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Meg Peppin

MP Partnership Limited


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OD and L&D – the space in the middle is where we all meet


“What’s the difference between L&D and OD, and does it matter?” was the question posed for a recent online chat. (I recommend you follow the hashtag #ldinsight on twitter and join in the conversation each Friday morning 8.00am-9.00am). 

I got a sense during the conversation that OD practitioners can be seen as making themselves somehow “other” – that they bill more, cascade work 'down' to L&D.  

Whether there is a clear distinction between the two disciplines also came up for discussion. “Only that OD spend more time in meetings” one participant said!

I wonder if that tension between L&D and OD (when it exists) could come from the lack of clarity that exists. “What is OD?” was a question some participants arrived with at this year’s CIPD OD conference. 

An unclear distinction

I’ve recently heard OD referred to as “a grey area” by someone in HR. A very experienced and proficient consultant once said to me “L&D, OD, whatever”.  

A further thought – in the #ldinsight discussion, @sukhpabial asked whether this difference is only of importance to practitioners. That made me think; and my invitation to write something for TrainingZone has created an opportunity to share and explore my thinking about OD and L&D. 

I do experience and see difference between what OD and L&D do. I also experience sameness about whether one is worth more than the other. I think there is equal contribution and value.

Rationalising uncertainty

Organisation Development emerged from anthropology – from social sciences – making meaning of human behaviour. This meaning making – it’s counterintuitive I think within the world of work. 

Our work places are still very much designed and operated as machines, places of command and control, places where futures can be predicted.  Human messiness gets organised away because it’s too time consuming and complex to deal with the emotional, to explore psychodynamics. 

I was once was shown a set of competencies 72 pages long. Trying to control and predict behaviour, boxing it up.

We rationalise it all – increasingly I see the emergence of the one page of text boxes to simplify, tidy, and explain a strategic plan. I was once was shown a set of competencies 72 pages long. Trying to control and predict behaviour, boxing it up. Boxing us up.

The text box, the competencies, the systems; perhaps they somehow contain the anxiety experienced in the organisational system about uncertainty. Perhaps they are necessary.   

Maybe we’re right when we label OD as grey and therefore difficult to get hold of. The grey, the blurred lines, they’re harder to navigate, although my assumption is that the grey occupies most of the space.

The impact of small changes

As I’m writing, new thoughts are emerging. It’s the same isn’t it when we engage in conversation? OD work is often a series of experiments – doing things differently and understanding how a small change impacts and shapes the organisation and seeing what insights emerge, what pattern changes, shifts, shouts, which conversations change?

Developing an organisation – it’s the same as personal growth through personal development I think. We don’t have to do it (personal development) I suppose, but if we don’t, we may slow down, flounder, and ignore our growth potential. We may wither. We might stay in a relationship that stifles us – it could be a job, a group, or a partnership. Sometimes growth happens because we choose to let go of an old story to create something new. Growth is not linear, it comes where we are nurtured, where space is made, where we push through.

Growth is not linear, it comes where we are nurtured, where space is made

OD practitioners are doing the same with the organisation. OD is purposeful in that an organisation’s development won’t be left to luck, chance, or the ego of one individual. There is a conscious intent to understand the organisational system, to see what possibilities exist if we try that, if we try this. Act, reflect, more action, more reflection. 

There are some governing principles of OD, some methods/tools, and a mindset. It is a professional discipline, just as coaching, training, teaching etc. are. 

What's the common ground?

So a question for you if you’re in L&D – does anything I’ve said here make sense to you in relation to your own practice?  Maybe you have OD in your remit, and you also deliver training solutions. You might be doing OD, HR and L&D in a small organisation, Maybe you’re an L&D practitioner, have a deep specialism and work closely with your OD colleagues.  

In my experience, there’s a continuum of organisational interventions that L&D create and deliver. This ranges from training people in compliance/meeting regulatory requirements through to designing developmental programmes, facilitating change, to whole system work. L&D’s focus is often on designing and delivering solutions, perhaps containing the anxiety. OD does this too.

L&D’s focus is often on designing and delivering solutions

In pursuit of making sense for myself, I have mapped below how I see OD and L&D working in practice. The space in the middle is where we all meet, and depending on individual drivers, expectations, skills, role and responsibility that middle bit may expand/contract. What do you think?  Where do you live? Where do you spend most of time, and where is your energy directed? (I haven’t included HR in this; there could easily be a third circle, with many HR practitioners happily providing expertise in their specialism, and others moving into the middle space.)

I wonder if it’s useful to see L&D and OD as not as separate or other, but as connected, both paying attention to the system; sometimes part of it, sometimes the whole. The same and different. Meeting in the space in the middle.

A final thought; at the CIPD Organisation Development conference, during a World Café discussion exploring how L&D and OD interacts, one group ended with a question which made me chuckle – “What is L&D?” So the identity conundrum works both ways…

With thanks to Doug Shaw and Sukh Pabial for giving me their time as I thought this through.

3 Responses

  1. This article gave me a lot to
    This article gave me a lot to think about! I find myself explaining what I do (OD and L&D in a small organization) over and over to colleagues, who don’t get what the difference is.

  2. Thank you for this article.
    Thank you for this article. OD is one of the most misconceived pieces of work, I find out. In an interview last year, I tried to explain a bit more, please see here: The key to remember is that with OD work, there needs to be an efficiency gain – whether that’s with people, processes or systems. I fully agree it is not linear; however, there needs to be a bottom line impact.

  3. What a minefield! Useful food
    What a minefield! Useful food for thought to try and tease apart the disciplines. It’s certainly not an easy exercise. Whatever the distinction, it’s important that responsibilities are clear within an organisation. If that’s not the case, it’s a good starting point to clarify responsibilities so that HR professionals can collaborate on projects instead of defensively staking claim to particular programmes. I’ve learned that failure to identify and involve stakeholders across HR disciplines in the design stage of programmes leads to some uncomfortable situations!

    If we find it difficult to clarify roles though, how can we clearly promote what we do to organisational leaders and colleagues?

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Meg Peppin


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