I've been pulled into this debate ever since working on the UOD module as part of my L&D Level 5 diploma. What was both apparent and striking to me, as I devoured literature/podcasts/videos on their relationship, were two things:

a) how confused people in the L&D world still seem to be about the role and function of OD (CIPD's own definition leaves a lot to be desired),

b) the inability of much of the HR/L&D world to identify OD as its own function

One of the questions in my UOD assignment irked me. I was asked to discuss the relationship betwen the L&D function and OD practice... and I suddenty thought, hang on. OD practice? That's it? OD has definitely earned its stripes as its own function. This shouldn't even be up for debate... or should it? For me, OD should be a stand-alone function. In the same way L&D professionals have fought for L&D to be recongised as its own function, I think the time has come to acknowledge OD as its own function, particularly within organisations. 

Granted. There are similarities and I don't dispute those: L&D can operate internally and externally, so can OD. Both wear various hats, acting as consultants, coaches, support functions, innovation agents and any one of those hats can be an important psychological crutch for organisations, particularly in the VUCA times we're now living in. 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 strategic business alignement is a new-ish concept for L&D and there are still an overwhelming number of organisations that remain behind that alignment curb. 

L&D deals with creating, curating and designing content, facilitating learning interventions through LNAs and using both qualitative and quantitative techniques to do so. Does L&D use OD practice to achieve that? Sometimes. 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 has always worked holistically. OD ensures organisations are involved in activities, across the board, that help them run more efficiently. As Gervase Bushe identifies, sometimes, activities are for the benefit of systematic improvements, sometimes they’re for adaptive challenges. Does that involve L&D activities such as reward systems, leadership development systems, performance management? Sometimes, yes.

But. L&D isn’t on the same level as OD. And both the HR world and L&D world need to recognise that OD actually works above both of them. And that's where OD should sit. Above, not next to. It's also why L&D and OD cannot be considered part of the same thing. Because of OD's 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. A quick deepdive into its history and origins will tell you that OD came about because Lewin and other Jewish psychologists in the late 1940s wanted to understand how such widespread obedience had been achieved to sustain the atrocities of the holocaust. OD's bedrock is in its search for meaning, finding the meaning, then giving 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 OD sits above L&D and why OD is a function in and of itself. 

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  • This is a great read, thank you so much for sharing - I am working on that section of my UOD assignment myself, and this has helped crystallise the relationship between OD and L&D perfectly.

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