddeke (1999) argues that "...the proposed framework or model of change in higher education differs from other rationalistic change approaches in that its philosophical underpinnings are guided by field of learning and knowledge acquisition known as constructivitism" (p. 236).

Constructivism is rooted in philosophy, and is based in experiential learning, where students are actively involved in "constructing" interpretations. Lueddeke explains that his " for a more realistic framework ... was ... informed by an investigation carried out to identify significant concepts or factors that promote change efforts in higher education" (p. 236).

The following are the dimensions he cites:

Integrate experiential and dynamic praxis ... ensuring that change initiatives in higher education are rooted in 'authentic'... experience

Encourage collegial and collaborative (vs. management) decision making, emphasizing linkages and relationships, not structures;

Demonstrate a capacity to adapt to existing practice and to changing circumstances...

Focus on reflective, generative and transformative activity, stressing the synergy of the creative process itself...

Ensure credibility ... to the academic 'mainstream'...

Function largely with ambivalent teaching/learning environments...

Provide a framework for verification purposes and multiple applicability ... in higher education contexts, possibly through evaluation and action research (p. 234)

Using these criteria as a basis, Lueddeke suggests the "Adaptive-Generative Development Model (A-GDM) as a way to "focus on the dual nature of the change process." (p.238)

This model consists of the following six interrelated elements: Needs Analysis, Research & Development, Strategy Formation & Development, Resource Support, Implementation & Dissemination, and Evaluation. Note the similarity of these elements to the Action Research Model mentioned earlier. Lueddeke also suggests that "the framework for guiding the decision-making process that is at the heart of the Adaptive-Generative Development model ... may be a useful starting point to reflect on the challenges of a specific reform or innovation and the extent to which it is situated for the future." (p.238)


As today's leaders take their organizations through unchartered waters again and again, they have recognized the need for a clear strategy for managing both the change itself, and the human side of change, which is referred to as transition. In fact, "phrases such as 'change is inevitable,' 'change is constant,' and 'the only thing certain is change itself' are commonly heard when commiserating about the pace of modem life." (Imel, 2000) Organizational issues in educational settings are equally complex, so it is essential that the elements for sound decision-making are present: A sound change management strategy, an appropriate change model, and an environment that invites debate and challenge.

The models and approaches presented here describe systematic ways to plan and manage change. However, the simplicity of models belies the complexities associated with the change process. Each organization is different, which dictates a different approach to change initiatives depending on the climate and culture. These tools help to guide thinking, but are not substitutes for the degree of strategic thinking, influencing, and problem solving required in each unique situation.


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