CIPD Podcast 44 - HR and organisation development: separate past, joint future?

Date: 23/06/10 Duration: 00:24:37

In this podcast Ed Griffin, Development Partner in the Breathe Partnership, Lee Sears, Director of OD consultancy, Bridge, Sati Khakh, Head of Organisation Development at the Civil Aviation Authority and Richard Atienza-Hawkes, Head of Organisational Development for Stoke-on-Trent City Council discuss how organisational development and HR fit together and what sort of skill sets and behaviours lead to really outstanding OD practice.


Philippa Lamb: Welcome to this month’s podcast, I’m Philippa Lamb. This time we’re looking at the relationship between organisational development and HR. How they fit together and what sort of skill sets and behaviours lead to really outstanding OD practice. We’ll be hearing the inside track from specialists in the field at the Civil Aviation Authority, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the CIPD’s leadership and OD consultancy, Bridge. First though, just to clarify the rather ambiguous term OD. I asked Ed Griffin, former CIPD advisor and development partner at OD consultancy D3 Partners, for a definition of organisational development and as it turns out he finds it simpler to use a different phrase altogether.

Ed Griffin: Well the phrase we’re starting to use is actually just total business management because what we’ve found is that people get so confused about those two letters ‘OD’ that for some people it means organisational design; some people are talking about organisational effectiveness; sometimes people are talking about training and development activities. I actually think that organisational development is about contributing to the sustained success of the organisation through the involvement of the people in that organisation at all levels. That is simply how I see it. In practical terms, I think that means you involve all levels of the organisation wherever you can in developing strategy and in implementing strategy. So it’s about genuine employee engagement rather than say, just having a staff survey.

PL: For another take on OD, I asked Lee Sears, Director at OD consultancy, Bridge.

Lee Sears: For me OD, I think it’s a relatively simple definition. It’s about the ability of a function to support an organisation to be successful now and in the future. So I think there’s a clue in the term organisational development. How do you help the organisation to be alert to the reality of what is really going on in the business at the moment and find a way of continuing to adapt and change? Given such a broad brief, OD has an incredibly wide ambit, which I think it can only really make sense of itself if it is able to run that intelligent commentary on, what is this organisation like at any given time? And actually, what are the real issues here that we have to face into if we are going to support this organisation to be successful?

PL: So both Ed and Lee agree that OD is at least partly about having a clear perspective of the entire organisation. But what immediately strikes me is the similarity between the descriptions of this role and that of senior management. Isn’t it their job to oversee the entire organisation and work towards that longer term vision? Here’s Ed Griffin.

EG: I think for me the critical thing is very often as line managers what happens is we get very focussed on day-to-day tasks, we get very operational focus. Often organisations and managers complain about being silo’d and actually not being able to see the bigger picture of how the different activities in different areas of the organisation, the different work people are doing, actually joins up over all to contribute to sustained success for the organisation. So I think the real difference from day-to-day management is actually day-to-day, management does tend to be that much shorter term focus rather than a longer term bigger picture view of the organisation and its success.

PL: For Lee Sears it’s the understanding of and the focus on people, combined with the business agenda, that gives the OD team its unique insight and impact.

LS: They understand the dynamics of how people in organisations work successfully. So what is it about the interplay between the hard and the soft factors of business; and I think that is the kind of unique territory for OD. They are able to say, well with these people, in this business, at this stage in its evolution this is what it is actually going to take in order for it to be successful. And I think quite often you get business managers who look at the organisation in a very rational way; numbers and units of kind of clear observable meaning and OD often find a way of helping to link the people and cultural agenda with the business agenda.

PL: Sound familiar? A secondary debate when it comes to placing OD is about the relationship between OD and HR itself. Is OD separate? Should it sit within HR? Or is HR itself a sub-set of OD. Here’s Lee Sears.

LS: The debate about whether OD should be separate from HR or vice versa I think is a redundant one. They are very much occupying the same territory and from my point of view, for HR to be a meaningful and valuable function it has to have OD capabilities and skills and the ability to think and understand the organisation as an OD practitioner would. It has to be at the heart of HR. Similarly though, for OD to be of any real value, it has to have touch points into all areas of the business and actually that is what HR does have; so they have to be an immediately supportive partnership rather than seen as separate entities to my mind.

PL: I asked Ed for his view on this interplay between the practices of HR and OD.

EG: The way I would see it is that actually HR offers practices, tools and approaches that OD practitioners can use. And I think very often it is about having an OD mind set. Sometimes it is referred to as systems thinking. I think it is about being curious and interested in the relationship between different parts of an organisation, the relationship between different activities. So it’s not unusual in a big organisation today that you look at the list of changes and there are 125 different projects on the go and sometimes it feels like those are disconnected. I think the OD mind set is looking at how do you bring those together?

