Why Organizational Development is the Hot New Topic in Human Resources

You can’t throw a shoe across the average HR office these days without hitting a couple self-proclaimed organizational development experts.

But what exactly is organizational development and what does it have to do with human resources?

Organizational development emerged from studies of human relationships and their impacts on organizational performance in the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the organization itself tended to influence how people behaved and performed. Designing the right structure to meet the goals of the organization played a big part in whether or not it would be effective.

HR professionals are concerned with these matters on two different levels:

  • How creating organizational systems can motivate and assist employees in achieving organizational goals.
  • How those systems effect the morale and individual effectiveness of the employees themselves.

You’ll probably have some exposure to organizational development theory and practice in your HR degree program, but the fields aren’t entirely overlapping. OD experts may end up in HR because other departments don’t know what to do with them, but they are also commonly found in strategic planning groups and at the executive level.

If you’ve been inundated with buzzwords that start with the prefix “cross-“ or incorporate the word “change” in some way, chances are you’ve had a close encounter with OD. And chances are you’ll have a lot more of them in the future.

Organizational Development Can Offer HR More Than Just Buzzword Hell

The reasons you are seeing more and more OD chocolate in your HR peanut butter these days are pretty simple: organizational structures are becoming more and more complex and diversified workforces are getting harder and harder to manage.

Trends hitting the traditional corporate structure in the United States include:

  • Outsourcing
  • Personal technology
  • Loosening restrictions on contract staffing
  • Global competition
  • Aging workforce and generational challenges

HR pros have been trying to handle the fallout from all these trends without a lot of help from corporate management. But what if there were relatively simple organizational changes that could be made to help ease corporations and their employees through these difficulties?

This is where OD starts to look really, really intriguing to HR professionals.

How Organizational Development Can Build Human Resources Capabilities In Your Business

Human resources teams can use OD principles and experts to great effect in their primary mission of managing and supporting staff.

Organizational development largely works by providing staff with the structural incentives to do their best and by getting systemic blocks out of their way in doing it.

Of course, this is just another way of saying “supporting staff” when you get right down to it.

When you think about what sort of complaints you commonly get, you can see the advantages in this approach. Employees get frustrated when they butt heads with overlapping responsibilities, or get shut down when they have good ideas and can’t run with them.

HR can’t usually touch these problems—they are baked into how the company is built.

OD offers a more powerful set of tools for fixing those issues than the average HR department can bring to bear, though. As an HR specialist, you have a lot of limitations about what you can and can’t do to improve someone’s job environment. For the most part, their immediate supervisor and the department they work within will have way more practical influence on their daily work experience than you can.

OD opens up those structural influences in a way that allows HR to make positive changes. Of course, it’s not all your call—OD is about incorporating all levels of input into a plan—but it provides a new avenue for making positive changes in daily job experience.

How Human Resources Can Make Organizational Development Successful

It’s not just a one-way street, though. HR can do a lot to help out organizational development efforts as well. In fact, good HR processes are critical in almost any OD project.

It starts with getting the right people in the door in the first place. Although OD focuses significantly on the structure of the organization, the building blocks aren’t all interchangeable. Having smart, well-trained, ambitious staff to work with will support OD efforts a lot more than the dregs from the bottom of the hiring pool barrel.

HR recruiting experts can look at OD plans and ensure they are pursuing, and hiring, the right people to get those plans in place.

Increasingly, OD professionals are looking to integrate career planning and employee engagement with their workforce planning processes. Those are both aspects that HR is tailor-made to handle.

This also points to a role in job analysis and design. An OD expert might identify a role to be filled in the organization without respect to the recruiting pool in play out in the real world. HR, with more familiarity with the job candidates available and credentials that are realistic and achievable, has to put together a job description and compensation package that can actually hook a qualified candidate.

They might also propose changes to the organizational design on that same basis. If it’s not realistic to find one candidate with the right qualifications for the role at an affordable compensation rate, HR could suggest splitting the role or increasing the budget to fit the requirement.

HR also has a role to play in compliance and other playing-field factors that OD sometimes misses. To be fair, it’s not usually up to OD to understand employment law and other externalities. But that’s exactly what HR is supposed to do, and HR teams can keep OD efforts on track by ensuring they meet insurance, regulatory, and other industry standards.

Finally, OD also needs the HR touch when it comes time to implement their grand new plans. If there’s one thing you learn fast as an HR professional, it’s that staff fear change. And big organizational changes often pose threats to individual positions. Employees build roadblocks to organizational change when they are worried their job is on the line.

These fears have to be addressed as part of the plan, but human resources staff will be the people providing the human touch. You’ll be responsible for finding the right ways to communicate with staff about changes, and helping to mitigate their fears. In a sense, you’ll be the human face of the company, communicating directly with both employees and the OD implementation team to provide a clear line of communication.

Once you get past the roadblocks, you’ll find that organizational development can really open up the options for your HR department. You’ll deliver a whole new level of service and drive the company to a new level of performance at the same time.


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