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Parkin Space: The Rise of the Organisational Developer


I am encountering more and more people who only last year were “training professionals” but who now describe themselves as organisational development or OD practitioners. OD purists get very prickly when a trainer presumes to take on that sort of title, because OD is, well, special. It has its own language and rituals and codes of conduct. It “does no harm” and tends to avoid conflict. Yet it transforms organisations, hopefully for the better.

To the more hard-boiled no-nonsense business person, OD is a bit touchy-feely, a throwback to the warm-fuzzy days of T-groups and sensitivity training. But to OD insiders, it’s a tough, disciplined and highly specialised field that seeks to improve the way organisations work. Training focuses on improving the performance of individuals and teams; OD focuses on a bigger picture, improving the performance of systems, structures, and processes, as well as looking at the people. The “as well as” is where the conflicts between OD and training arise, and where the synergies are to be found.

I am, usually, an OD guy. There are few situations that I have seen where training alone is the answer, where systemic changes do not need to be made. Indeed, training is sometimes a complete waste of time and money if the environment, structures, systems, or processes do not change to support and reinforce newly-learned skills. You can teach a hamster to run faster in its wheel, but unless you remove the wheel, your hamster is not going to win you any races.

Training departments typically report to HR, as do OD departments. Often they are happily interlinked as an OD&T department. I used to run an international OD&T division that reported directly to the corporate president, and operated quite independently of HR, but that's because I had an "od" role as well as an "OD" role. Sometimes, though not as often as OD professionals would like, training reports to OD. People in OD just naturally get more credibility and assume a higher status in the organisation – even though most employees have no idea what they actually do.

There are some increasingly common exceptions to training falling under an HR umbrella. Some operating units have their own training operations that can be more or less independent from the central training department (sales training or engineering training are cases in point). Often these units have their own independent budgets and processes, and operate autonomously, much to the irritation of the training department. In recent years I am seeing more and more of this "distributed and decentralised" training model, with direct reporting to the operational departmental head (say VP of sales) and only a dotted line to the head of training. These decentralised training units seem to have more influence over local OD-like issues than their counterparts back in the training department.

There is a growing acknowledgement that people apparently learn four times as much through the informal on-the-job learning than they do through structured formal training. And the best place to leverage local learning is deep in the workflow, not from a central campus. Empowering local operating-unit-specific trainers may also be a reaction to central training departments forcing a re-centralisation of training via a corporate LMS and corporately cloned learning processes. While everyone else is adopting more "web thinking" (which is all about decentralized, loosely networked activity), many training departments are looking for more control, not less.

As hardened silos of command-and-control give way to ephemeral spheres of influence, organisational entities that have always relied on centralized authority need to rethink the way they stay in control. OD people are accustomed to hopping across silos and forging odd trans-hierarchy alliances. Trainers need to be doing the same.

So why are so many trainers re-labeling themselves as organisational developers? It may be because trainers don’t get taken seriously enough by management. The “trainer” label is a handicap that constrains their perceived effectiveness areas, and deprives them of the ability to credibly voice the need for changes beyond the knowledge and skills of employees. And it puts a barrier in the way of their influencing or driving those changes.

OD professionals are often horrified when trainers attempt to go beyond their brief. Granted, OD people are highly trained in what they do, and a bumbling amateur can do more harm than good. But experienced trainers often have a much deeper hands-on insight into the issues than anyone gives them credit for. In pursuing OD initiatives, I have always sought to tap into the organisational expertise of trainers, because trainers are the nervous system of an organisation. They see, hear, and feel more than many managers do, and they are exposed to the systemic problems, and opportunities, through the eyes of their learners.

While it may be heroic for trainers to simply re-label themselves as OD practitioners, I think it is an admirable trend with a lot more upside than downside.

* Read more of Godfrey's columns at Parkin Space.


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