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What is the role of organisational development in HR?

The term ‘organisational development’ can feel rather broad and ambiguous, yet it is increasingly being recognised as part of an HR function’s role.  

If you work with talent, human resources, culture, strategy, L&D, change management, DE&I, or organisational effectiveness, then you are most likely already in the thick of organisational development. And if, like many of our clients, you are wondering: 

  • How to create cultural change 
  • How to implement effective working practices 
  • How to improve your leadership standard 
  • How to retain your talent 
  • How to increase diversity 
  • How to strengthen your pipeline of future leaders 
  • How to generate higher performance and productivity 
  • How to increase employee engagement 

Then understanding organisational development is key. 

Why? Because each of these challenges is one part of the overarching ‘system’ that is your organisation. They exist within (and because of) the system. And, for the system to be as healthy and productive as possible, each part needs to be looked after. This means that, while people will rarely go looking for organisational development, it is often the solution that works best; it looks at the system as a whole and thereby drives real, sustainable change. 

Luckily, organisational development does not mean taking apart the entire system, or starting from square one. There are ways of doing this that can create positive, sustainable change, and deliver the ROI that you need – without a long, painful process (or wasting time and money on “solutions” that have no impact at all). 

We spoke to Organisational Psychology and HR Management expert Charlotte Crow, in order to get to grips with exactly how to go about that. In this article, we outline an approach to transformational organisational development, that is both game-changing and painless. 

What is organisational development? 

Organisational development is a holistic approach to organisational change. It looks at the cultural, systemic, and structural components of a company, and ensures that they are properly aligned to achieve an organisation’s goals.  

Most importantly, it empowers people with the knowledge, processes and skills to ensure that this transformation is sustainable, and that its impact is felt throughout the company. 

5 types of organisational development: 

  • Process consulting 
  • People development 
  • Conflict resolution 
  • Organisation design 
  • Meeting facilitation 

Organisational development gets people at all levels involved. While a traditional top-down approach to change, (decided by a few and fed down to the many), might be successful when it comes to changing procedure, it is unlikely to make any notable change when it comes to culture, ways of working, interpersonal relationships and team effectiveness. That is why, rather than taking a top-down approach, the best organisational development gets people at all levels involved, creating real change where it matters, in order to have an impact in the long-term. 

As expert, Charlotte Crow, puts it, ‘Culture is far from static – it’s dynamic, part of a complex web that interacts and influences in multiple, and sometimes conflicting, ways.  

Culture is constantly changing and mutating. There are values, belief systems, symbols, rituals and routines, and of course organisational structures that all interact. Within this, people in organisations are both creators and perpetuators of the culture – changing culture cannot be done by one leader alone. Creating sustainable change requires involvement right across the organisation.’ 

Because of this, an essential element of this process is developing your people. People development, such as talent and leadership development, builds the knowledge, skills and capabilities which will ultimately lead to the fulfilment of cultural and systemic goals.  

6 elements of people development: 

  • 1:1 and group coaching 
  • Group workshops 
  • Feedback and reflection 
  • Skills and capability development 
  • Team effectiveness 
  • Leadership training 

For the purposes of this article we will be looking specifically at the people development approach. Why? Because it is a brilliant place to start; if you begin with upskilling your people, then any other type of learning or change initiatives that follow will be far easier to facilitate and manage. By strengthening and empowering your people upfront, you give them the best opportunity to embrace transformation down the line – making organisational development a much more manageable task. 

 The 5 characteristics of organisational development 

 The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) have outlined five characteristics of successful organisational development: 

  1. It’s scientific – it is rooted in science and behavioural psychology 
  1. It’s systemic – it considers the entire organisation and its challenges 
  1. It’s humanist – it puts people at the heart of change 
  1. It’s participatory – it is collaborative, inclusive and has buy-in 
  1. It’s sustainable – it creates change that lasts 

Let’s take a look at each of these features, and how you might apply them to successfully drive forward a people development approach to organisational change.  

  1. It’s scientific 

For organisational development to work, it needs to be based in science and psychology. That is because the catalyst for any type of change is human behaviour. Understanding, dDeveloping and optimising the behaviours of employees and leaders is essential as they drive culture, performance, satisfaction, loyalty, productivity and more.  

This is why many organisational change initiatives call upon experts. Utilising behavioural change expertise will enable real growth to occur, rather than simply putting a plaster over the problem, like so many change efforts.  

