How does organisation development differ from HR?

In marketing our services to businesses large and small, I’ve noticed something interesting – there’s a widespread confusion of ‘organisation development’ with ‘HR’.

Organisation development (OD) is the process of building an organisation as a whole. OD specialists like ourselves carefully design, plan and implement activities to grow the organisation, its employees and its stakeholders, and we work closely together with our primary client – usually the leader of the organisation, though sometimes also the HR Director – to achieve this. Our client’s organisation may be an entire company, public agency, non-profit organisation, volunteer group – or a small part of a larger organisation. Even two or three people, working together, in our book, are an ‘organisation’, in that they need to relate to each other professionally and systematically in order to get their job done.

When I explain this in networking groups and speaking engagements, a common reaction is for the person I’m speaking to to say, “Ah, so you’re in HR”. To many people, HR simply means the ‘people stuff’ in organisations.

The ‘people stuff’

OD specialists like ourselves custom tailor established behavioural science theory and methods to organisations to improve profitability, productivity, morale and/or quality of work life. We involve our client(s) throughout the entire process. The ways people communicate and work together are addressed at the same time as resolving technical or procedural issues. If necessary, we will recommend that our clients call experts to help resolve certain specialist issues: some of these experts may well be HR professionals.

Examples of activities facilitated by OD consultants are:

  • Teambuilding
  • Goal setting
  • Creative problem solving
  • Strategic planning
  • Leadership development
  • Management development
  • Conflict resolution
  • Interpersonal communication

HR (Human Resources) is the function in a company which deals with the needs of its workers. The HR department may provide a very broad range of services to employees. Some standard responsibilities include the following:

  • Securing, offering and explaining benefits, like health insurance.
  • Managing on-the-job health and safety.
  • Setting up special work programmes, like continuing education or smoking cessation.
  • Advertising jobs, screening applicants, setting up interviews and hiring applicants.
  • Handling all administration related to the hiring or firing of employees.
  • Distributing paycheques and bonuses.
  • Helping workers with family leave, maternity leaves, sabbaticals or disability payments.
  • Approving performance reviews and assessing raises or promotions.
  • Handling complaints about abuse, sexual harassment, discrimination or work environment.

These processes are designed to ensure that things run smoothly for the organisation, and at the same time ensure that people get a fair deal, are adequately rewarded, have the opportunity for personal development, are happy and motivated at work and are well managed. Managing HR well requires a high level of technical and legal knowledge, a professional attitude, and usually a professional qualification.

Doing brain surgery on yourself!

But it seems that many of the HR professionals I meet aspire also to being OD practitioners – often without making a clear distinction between the two disciplines. It’s almost as if they feel that HR is a more ‘junior’ skill than OD. It’s not. HR is a professional competence in its own right, with its own distinct methodologies and skills. And if someone is or wants to be purely an HR professional, then that’s it – enough. They are complete, sufficient, to be respected in their own right.

It’s actually often easier to implement OD in an organisation when you have the perspective and the authority that comes from not being part of that organisation. Trying to alter the ways in which people communicate and work together when you are part of the team can be a bit like trying to do brain surgery on yourself! HR specialists would often do better to confine their role to finding the right external coach, working in close partnership with them, and supporting the attitude and behaviour changes by putting in remodelled policies and structures that will make it easier for people to permanently alter their mindset and change their habitual behaviour.

Distinct, but equal

Personally, I believe that HR and OD are two distinct disciplines, using different tools, skills and qualifications. They make a perfect partnership only when this is clearly understood. Merging them can be positively unhelpful and lead to conflicts of interest.

If an HR Director or HR department is genuinely accountable for both HR and OD, it’s crucial to be sure they clearly understand the distinction, and are equally skilled and qualified in both sets of tools and skills.

Many would disagree with me. The debate seems likely to ramble on and, as HR is seen as more and more of a strategic and necessary function at Board level, the boundaries may very well continue to blur. What is critical, though, is that OD does not in the process lose its independence of thought and its skilled application of the knowledge and the toolkit of behavioural sciences. Understanding and respecting the distinction between the skills of HR and OD professionals can significantly benefit your organisation and the people in it.

I suspect that many of you will have strong opinions about this issue – do leave your comments below to join in the debate!