No Image Available

Anne Marie McEwan

Read more from Anne Marie McEwan

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

It’s the system, stupid: OD in the 21st century


The landscape of the workplace is changing. Out-working, outsourcing and multi-site, if not multi-national, teams mean that organisations are more fluid than ever. Dr Anne Marie McEwan looks at the role of occupational development in keeping pace with these changes.

Local and global business environments are changing rapidly and dramatically. Workplaces are more distributed as ‘anytime, anywhere’ working becomes the norm for many people. Large enterprises fragmenting into eco-systems are simultaneously shifting their centres of gravity to other parts of the world. Ubiquitous connectivity means that job roles can equally migrate to wherever in the world skilled people happen to be.

Paradoxically, the more distributed and virtual work becomes, the more physical workplace design is crucial in facilitating knowledge-intensive work, including creating environments for focusing, learning, collaborating and socialising1. The emerging economies present both threat and opportunity. Large populations of young and ambitious workforces in these countries are a real competitive advantage at a time when the West is experiencing retirement of its Baby Boomers, who take their knowledge and experience out the door with them. There are not enough so-called Generation Y, the 18 – 25 year olds, to replace them.

In summary, we live in a distributed, connected and increasingly online world, where competition from clever and cost-effective talented people is not going away. If they are to survive this hyper-competition, enterprises really need to value and harness people’s knowledge to stay in the game, creating physical and online work environments that let people collaborate and learn together.

Organisational development

Organisational development (OD) ‘applies to changes in strategy, structure and processes of an entire system’ and is focused on effectiveness through workforce skills, knowledge and engagement in problem-solving, innovation and knowledge-sharing. Research supports the view that how structures, processes and management systems are designed and put in place are linked to high performance and significantly influence how people work together.

We live in a distributed, connected and increasingly online world, where competition from clever and cost-effective talented people is not going away... enterprises really need to value and harness people’s knowledge to stay in the game

So much is changing in the external business environment that now would be a good time for top teams to be assessing the fitness for purpose of their systems, processes and management practices. For a start, ‘anytime, anywhere’ working means that managers are having to learn to manage outputs rather than monitor how long people are physically present in the workplace. Social distance is a potential problem; people need to feel included in the information and gossip loop.

Social networking and collaboration technologies have a crucial role in shrinking this distance. Generation Y are demanding and challenging to manage. They expect access to social networking tools, want to work collaboratively and seek opportunities for learning and development. Understanding the role of social networking technologies in shrinking social distance, in supporting the learning organisation and in facilitating Generation Y’s desire for connectedness is yet another demand on managers’ knowledge and skills.

Collaboration and conversations are crossing demographic, organisational, geographical and professional cultural boundaries. Managers now need to have at least an appreciation of the complexity of cultural diversity, human dynamics and contexts that influence behaviour both in‐person and online.

A further consequence of enterprises fragmenting into networks of alliances and partnerships is that managers are having to manage by negotiation and persuasion rather than by command and control. This remains a significant mind-shift. Holistic organisational development and cross‐functional integration of IT, HR and FM systems is crucial to create the sort of working environments essential for remaining viable in the face of current turbulence. Upskilling top teams and entire workforces for 21st century conditions is urgent.

Executive Development

Inter-organisational learning networks for senior executives are highly effective in negotiating multi-disciplinary fields of knowledge and perspectives. An example is the Johnson Controls Global Mobility Network, which the author co-facilitates with Dr Marie Puybaraud, the director of Workplace Innovation at Johnson Controls. The network is for senior IT, HR and Facilities Management executives to explore the practical implications of global workplace trends. These busy executives do not have time to keep up with developments. Having researchers source, summarise and contextualise content from the internet is already a benefit. Sessions are informal.

The network members tell us that written reports of our sessions are less valuable to them than our multiple-perspective conversations, which create cross-functional and cross-organisational insight. The energy created is the consequence of an experimental ‘it goes where it goes’ light-touch facilitation. Strong personal bonds have been an outcome of a more formal work-based learning initiative at pre-doctoral level for senior executives in Moscow, which the author helped to develop. It is offered in partnership with the Academy of National Economy in Moscow and Kingston University Business School in the UK. Individual learning programmes are self-determined within a loosely structured framework, around a strategic challenge the executive wants to address.

The executive has a team of knowledge specialists allocated according to the nature of the strategic challenge. In collaboration with the team, the executive engages in action learning and critical reflection of the external environment and internal structures, systems and processes. New knowledge, frameworks and tools the support team members introduce, in a just-in-time way, are of course valuable.

The real value of the programme is intensive peer interactions that provide a rich source of diverse perspectives and emotional support. In the author’s experience, functional walls between HR, IT and FM are as strong as they ever were and this will threaten enterprise viability. There are highly effective ways for senior executives to gain cross-boundary perspectives of organisational development. There are no excuses.

Dr Anne Marie McEwan recently launched The Smart Work Company Ltd, which aims to help enterprises transform performance, by changing management cultures and processes through blending work-based learning and reflective thinking. She is also a Visiting Fellow in the Business School at Kingston University. Web: Email: [email protected] Twitter: drmcewan Tel: +44 (0)20 8390 0880


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!