Organization Development

Organization Development (OD)is a process by which behavioral science knowledge and practices are used to help organizations achieve greater effectiveness, including improved quality of work life and increased productivity (Cummings, & Huse, 1989).

In the 1950s and 1960s a new, integrated approach originated known as Organization Development (OD): the systematic application of behavioral science knowledge at various levels (group, intergroup, and total organization) to bring about planned change (Newstrom & Davis, 1993)

Emerges From Four Backgrounds

According to one theory, OD emerged from four major backgrounds (Cummings, & Huse, 1989):

  1. Laboratory Training: The National Training laboratories (NTL) development of training groups known as sensitivity training or T-groups. Laboratory Training began in 1946 when Kurt Lewin and his staff at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT were asked by the Connect Interracial Commission and the Committee on Community Interrelations of the American Jewish Congress for help on training community leaders. A workshop was developed for the leaders to learn about leadership and to discuss problems. At the end of each day, the researchers discussed privately what behaviors and group dynamics they had observed. The leaders asked permission to sit in on these feedback sessions. Reluctant at first, the researchers finally agreed. Thus the first T-group was formed in which people reacted to information about their own behavior.
  2. Survey Research Feedback: Kurt Lewin formed the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT in 1945. After he died in 1947, his staff moved to the University of Michigan to join the Survey Research Center as part of the Institute for Social Research. It was headed by Rensis Likert, a pioneer in developing scientific approaches to attitude surveys (five-point Likert scale).
  3. Action Research: In the 1940s John Collier, Kurt Lewin, and William Whyte discovered that research needed to be closely linked to action if organizational members were to use it to manage change. Action research has two results: 1) organizational members use research on themselves to guide action and change, while 2) researchers were able to study the process to gain new information. Two noted action research studies was the work of Lewin and his students at the Hardwood Manufacturing Company (Marrow, Bowers & Seashore, 1967) and Lester Coch and John French's classic research on overcoming resistance to change (Coch & French, 1948).
  4. Productivity and Quality-of-Work-Life (QWL): This was originally developed in Europe during the 1950s and is based on the work of Eric Trist and his colleagues at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. This approach examined both the technical and the human sides of organizations and how they are interrelated.

Emerges From Three Backgrounds

French (Varney, 1967) describes the history of OD as emerging about 1957 and having at least three origins:

  1. Douglas McGregor's work with Union Carbide in an effort to apply some of the concepts from laboratory training (see above) to a large system.
  2. A human relations group at the Esso Company that began to view itself as an internal consulting group offering services to field managers, rather than as a research group writing reports for top managers. With help from Robert Blake and Herb Shepard, the group began to offer laboratory training in the refineries of Esso.
  3. The Survey Research Center (see above) started using attitude surveys.

Emerged in the Space Age

The years 1960-1970 was a period of rapid movement in high technology (space race due to Soviet Sputnik challenge). Human Resource Development (HRD) efforts increased as we moved into project groups and task forces to cope with the challenge of new technologies. Behavioral science was brought into the work place, and a new term appeared — Applied behavioral science. This provoked a term that became known as OD, due in part to the reaction HRD programs appeared to be effective, but had little or no impact on the work place. That is, HRD programs were based upon sound learning principles, and people learned, but the learning often failed to be applied to the work place (Nadler, 1984).

Growth of Organization Development

OD continues to grow. Some of the first generation contributors include Chris Argyris (learning and action science), Warren Bennis (tied executive leadership to strategic change), Edger Schein (process approach), and Robert Tannenbaum (sensitize OD to the personal dimension of participant's lives).

Second Generation contributors include Warner Burke (makes OD a professional field), Larry Greiner (power and evolution), Edward Lawler III, (extended OD to reward systems and employee involvement), Newton Margulies and Anthony Raia (values underlying OD), and Peter Vaill and Craig Lundberg (developing OD as a practical science).

Newer generation contributors include Dave Brown (action research and developmental organizations), Thomas Cummings (sociotechnical systems) self-designing organizations, and transorganizational development), Max Elden (political aspects of OD), and Jerry Porras (puts OD on a sound research and a conceptual base).

Organizational Behavior

A closely related concept to OD is Organizational Behavior (OB) -- the study and application of knowledge about how people, as individuals and as groups, act within organizations ((Newstrom & Davis, 1993).

Andrew Ure incorporated human factors into his work, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835). Ure, like a lot of others, recognized the mechanical and commercial parts of manufacturing, but he also added a third — the human factor. It took quite a while for this “human factor” to become accepted. In addition, it often turned into paternalistic, do-good approach, rather than genuine recognition of the importance of workers.

Note the OD normally uses the term "organization, while OB normally uses “organizational.”

Next steps

Return to the History of Management and Leadership

Return to main History page


Coch, L. & French, J. (1948). Overcoming Resistance to Change. Human Relations. (1: 512-32).

Cummings, Thomas & Huse, Edgar (1989). Organization Development and Change. St Paul, MN: West Publishing Company. (Pp. 5-13).

Varney, Glen (1967). Organization Development and Change. (p. 604). In The ASTD Training & Development Handbook. Editor Craig, Robert. New York: McGraw-Hill. The author cites: French and Wendell, A Definition and History of Organization Development: Some Comments, from the Proceedings of the 31st Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Atlanta, August, 15-18, 1971.

Marrow, A., Bowers, D & Seashore, A. (1967). Management by Participation. New York: Harper and Row.

Nadler, Leonard, (1984). The Handbook of Human Resource Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons (p. 1.12).

Newstrom, John & Davis, Keith (1993). Organization Behavior: Human Behavior at Work. New York: McGraw-Hill. (p. 293).