PL: So if OD is a mind set, what sort of person makes a successful OD practitioner?

LS: At their heart I think they are kind of diagnosticians. They are fascinated by the reality of what is actually happening here and they have a full range of diagnostic techniques, if you like, at their disposal, so they are able to understand really what is it about the, I think, the soft side of an organisation that will support it being successful. And they can use the deep understanding and insight into that to shape an organisation’s agenda and often enable them to do the tough stuff well. 

PL: But CIPD has talked about this under the umbrella of savvy; business savvy, organisational savvy and contextual savvy. Can you give me a bit more information about how that really works?

LS: In English I think what that means is understanding the real drivers of value in a business. What makes this business work and what makes it make money currently? And I think there are a lot of OD practitioners where I think they can become disconnected from the businesses if they just don’t understand that well enough. So then they can spend too much time talking about the technical sides of OD that can feel like a Dark Art to people. Contextual savvy is just having a real understanding of what is going on in the broader market place and in the broader world and how that is affecting the business. Some of the best OD practitioners, they act like an early warning system to the organisation; finding a way of keeping them alert and saying, you know what, I think we are just spending too much time focussing on the business that we’re already running. If you look at the dynamics of the change that is going on around us, we need to wake ourselves up more. And then the organisational savvy I think is the ability to understand the subtleties of the interplay between the issues around leadership, power, culture and change and I think that is often the heartland of what OD are known for. But OD only really makes sense when you are trying to change a particular business and understanding the market in which it sits.

PL: So that awareness and those skills add up to, another buzz-word I’m afraid, insight driven-HR, which actually is a phrase I quite like because I think I understand, we can understand what that means can’t we?

LS: I think so. It’s just being able to run a simple perspective on what matters most to this business. I suppose, rather like marketing when in its heritage marketing used to be very much an activity driven discipline, I think OD and HR similarly, a lot of activities and processes that they’ve owned. When you actually put insight at the heart of the OD and HR agendas, all of a sudden, rather like with marketing, if you understand your customers intimately, you have real customer insight, your ability to market to them effectively just increases ten-fold. I think similarly with OD, if you really have an insight into what this organisation needs, where the market is going and what these people will do with it, then you are able to suddenly create a meaningful HR and OD agenda.

PL: Whilst it is about being able to see the issues clearly for Lee and Ed, for Richard Atienza-Hawkes OD is about looking to the future and planning how to get there. He is Head of OD at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
Richard Atienza-Hawkes: For me it is really holding the vision alive of the future of the organisation for its management mainly but also for its staff; and then saying, given the culture that we currently have how might we move to that new role. So it’s looking at the design of the organisation; it’s looking at the architecture in terms of the building layout; it’s looking at the language and the stories that are used in the organisation; it’s looking at the managerial practices and styles; it’s looking at the processes. So it’s taking a whole view of the whole organisation, looking at where it is and in a sense creating a pathway to that future.

PL: Now even though OD has been around for some considerable period of time, it is still quite a new concept for a lot of people outside the HR profession. What moved Stoke City Council to appoint you as Head of OD? Because I don’t think they had an OD person before.

RA-H: They didn’t have an OD person and Stoke-on-Trent, in about 2006, was in the ten worst performing councils in the country and it went through an enormous sort of change programme where in a sense they had to operate by management by instruction. So we had intervention at the time by the Government in terms of our Children Services and lots of things were very, very dysfunctional, really not working, very broken at many, many levels. So I really came along two years ago to start to look at how we shift that way of operating from control and command to much more empowering staff at the front line to make changes to their services and improve the way in which they operate.

PL: What have you been doing? How did you start?

RA-H: I think one of the difficulties when I started in Stoke is really knowing where to start because there are so many things that are dysfunctional at so many different levels. But one of the things that I think was really key in the organisation was that there had been some huge changes and some huge success. So there were lots of pockets of innovation and creativity; but actually those got really lost in amongst all of the kind of inspections and all of the negative stuff around what is not working in the organisation. And so we were looking at ways in which staff could be acknowledged and recognised for some of that really great practice and how that might be then shared across the organisation. One of the things that I think has been happening quite slowly is a real interest in appreciative enquiry. This really looks at what is really working in an organisation and starts to say, well if that’s working there, if we were to build on that, what might that, what might be possible? And so we trained 35 staff in appreciative enquiry techniques and from that we had about 350, just over 350 stories, created right across the organisation in lots of different teams. For example, one of them was around a manager who simply got, at the end of a team meeting, would ask each person to share something that had gone really well for them this week. So on paper it doesn’t kind of feel amazing transformational stuff, but actually was really creating an energy and a kind of continuous learning in that team that wasn’t necessarily showing up elsewhere in the organisation.