Behavioural expertise: Tapping into people’s capability and capacity for change is key – without doing so, any development efforts are likely to be wasted. That means people need to both want to change, and know how to change. 

It is this approach that ensures delegates have both the mindset and skills to make personal change – which is the first big step to achieving genuine organisational change. For employees and leaders alike, having the skills to affect positive change in themselves, and others, is essential. These skills, which are rooted in behavioural change psychology, are what enable genuine transformation to happen. 

In an organisational context, starting with the employees themselves will allow them to emotionally engage with the need for a new way of working. In that sense, you are making the change ‘matter’ to individuals. 

  1. It’s systemic  

 An organisation is a type of system, meaning it will face systemic challenges. Effective organisational development will go about first diagnosing these specific challenges: what they are, and what their root cause is, and then secondly will take a whole-system approach to addressing them. 

Being thoroughly systemic means understanding and facing up to what is actually going on. Without being really honest about the issues, HR leaders could end up investing in the wrong type of intervention – for example, if you were to put all of your efforts into increasing quantifiable diversity, when actually you need a cultural shift that generates higher levels of inclusion and belonging. 

One benefit of calling upon experts would be to undergo an objective diagnostic. ‘Experts can also help to assess the current culture and define the ‘desired’ culture, and then help evaluate the extent to which existing systems and processes support the new/desired culture. This would mean addressing those systems or processes that undermine the new way of working, or indeed identifying existing good practice that fit the desired cultural vision and should be preserved. Without this scientific approach, often people go by their gut… and often don’t end up where they hoped to.’ (Crow) 

Secondly, once you have identified the root of the issues, being systematic means taking a ‘whole’ approach. You can’t make one change and expect it to shift the dial.  

For example, if an organisation lacks female leaders and decides to send their female leaders on a course, in isolation, it will do very little. They would also need to address the systemic, cultural reasons for the problem, and understand how the company can support this population from all angles.  

‘Understanding the organisation as a system means understanding the degree to which everything the organisation does, or embodies, enables or impedes the desired culture. Particularly in large organisations, this may also be within and between ‘subcultures’. Taking  a systemic approach means reviewing the extent to which existing systems and processes support a shift in the right direction, and identifying those which get in the way.’ (Crow) 

Discovery: There are two ways we would suggest creating a systemic solution. Firstly, by ensuring that your discovery process is thorough enough to get to the core of the issues. Through our experience, we would recommend an in-depth diagnostic, which immerses your team in the realities of the current culture and creates clarity around the culture you are aspiring to. Understanding multiple, varied perspectives will alert your team to the narratives at play, as well as the cultural belief systems in place – around attitudes to learning, change, and what is currently going on in the organisation.  

This level of discovery will enable you to design a solution that answers the specific needs of that organisation. And, importantly, this solution should continue to develop as the needs change. This might happen through regular reviews, collation of the learning, and working to deepen the experience for each new cohort. 

Holistic solution: Secondly, to create seamless organisational change, any initiative needs to be viewed as a whole solution. For example, considerations for a development programme will also include: tailoring the content to suit organisational goals, delegate selection, programme communication, creating a measurement framework, developing an ecosystem of support through line manager and stakeholder briefings. For a programme to work it can’t sit in isolation – it needs to be fully integrated into the business, and a good provider should support with the end-to-end processes to ensure the programmes deliver the shift that is needed for an organisation. 

  1. It’s humanist 

Real change starts with people. The best organisational development will put people at the heart of the process, properly leveraging their human potential and talent. This includes developing leaders who are able to inspire and lead teams through change, as well as individuals who are thriving in their roles, and teams who operate from trust and a united purpose.  

‘Leaders should play an active, visible role in driving the change –  to have any hope building belief across the organisation, leaders need to embody the behaviours expected of all employees in their everyday actions.’ (Crow) 

Understanding how different populations learn: Successful odevelopment does not assume that everyone will learn the same way: because a one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work. Different populations learn in different ways, so the delivery and content must be specific to the needs of each population and generation.  

One way to achieve this is through coach-led development rather than ‘training’ or ‘facilitation’. This approach allows for the content to be context specific; addressing the real life circumstances and challenges of the people in the room. In that way, people are getting the right learning and support, at the right time. 

