Thursday, September 21, 2017

The OD Quest: Part 5 – Face to face with the antithesis?!

 "I don’t have an opening in my OD team now. But, you can join our recruitment team and do recruitment in the OD way”, I heard the Senior HR Leader telling a candidate who was hell-bent on joining the OD team. This was my fifth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ and ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him).

I was a bit taken aback by what I just heard. I knew that often these kind of ‘solutions’ will end in tears or worse. However, similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction forced me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issue - the application of OD(Organization Development) to the various functional areas in HR (Human Resource Management). That, in turn, has prompted me to write this series of posts on 'The OD Quest' where we will look at the possibilities  that arise when OD ventures into other parts of the people management terrain.

In the first post in this series (see The OD Quest: Part 1- Mapping the terrain) we did a cartography of the Human Resources (HR) and Organization Development (OD) domains to map out the current world (the terrain) inhabited by HR and OD and also the evolving worldviews in HR and OD (ways of looking at the terrain). In the second post (see The OD Quest Part 2 : Doing Recruitment in the OD way) we made a visit to the land of Recruitment and explored the value OD can add to Recruitment. In the third post (see The OD Quest: Part 3 – Rendezvous with L&D) we covered the Rendezvous with L&D
. In the fourth post we saw how OD can sweeten Rewards and make it ‘Total Rewards’ (see The OD Quest: Part 4 – Totally Rewarding) In this post, let’s take our OD Quest to a domain that has often been considered as the antithesis of OD – Industrial Relations (IR).

Prima facie, OD and IR make strange bedfellows. Isn’t IR  the rough and tough side of HR whereas OD is the gentle and soft side of HR? Doesn’t IR happen in the context of an essentially adversarial relationship whereas OD assumes a win-win relationship. Isn’t IR about tangibles (like wages and working conditions) whereas OD is about the intangibles (like culture and values). Isn’t IR the bread and butter stuff for HR while OD is more like the icing on the cake? Have you ever come across an HR professional who is an expert in both IR & OD? Doesn’t IR happen in reality of the shop floor whereas OD interventions typically happen off-site locations that are as far away from the work reality as possible? Aren’t OD and IR two fields of study that are customarily separated in both theory and practice?


To me, these questions are based on the stereotypes of IR and OD and are not based on reality (See Decoding the ‘IR mindset’ and Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters’  for more details). Yes, these stereotypes have existed for such a long time that they have become some sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all (organization) reality is socially constructed to a large extent. But if we go beyond the outward appearances, significant possibilities for value addition begin to emerge. Yes, in aspects like creating a congenial 'organization climate' (the perception and attitudes of organizational members toward the organization that influence their behavior in the organization), the convergence between OD and IR are apparent whereas in other aspects we need look more carefully to see the convergence.

Let’s start with the most typical (stereotypical?) part of IR – collective bargaining leading to long-term settlements(LTS). There are often significant disruptions (at least distractions) to work before the LTS is signed.  Also the productivity improvement clauses in LTS are often notoriously difficult to implement. All these can be avoided if the process of working towards, signing and implementing the LTS is carried out as an integrated change management activity. Change management is the core skillset in OD and hence OD can be of immense value this case.

Another important area where OD can contribute to IR is Workers’ Participation in Management(WPM). Most of the WPM efforts remain ineffective or superficial as insufficient attention is given to the key enablers like working on the underlying assumptions and attitudes (of workers and management towards each other), building communication, trust and collaboration etc. OD can be of immense help in working on these enablers and hence can enable real and effective participation(WPM).  


Similarly OD can be of help when implementing any sort of changes in the workplace (e.g. changes in production processes, introduction of new equipment & technology, multiskilling etc.). OD’s behavioral science foundation supports values of human potential, participation, and development in addition to performance and competitive advantage. OD can also help in promoting attitudes and behaviours that enhance quality and industrial safety apart from creating better focus aspects like organizational justice (distributive, procedural & interactive justice) and inclusion & inclusive development. 

Yes, there is often some inherent conflict in the union management relationship. However, conflicts exists between various group of employees also (e.g. between various functions). So the more effective way is to recognize the conflict and work on it and that is an area where OD can definitely help (See ‘A political paradox for HR and OD’ for a more detailed discussion).


IR and OD have common theoretical roots in the domain of industrial sociology that examines the direction and implications of trends in technological change, globalization, labor markets, work organization, managerial practices and workplace relations. Over the years behavioral scientists have deepened the understanding of the ways that interpersonal, structural, and technological forces can affect organizations and industrial relations. Increasing diversity in both the characteristics of the labor force and the organization of work have blurred the distinctions between blue collar jobs (traditional domain of IR) and white collar jobs (traditional domain of OD). In general, workers with good education and high occupational status are more likely to assert their interests individually rather than through collective bargaining.

All industrial relations systems ultimately face the same fundamental issues : they must devise policies and institutions that can meet workers’ expectations and enhance productivity; they must also provide employees with a means of expressing their needs at the workplace while offering steps for resolving the conflicts that inevitably arise between workers and employers. The common need to ensure the survival of the organization in a highly competitive market place is putting increasing pressure on unions and management to jointly solve complex problems and hence the ratio of ‘integrative bargaining (win-win)’ to ‘distributive bargaining (win-lose)’ is increasing when it comes to collective bargaining. OD is essentially about facilitating joint exploration and problem solving

It is interesting to note that there are fundamental similarities between OD and IR in terms of the 'unit of work'. While most of the HR processes (e.g. recruitment, performance management, career development etc.) impact the employees primarily as individuals both OD and IR deal mostly with groups. Understanding of the formation and evolution of groups and group dynamics is key to both IR and OD. By the way, OD is not only useful for the ‘management team’ of the  but also for the unions. After all union is essentially a group of people who have to work together. It can be argued that the need for group cohesion is the highest for the unions as their power (or even existence) comes from being able to act together as a group.

Where does this leave us? IR is not the antithesis of OD. IR is essentially about balancing (in the dynamic sense) the economic efficiency of organizations with equity, justice and the development of the individual to find ways of avoiding, minimizing and resolving disputes and conflict and to promote harmonious relations between and among the parties involved. OD can definitely add value to IR – especially in terms of change management, facilitating greater alignment with the vision, mission and values of the organization, enhancing communication, collaboration, psychological commitment & trust and better sensing & management of the group dynamics.

OD can enable IR (Industrial Relations) to transition to Employee Relations (which goes beyond the collective bargaining level to include non-union organizations also where dialogue might be between employers and their employees, although with alternative bargaining structures) and then to Employment Relations (that looks more broadly at employment and the forces that impact employment to enable greater cooperation between management and employee to add value to the organization). Yes, for this his to happen HR professionals need to go beyond the stereotypes about IR and OD and look at the core of the domains. Yes, it also means that OD and IR professionals have to spend more time working together! We must also remember that even in those situations where there is really a ‘thesis’ and an ‘antithesis’, we can find often find a ‘synthesis’ that integrates the thesis and antithesis at a higher level!

Any comments/thoughts before we take our OD quest to the next domain in the HR land?!

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