Is OD just L&D with bells on?

Is OD just L&D with bells on?

3048368229?profile=RESIZE_710xSo I am going to come clean. I have never really understood the difference between Learning and Development(L&D) and Organisational Development (OD).  I have looked at the definitions of OD and thought to myself  “So how does that differ from what I do?”. So I have hidden my ignorance and not really engaged in any discussions about the differences between the two.

Then last week I saw a post from Steve Benfield about what OD is really about and the difference between it and People Development. His definition:

“People development is about when there is an improvement to a person(s). A person can be exposed to an intervention (e.g. a training course, programme or event) designed to help that person make improvements – development! (It’s only the doing things differently that real learning can then take place).

Organisational Development (OD) is about developing the system of an organisation with the aim of improving the system. Just developing people, doesn’t necessarily mean that the organisation will improve.”

He then goes on to talk about how OD is linked to strategy, process and making a difference to the ‘system’, not just people.

My thoughts in response to this, have been about how I work with clients. I seek to find out what the organization needs as well as the individuals. First and most important (in my opinion) of the 5 secrets of Accelerated Learning are “Business-focused and learner-centered objectives”. Business focused, because if the learning makes no impact on the business then what are we doing it for? Learner-centred so that we get buy in and learning then accelerates through the organization.

So I get why Steve may say there is a distinction between People Development and OD, but L&D are changing. I spoke about L&D’s Identity Crisis in a recent blog and have been in many conversations about that urge to change with fellow revolutionaries in our LinkedIn group. It is no longer acceptable to design learning or training in isolation from the business. It is not acceptable to change individual behavior without a thought to the impact on the business.

So if that is the case, should we get rid of the distinction between OD and L&D? Is it helpful? Could we join forces and be one?

If you would like to read more about my thoughts on my approach to L&D then read my book “How Not To Waste Your Money On Training”.

I would love to hear your thoughts, really!

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Krystyna Gadd FLPI Assoc CIPD is Author of "How Not To Waste Your Money On Training" and Founder of How to Accelerate Learning

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  • I think this is rather a naive take on what is actually a more complext argument, in as much as there are clear distinctions between OD and L&D which preclude them from ever 'being one'. 

    I agree there are similarities: L&D can operate internally and externally, so can OD. Both wear various hats, acting as consultants, coaches, support functions, innovation agents. As Meg Pippin says, in her article in Training Zone, ‘L&D’s focus is often on designing and delivering solutions, perhaps containing the anxiety. OD does this too.’

    Both look at ways of improving systems and practices, whilst focusing on aligning business to objectives, by evolving people within organisations. But. Those of us within the L&D world have to accept that’s a new-ish concept for L&D. OD has always worked holistically. In your conclusion, you infer that because both L&D and OD 'basically now do the same thing', should we ‘get rid of the distinction between them…could we join forces?

    What do you intend with 'joining forces'? Working together? Maybe. But if you mean identifying as part of the same thing, then the answer is no. Absolutely not. 

    L&D deals with creating, curating and designing content, facilitating learning interventions through LNAs, using both qualitative and quantitative techniques to do so. Does L&D use OD practice to achieve that? Sometimes. I agree, L&D is tactical, ever more strategic in its role and its position but fundamentally, L&D’s focus remains on developing skills of employees to perform better.

    Instead, OD ensures organisations do activities, across the board, that help them run more efficiently. Sometimes, activities are for the benefit of systematic improvements, sometimes they’re for adaptive challenges. Does that sometimes involve L&D activities such as reward systems, leadership development systems, performance management? Yes.


    What you’ve failed to acknowledge is that OD doesn’t just ‘do these things too’ and L&D isn’t on the same level as OD.

    OD works above L&D. And that's where it should sit. And that's why they cannot be considered part of the same thing.  Because of its origins and history, there’s a conscious intent to understand and do better, holistically. That’s the distinction. I think the relationship between the two is that L&D supports OD. L&D is one type of OD response.

    Am I simplifying L&D’s role? No. Consider the wealth of specialist expertise, background knowledge and unique skillset required of OD practitioners. OD looks for and finds meaning, then gives voice to that meaning by working with the whole system, behaviourally, scientifically, sociologically, and culturally. I also think that thanks to OD, L&D is better able to understand the needs of its people, thus, aligning those needs to organisational objectives.

    It’s exactly this ‘Frankl-esque’ search for meaning, that, for me, is what the relationship between L&D and OD is – OD finds the meaning and L&D designs ways to put that meaning into practice. Hence why I think it’s naïve to make any kind of insinuation that they should join forces.



  • Hi Krystyna,

    An interesting area of discussion and debate! I have alwys come at this from the perspective of two distinct processess and systems as opposed to definitions. How you define them will depend on your view of the world, the organisation you work in and how much of a strategic perspective you have (accepting we all come at this from different perspectives!). As you have already said there are many definitions of OD and L&D some helpful and some not! As long as there is a process that is focused on developing people (the soft and the hard stuff!) and a process that is business focused (by business focused I mean develooping real strategic understanding in detail given the external pressures on the business, e.g. porter anlysis, STEEPLED, competitive forces, process view, customers and so on and how the orgnisation wants to manage itself given the challenges identified external and internal). Unfortunately the business side is not something we do well as a function (just put strategy in CIPD search engine and see what comes up!). As L& D people we have become quite adept at designing interventions without a full understanding of the external and internal business drivers and pressures! Steve Benfield came close with his defintion of OD but for me it was too internally focused. OD in the context I am familiar with includes the internal focus but is much more exetrnally focused as outlined above and is therefore a mix of developing strategic understanding and then looking at how to translate corporate/business strategy and objectives into (from a HR perspective) development activities for managers and staff!

    Unfortunately, "training and development" or "Leaning and Development" is expensive and often misses the mark because there is a disconnection between understanding the real business needs from an external and internal perspective and the specific skills and competencies associated with the business activities identified.

    Future challenges for our fucntion suggest that we need to be able to contribute to the business debate and analysis before we can understand and solve business problems from a HR perspective and therefore learning and development context. Our value comes from demonstrating we understand the business challenges from a detailed perspective and are seen as a trusted advisor. I suggest we need to be recognised as a business generalist with a HR specialism not the other way around!

    I hope you find my contribution useful to your discussion.



    • Thanks George this is a very valid contribution. I guess I don't care what 'we' call ourselves but I do care deeply about how we do it: as you said business focussed people deveelopment and I would add performance enhancers? 

      The bottom line is ...... the bottom line.... if we are ot making a differeence in L&D, OD, HR then what on earth are we doing?

      And the bottom line is not always money .... it could be any measures of improved perfromance.

      • Hi Krystyna,

        Thanks for your reply! I guess you have summarised my point, i.e. I'm not sure we really understand what the bottomw line is in a business context (as pointed out in my previous note), we understand some isolated metrics (but this I also doubt!) but we rarely understand what performance is from a business perspective and how the quantitative and qualitative measurers drive business performance and therefore drives our linked HR agenda. The notion of bottom line is not one dimensional but is and should be multi faceted. The challenge for business managers is to try understand there business in detail. Our job is to try to understand their thinking and how they arrived at their conclusions, metrics, performance standards etc! That is our challenge!


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