Organization Development

 “Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice” by Gervase R. Bushe and Robert J. Marshak was published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2009 and became one of the top downloaded articles in the journal for the year. Here is a brief reflection from the authors on the article:

Around 2006 Bob Marshak and I became aware that we were writing about similar things under different labels.  We were seeing a shift in the way consultants were helping teams and organizations to change and transform that wasn’t being written about in Organization Development (OD) textbooks or taught in many OD graduate programs.  He was calling it “New OD”.  I was calling it “Postmodern OD”.  As it turned out the label became a very important issue as we tried to get our ideas published in mainstream academia.  Editorial boards didn’t like “new OD” because that meant there was “old OD” and new implies better than old and old would then need to get tossed out, and nobody wanted that!  Calling it postmodern OD meant the article got sent for review to critical theorists who seemed to think any truly postmodern OD would be about exposing the seamy underbelly of oppression that we all, supposedly, labor under blindly.  When Bob came up with the distinction “diagnostic versus dialogic” I immediately felt he had struck narrative gold – not only did it accurately encapsulate a core distinction we saw in the change in OD practice we were writing about, but the alliteration rolled off the pen.  Resistance to our ideas melted away and, instead, others are taking a closer look at the distinctions we are making in theoretical underpinnings and not just slogans.  The OD that is normally taught is a change process based on diagnosis against ideal models that leads to problem solving and top-down implementation of new behaviors. The different form of OD we tried to capture is based on orchestrating generative conversations that lead to new, collective ways of thinking and self-generated changes in behavior.  What’s made it difficult to see this dialogic form of OD is that it shows up in some very different forms and each is primarily associated with specific individuals.  These two change processes, diagnostic and dialogic, are based on very different philosophical and scientific premises but while the former have been clearly thought through and tested, the latter have barely been identified.  That’s what our Revisioning OD article did – identify some of those differences and offer a beginning point for thinking through and testing the underlying assumptions of Dialogic OD. 

I think people are reading the article because it captures something real about what is going on in the field of OD.  The OD practitioners who have commented to both Bob and I on the article say it captured and gave voice to a shift they had taken in their practices but hadn’t yet been named.  Personally, I don’t know anyone doing real transformational work in organizations that is using the kind of diagnosis – action planning change process historically taught in OD certificate and graduate programs at various schools and institutions.   I even had one person write me to say that a graduate student he was supervising had decided not to drop out of his OD program after reading the article, as it captured the kind of OD that student was interested in pursuing.  At the same time I believe there is a place and time for Diagnostic OD and one of the important areas of research ahead of us is understanding when and where each kind is most appropriate and when and whether they can usefully be combined.

It’s not unusual in management research for the academics to be playing catch-up with what is actually going on in practice, and this seems to be the current case in the field of OD.  So much of what gets written by change practitioners is little more than advertisements for their services.  I’m excited about turning pursuing a line of inquiry that may be energizing and generative for the OD profession, turning a  critically appreciative eye on the many new change technologies that really haven’t been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and building a theory base for Dialogic OD.  Some of this work has already started under other names and in other guises but in academic OD the work is just beginning.  Bob and I are reaching out to academics and practitioners who want to articulate the theory and practice of Dialogic OD.  Our hope is that Dialogic OD will be a generative metaphor that takes those concerned with planned change and transformation down some new paths of research and inquiry into how we can increase collective intelligence and collective creativity and focus it on increasing collective wellbeing in our groups, organizations and societies.  I believe that is always, at its core, what organization development has been about and Dialogic OD offers a revisioning of ways to accomplish that while staying true to OD’s core values.

Gervase R. Bushe, Ph.D. , Professor of Leadership and Organization Development, Segal Graduate School of Business, Simon Fraser University

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