What is the role of organisational development in our complex world? Nicky Little from Cirrus writes for HRD magazine.

Organisational development is often valued as a systematic approach to managing change. However, as our world becomes more complex and unpredictable, many of the systems that may have worked well in the past are simply not delivering for us any more.  Today’s organisations are increasingly fluid in nature, and applying a systematic approach is not always easy.

Along with complexity comes uncertainty. Dell’s latest Digital Transformation Index found that half of all business leaders simply don’t know what their industry will look like in three years’ time. Organisational development has always addressed the complex nature of organisations, applying structure and linking areas such as planning, design, performance, leadership and change. In today’s unpredictable world, it also has a role to play in developing the agility across organisations so that they are better placed to respond to respond to opportunities in competitive, fast-moving environments.

In my work with clients, I see that the most successful organisations have simplified and streamlined their approach to organisational development. Rather than balancing multiple initiatives across a range of areas, they prioritise ruthlessly and focus effort on a few critical areas. This kind of concentrated effort can create great impact.

Think about how your organisation needs to evolve to meet future challenges. You may, for example, need to become more digitally enabled, or more customer-centred, or to drive growth in key markets. Then ask yourself a few key questions, such as:

  • What are our big strategic goals?
  • What will success look like?
  • What pivotal processes do we need to put in place?
  • What vital resources do we need?
  • What fundamental changes to our structure should we make?
  • What simple HR processes support our goals?
  • What learning and development do we need to put in place?
  • How can we engage our people with these changes?

You will probably have multiple answers to the questions above. Be ruthless. Think about the things that will make the greatest difference, and focus on those. A few pivotal initiatives can accelerate evolution and transformation.

Make things as simple as you possibly can. Although most organisations today accept that command-and-control leadership is outdated and ineffective, many still have unnecessary layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy.

For example, increasing both customer focus and agility are big goals for many organisations. Both of these can be accelerated by devolving decision-making across your organisation and moving it closer to the customer. Empowering your frontline employees to deal swiftly with customer needs will have a positive impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty, and help your organisation become more competitive.

Be open about the changes you plan to make, and involve people. Think beyond your actual employees, and involve contractors and other stakeholders to ensure that your simple goals are widely understood. Take everyone on the journey with you.

Organisational development experts are skilled at designing systems and processes. Involving others in this design can make it more relevant and effective. Engage others by including them in the redesign of the systems and processes that affect them most. This co-creation creates a sense of ownership and encourages others to take decision-making responsibility.

Experts organisational development are also skilled in survey design. Traditional, large-scale employee engagement surveys do not always support more agile, customer-focused working. However, more frequent, pulse surveys can provide regular feedback which can help to tweak systems, processes and leadership practice. Integrating this feedback into frequent day-to-day communications between leaders and colleagues enables it to be acted upon swiftly. Effective changes can be made when improvements are identified through collaboration.

The digital explosion continues to change organisational life. Look at how digital can enable you to connect people in new ways as well as streamlining ways of working. Help employees to see the positives in developments such as artificial intelligence and automation. Typically, leadership practices evolve more slowly than technology. By simplifying your organisational structure and your approach to leadership, you will be better placed to keep up with the pace of change.

In the past, we have often viewed organisations as clearly defined structures, and so our approach to developing organisations has been structured, too. However, modern organisations are often more like complex, constantly evolving ecosystems. This doesn’t mean that our approach to organisational development needs to become more complex, too. Rather, it needs to be simpler. We need to think about the few things we could do better to help our organisations thrive in uncertain times.

© HRD 2017

Nicky welcomes your views on this article. Please tweet us @CirrusConnect or email us any time. We’d love to hear from you.

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