Strategic Organization Development: A Failure of True Organization Development

Article excerpt


As we currently approach strategic organization development (the complete transformation of all systems in a coordinated fashion) there is little doubt that it represents nothing but a failure for "traditional" organization development. This is not to say strategic efforts are not valuable or successful. Rather it means that the organization failed to use organization development to prevent the need for such drastic actions. It is time we return to our roots and redefine strategic organization development as the proactive use of the field's techniques and philosophies to identify and correct problems before they become "life threatening."

Is strategic organization development a failure? Quite the contrary, as there are plenty of well documented case studies where, clearly, strategic organization development has proven highly successful. Rather, this author believes it is time that we recognize that strategic organization development is the result of an organization failing to use the age-old traditional methods of the field, as they were originally intended, that necessitates the need for strategic organization development. Perhaps it is knowing that strategic organization development exists that lulls the organization into the complacency that creates the need for the technique, much like an individual, believing a cure exists for everything, will engage in high risk behavior. Any physician, or sane person, will advocate Ben Franklin's old adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It is time that organization development revisits its roots and re-conceptualizes strategic organization development from its present reactive cure paradigm towards a proactive force for prevention.

Cummings and Worley (2005) observe that as organizational external environments have grown in turbulence, organization development has been pushed into responding with increasing large scale, or strategic, practices. They continue by defining strategic organization development as "...efforts to improve both the organization's relationship to its environment and the fit between its technical, political, and cultural systems" (Cummings & Worley, 2005, p. 12). From their review of strategic organization development models these authors conclude "...that strategic change involves multiple levels of the organization and a change in its culture, is often driven from the top by powerful executives, and has important effects on performance" (p. 12). True strategic organization development is not something an organization can implement quickly. It has been suggested that the underlying culture change required to bring a company in line with its environment may take a minimum of 6 to 15 years of solid effort (Lau, Kilbourne, & Woodman (2003).

It is important to note that strategic organization development, at least in its traditional fashion, is a fairly rare occurrence and almost always the result of longterm management neglect as well as massive structural and cultural problems. Only truly large-scale disturbances create the need for an entity to implement strategic organization development change efforts. Such disturbances include forces such as the lifting of significant regulatory requirements, a new (externally hired) CEO charged with transformation, or a technological breakthrough (Cummings & Nathan, 1991). Tushman, Newman, and Romanelli (1986) added to this list by suggesting three more "triggers": a fundamental shift in an industry's competitive framework, significant movement in a product's life-cycle that necessitate a change in strategy, or an organization's significant change in size.

Significant issues, often beyond the control of the organization, do occur and will have a significant impact upon its systems. However it really is not these forces that create the need for strategic organization development, rather it is the organization's inability to proactively adapt correctly. …