PL: How did this go down with people?

RA-H: It went down really well with front line staff and I think senior management were horrified.

PL: I can imagine.

RA-H: And I think what sort of made the difference is that when you actually see, it’s not just about celebrating and acknowledging and clapping and saying, that’s fabulous, it’s sort of saying, well why is that fabulous? What is really, really at the root of why it’s fabulous? And if we were to replicate that, if we can share that, if we can build that into some building blocks for the future when we’re re-designing the organisation, then maybe there is something in it.

PL: So once they understood that it was a way of acquiring usable, hard data in an unthreatening way then they understood what you were trying to do?

RA-H: Yes, indeed.

PL: Richard’s biggest challenge was to introduce a complete reversal of prevailing culture; to focus on the positive stories as opposed to the stories of failure. This ability is a quality that lies at the heart of successful OD. Lee Sears.

LS: The ability to break a complex problem down to shed a very simple new light on it, and then the ability to align quite a sceptical and often quite difficult stakeholders who don’t want to hear often what you are talking about, I think often sits at the heart of being a good OD person. The best OD practitioners, underneath it all, they have essentially what looks like a kind of consulting mind set.

PL: This point about approaching the organisation with a consultant’s mind set is interesting and there is an argument to say that it would be easier to outsource OD altogether. I put that to Ed Griffin.

EG: I think it depends on what sort of consultant you are. Certainly we’ve seen in the work we do a lot of internal consultants wanting to shift from a narrow area of expertise; so, for example, I have reward expertise in HR, to being able to see how the way in which they might come up with rewards solutions for the business, actually relates to other pieces of work, other changes that are currently going on. So there is something about alignment. So I think perhaps the consultant perspective, or thinking like a consultant, is about trying to see more broadly what is happening in the organisation. To see what might be currently unconnected activities and how you actually align those so that you’ve got a greater force pushing you in the same direction towards that sustained performance.

PL: So its extreme joined up thinking?

EG: Yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it actually. And I think alongside that, which is related to the courage, is about the relationship building and part of that is about personal credibility. So what kind of business professional or organisational professional are you? So what is your reputation based on? So actually you’ve got good grounds to be able to influence people and to be able to influence up and down the hierarchy, so not to be just governed by your particular position on the org chart.

PL: Richard Atienza-Hawkes approach has paid off. At Stoke-on-Trent City Council he quickly began to see results. 

RA-H: It was really interesting that we had the 35 interviewers going out there and we had a number of managers who said, I don’t know what you did to that person in that interview but they came back on cloud nine and it suddenly emanated around the team and something shifted and they learnt something and they are now kind of passing that on in the team. So I think the process itself is kind of energizing and it feels a bit sort of fluffy and woolly but actually when you look at staff engagement and staff commitment there are some really solid outcomes.

PL: Sati Khakh heads up OD at a very different organisation. She sees her challenge about building a truly change-ready Civil Aviation Authority.

Sati Khakh: The CAAs role is the UKs aviation regulator and we safeguard the public interests by overseeing the safety of UK aviation. So for us we are a very technical organisation, so we have some very technically capable people from aircraft engineering background, pilots, economists and for us, as an organisation, it is very much about ensuring passenger safety through aviation. And really for us as an organisation in terms of what we are trying to achieve through OD is trying to make sure that we have the right skills and capability in the business. So we need to be able to understand what any changes in the political landscape mean for us as an organisation and how we can work with those effectively. 

PL: So you have quite a complex and sophisticated set of objectives with OD don’t you? I mean beyond the usual day-to-day, we make widgets, let’s make them better. How do you set about engendering that in the organisation? How do you actually go about getting people to operate and think in that way?

SK: I think one of the things that we do is that we are curious by nature and so we ask questions and we ask questions of technical people that are very kind of straight forward. You know, why do you do things that way? And how do you do this and how do you do that? So whatever that technical question is, we’ll ask. But also we ask about how things are changing for people. So, for example, I worked on a piece where I am introducing competencies into the organisation and then morphing that into a behavioural framework. And the questions that I asked people were questions like, how has your role changed over the last, say, three years? And helping them to move forward from that thinking about how do you anticipate your role might change in the next three years? What are you seeing that is happening that is different now that might then be different in the future? And that has really generated some quite interesting outputs. And also by the very nature of asking those questions, it is encouraging people to think differently. That it’s not steady state, we are continuously involved in the changing, what does that mean for us?