Furthermore, ‘employees’ perceptions of how they are treated during organisational change will impact on their engagement with the organisation longer term, and their desire to move along with the organisation’s shifts.’ (Crow) 

Coaching: 1:1 transformational coaching is one of the ways in which a change initiative can ensure a humanist approach, as it supports with the personal growth of individual employees. Quality coaches are experts in facilitating personal change, which means they are able to engage, push, challenge, and create environments of psychological safety and courage. This approach also allows for individuals to explore their own challenges within the workplace, and to self-reflect in a guided, safe way.  

  1. It’s participative and inclusive 

For change to occur, people need to feel individually invested in making it happen. That means they need to be involved on a personal level. Good organisational development does this in a number of ways: by making the change personal and meaningful, by cultivating a partnership with key stakeholders and providers, by co-creating a solution with changemakers, and by responding to the real needs of the people rather than making assumptions. This element is fundamental throughout the process, and it will greatly impact how sustainable the change efforts end up being. 

Personal and professional development: People only change when something really matters to them. The learning has to support their journey and be anchored to their needs, wants and values. Once an individual understands who they are and the kind of leader they were born to be, they can start to look at what they really want, what might be limiting them from reaching their potential – and how they can personally change. It’s this personalisation that really ignites behavioural and professional change. With this level of engagement you can then go far deeper on the pragmatic professional learning. 

Partnership and co-creation: Key to any successful change initiative is the level of partnership and trust that surrounds it. This is what allows for effective co-creation, stake-holder buy-in, and creating a solution that actually addresses the real issues at hand. When attempting organisational development, trust in your team or provider’s expertise is absolutely crucial. That is why we believe that before any action is taken, the team heading up the project should undergo a team effectiveness framework, in order to ensure that they are aligned in ways of working.  

  1. It’s sustainable 

Ultimately, it is far too common for organisations to spend time, money and energy on change efforts that don’t have a lasting impact. They can look and feel shiny and exciting, but don’t deliver the ROI that was promised, or worse: they don’t even feel exciting, and they fail to make any sustainable impact.  

Successful organisational development is sustainable organisational development. It builds capability, skills and knowledge to allow people, teams and leaders to solve future problems and continue to evolve, long after the change intervention has taken place. 

Behavioural change foundation: The best part about starting with behavioural change, is that it ensures the development will have a lasting impact. Jumping in to professional development without these essential change skills is like trying to build a house without first laying the foundations – it might look and feel exciting, but a year from now the house probably won’t still be standing. Similarly, any learning that occurs without first laying the foundations for change, is unlikely to make a deeper or lasting impact.  

‘Identifying and developing the behaviours needed to create and sustain the change is critical.  

Starting early: The final piece to this puzzle is rejecting the traditional top-down approach to change. Developing leaders is of course essential, but talent at all levels is what makes an organisation tick and forms the pipeline for the future.  

If you’re going to create change, you cannot afford to wait. Don’t wait until people are in senior positions to offer them this level of development. By starting early and developing talent who are rising through the ranks, as well as leaders, the impact of this learning on an organisation will be far greater.  

‘Recruiting and developing people early in their careers to embody the culture you want, and then seeing them grow their careers far and wide across the organisation, also means starting fires (in a positive way) for behavioural and cultural change. The important thing is ensuring the environment allows them to thrive. Generating change makers throughout the organisation is also a creative, and sustainable, way to make it happen.’ (Crow) 

That’s why we’re on a mission to bring this kind of development to everyone, at every level, so we can create truly inclusive, effective, high-performance cultures – and long-term, sustainable change. 

The bottom line 

Organisational development is a strategy that impacts every facet of your business, and truly effective organisational development is scientific, systemic, humanist, participative, and sustainable. The benefits of organisational development are countless. Investing in your people and your organisation – in the right way – can lead to an uplift in your bottom line, improved organisational and team effectiveness, a culture that is aligned with your organisational vision, clearer communication, and leaders equipped to lead high-performance teams.  

By starting with people development, you can lay a strong foundation for sustainable change. This ensures that your transformation efforts are not only impactful but also long-lasting.  

At Ivy House, we specialise in creating bespoke development programmes that are tailored to meet your unique organisational needs. Our approach is rooted in behavioural change, ensuring that your leaders and teams are equipped with the tools and mindset necessary for genuine transformation. 

If you’re ready to drive real, sustainable change and elevate your organisational development strategy, get in touch with us today. 





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