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Organisation Development and The Future of Work

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Rogers (1996)* once wrote that ‘organisation is always an expression of identity’. I happen to agree with this insight. The act of organising is an act of identity formation whether the particular form is that of a corporation, a social movement, or a sports club. And I think this holds true for professions too, as well as those disciplines and practices that aspire to be professions through the organisation and standardisation of their practices.

Organisation Development is a discipline that finds itself in this space, and this matters a great deal because of the historical moment and what a professional ‘OD’ identity will mean for the future of work. At the heart of this effort to organise and express a coherent identity is an ethical and existential question of purpose – what is ‘OD’ for?

Organisation Development

Technological change and automation are re-shaping working practices while culture wars are re-casting the very meaning of work (among other identities) for millions of people. The influence of trade unions is in decline and the labour market continues to de-socialise and fragment, eroding worker protections and creating an employment landscape characterised by instability and uncertainty. (It’s too often forgotten in organisation studies and industry that the challenges of adaptation businesses face in the Fourth Industrial Revolution are going to be the same as those faced by the people that will and won’t work in them). In this context let me re-state the question of purpose more directly: what and who will the profession of Organisation Development be for?

The answer to this question isn’t going to be simple or even uniform, and I don’t mean to imply that the time is coming for practitioners to ‘pick a side’ – workers or bosses, organisations or people. But our social and economic system is built on the assumption of inequality and their being winners and losers; the interests of these groups do very often diverge. Picking a side – or at least reconciling sides – is a lived-reality in organisation development not a needless provocation. This ethical question of purpose doesn’t go away because you either don’t see it or choose to ignore it. It requires an answer.

My hope is that the ‘profession’ of Organisation Development doesn’t ignore this question because it’s difficult or political, or retreat to the detached neutrality and professional ‘validity’ offered by natural science evidence bases as much of psychology has done. And I hope too that as individuals engaged in the work our sense of purpose doesn’t mean confinement to circular conversations that privilege the process of enquiry over the act of advocacy in organisational life. What is the point of a spirit of curiosity that endlessly enquires but takes no view of the world? It’s not a neutral position, it’s relativism, and relativism just recycles the status-quo.

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Because if the profession of Organisation Development is going to meet these challenges of identity in as ethical a way as possible, it needs to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of power and culture in organisational life; one that both recognises organisations and workers do not exist in a vacuum and understands how power moves through and between both to constitute people’s realities and entrench wider societal and material inequalities. That must include how and what power is deposited in the professional identity OD seeks for itself, and the way this is and will be administered in knowledge and relationships as a consequence.

A personal view is that the practice of ‘OD’ is really a form of outsourced leadership. In my experience as a senior leader and work as an OD educator and consultant, I struggle to see any practical difference (save the relative authority and status of the individuals) in what constitutes the practice of leadership and the practice of organisation development. The human capabilities being developed in both are near enough identical I think. Many will no doubt disagree with this, and the profession and OD industry needs of course to organise in a way that asserts its difference, but I don’t mean it as a criticism. Quite the opposite, it’s an opportunity the emerging profession ought to grasp and embrace for what it could mean for its ability to lead and shape the future progressively. The coming world of work is very likely to need it

*Wheatley, M. & Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996) A Simpler Way. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

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