PL: And does it feed into a kind of learning and development agenda as well?

SK: Yes it does. Yes, so part of my remit is learning and development, very much was course-based, workshop based; very much now looking at much more tailored solutions depending on business requirement. So if there is a requirement for a change in skill set or a new team that’s where we start to get involved much more readily.

PL: So you are very much as I understand it living the theory that in order to be organisationally successful, in its broadest meaning of the word, you need to understand the business, the context in which the business is operating and what is required from individuals and processes within it in order to move all that forward. So it’s all those things brought together.
SK: Yes, I think it’s all those things and it’s also using things like, you know, consultancy skills within the organisation. So it’s about having a broad understanding of where the organisation is going, regardless of which organisation it is, and then trying to link that into, well, what is really going to make a difference here in terms of whether it’s a learning intervention, whether it’s a workshop, whether it’s a change management intervention. What is really going to make that difference? And I think sometimes actually when we ourselves categorise ourselves into learning and development or OD or HR, I’m not sure that is entirely helpful for us, so how can we expect an organisation to understand where we are playing, if that is what we are doing for ourselves?

PL: It’s about making the organisation do what it does better.

SK: Yes and it’s also about helping people to understand that I have, I want to have an insight into what they do and what their challenges are, so that I can try and help them meet those challenges. I think in a nutshell that’s what it’s about.
LP: There’s a lot of debate around titles and whether OD is HR or HR is part of OD or what we should all be calling ourselves, does any of it really matter do you think?

SK: I don’t think it does. I think it is really about what we deliver and whether the organisations that we’re working in understand what we are delivering and it makes a difference.

PL: So titles don’t actually assist organisations in understanding what OD is do they?

SK: No, no, people don’t understand what Head of OD means.

PL: So we have to sell the idea of OD in terms of what it achieves for the business. 

SK: What it achieves, what I’m actually there to do, I think is important. 

PL: The CAA is relatively new to embrace OD. Sati has been in the role for just over a year and she is already turning OD theory into practice. But what about someone who might be thinking about taking on an OD role as a new challenge? Here’s some advice from Lee Sears. 

LS: One of the things that is really interesting actually is I think first and foremost there’s an attitude of mind that people need to have. I think you need to be interested on the interplay between the success of the organisation and the business and the way in which the human dynamics affect that. You can’t just be interested I think in the kind of human dynamics and individuals and coaching and team building and all that ... all the kind of sexy stuff in the L and D agenda, without wanting to really understand what it will take for this organisation to deliver success. So you need to be interested in both. You can’t just be interested in the kind of people stuff; you have to be interested in business as well. I think if you have that as an attitude of mind, then I think in many ways getting involved in, there’s a lot of, with an organisation there’s a lot of excellence, L and OD functions that do very good development work for people I think and they would welcome people from, certainly some of the best OD practitioners have come from the line rather than necessarily having been brought up through the HR route. So I think there’s a lot of people who come in to the OD world because they’ve seen that the only way to make business really work is if you get the kind of people and culture agenda to work as well.

PL: Meanwhile Richard Atienza-Hawkes efforts have paid off. Last year Stoke-on-Trent City Council made it into the top 75 Sunday Times best public sector companies and in internal surveys 94% of staff felt that they were committed to excellent customer service. But the future in the public sector is looking lean to put it mildly, so what is his strategy now?

RA-H: With the economic situation and looking forward to the potential cuts in funding to the public sector, we’re planning ourselves for a £65 million reduction in budget over the next three years and I think, one of the things for us is, we had lots of staff saying, well why are we doing this when we are going to be cutting everything and stopping all these services? And I think the challenge for us in the public sector is to still deliver excellent customer services, excellent services but with less. So it’s looking at how do we create those efficiencies? How do we move the organisation so that we are delivering against higher expectations of the public in terms of what they expect from a Local Authority, but for a lot less money? And I think what the building on the best has enabled us to do is to identify some things that we would want to conserve. So in the re-design of our services, going into the future, at least we’ve got some things that we know really work and so, and they are not very expensive lots of them. These are very simple, very grounded, practical things that managers can do and staff can do that really make the difference in terms of staff engagement and satisfaction levels of the customers.

PL: That’s all for now but do check out the show notes as ever with lots more information at Do you agree with our guests? What do you think about how OD and HR sit in relation to one another? CIPD members can share their own views and experiences in the CIPDs online community. There is a link in the show notes and if you would really like to get your teeth into this subject, why not book a seat at our OD conference? It is on September 29th and you will find the link at:

Join us again next month. We’ll be looking at building HR capability, until then, goodbye.


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