David Coghlan

David Coghlan is Professor Emeritus at Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin. He has published several books, the most recent of which is Inside Organizations (Sage 2016), which is a guide for students on placements to learn about organizations from direct experience.

The term organization development (commonly referred to as OD) refers to an array of approaches to enable change and learning to take place in organizations. It is understood to be different from change management that emerged from organization development and became associated with expert-based prescription by business consultants. Definitions of OD vary, but they tend to comprise the following elements in one form or other: that OD is a long-term effort whose aim is to improve an organization’s processes of renewing itself through envisioning its future, structuring itself appropriately, being able to solve problems and transferring skills to the organization. OD places special emphasis on an ongoing management of organizational culture, particularly in work teams and interdepartmental configurations. It may utilise an external OD consultant who works in a facilitator role, rather than an expert advisor role, or it may be practised by an organizational insider.


Organization Development from 1960s to 1990s

Organization development, as it was practised in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, was often portrayed in a cycle of collaborative activities whereby a client sensed a problem, invited in an OD consultant who gathered relevant data, worked with the client jointly in examining the data to understand the problem and made a diagnosis, then developed action plans to address the problems and implemented them. They evaluated the outcomes of the actions, both intended and unintended. This evaluation then led to further cycles of diagnosis, action planning and action. Cyclical-sequential phases were identified that captured the movements of collaboration from initial scouting to evaluation. It was grounded in the assumption that is standard in drawing on experts, namely, diagnosis precedes action. What was distinctive about this process was that it followed a cyclical process of consciously and deliberately, a) diagnosing the situation, b) planning action, c) taking action, d) evaluating the action, leading to further diagnosing, planning and so on. The second dimension was its collaborative nature, in that, with the help of a consultant/facilitator, the members of the system participated actively in the cyclical process. OD engaged people as participants in organizational change through seeking ideas, joint planning, taking actions, reviewing outcomes and learning together what worked and didn’t work, and why. This approach was in stark contrast with programmed approaches (i.e. project management and change management) that mandated following pre-designed steps and which tended not to be open to alteration.

The emergence of a more general field of change management, which grew out of OD, spawned approaches to studying and engaging with organizational change that sought to differentiate itself from OD by challenging participative approaches and focusing on top-down imposed change and bottom-line outcomes. Change management approaches became identified with more prescriptive approach as consulting firms, acting in an expert model, performing a diagnosis of an organization, and submitting a report that prescribes actions. This forced OD to move from a focus on small group development to focus on strategy and bottom-line concerns.


Contemporary Organization Development: Dialogic OD

New forms of OD emerged in the late twentieth century, influenced by the new sciences, complexity theory, postmodern thought and constructivist philosophy, and views of organizations as meaning-making systems. In these new forms, there is an emphasis on language, discourse and metaphor and on organizations as self-organizing. In an explicit consideration of the newer philosophies underpinning OD, Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak explored the emergence of new forms of OD in the postmodern world. They contrasted classical and “dialogic” OD. They describe classical OD as “diagnostic OD” where reality is understood as an objective fact and diagnosis infers collecting and applying data and using objective problem-solving methods to achieve change to an articulated desired future. In contrast, they propose what they call “dialogic” OD. Dialogic OD views reality as socially constructed with multiple realities that are socially negotiated rather than a single objective reality that is diagnosed. Data collection is less about applying objective problem-solving methods and more about raising collective awareness and generating new possibilities that lead to change. Accordingly, the focus of OD is to create the space for changing the conversation. In sum, dialogic OD emphasizes changing the conversation in organizations by surfacing, legitimating and learning from multiple perspectives and generating new images and narratives on which people can act.

An example of one of the contemporary approaches to OD that is considered to be dialogic OD is appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is built on the notion that if people focus on what is valuable in what they do and try to work on how this may be built on, then it leverages the generative capacity of metaphors and conversation to facilitate transformational action. Taking a positive stance through enacting a cycle of 4 Ds (Discovery, Dream, Design, Delivery) opens up conversation about what works well (discovery), creation of the dream to build on it, followed by design and delivery. Others approaches include the use of large group methods such as the search conference, future search and the world café, which are methods of bringing people together in an open forum to engage in meaningful conversation about the strategic position and direction of the organization. The notion of “having the whole system in the room” that explores the past, present and future of the organization captures the spirit of dialogic OD.

After a number of journal articles exploring the topic Bushe and Marshak edited a book, Dialogic organization Development in 2015. This book provides a rich introduction to the approach, with theoretical foundations and cases of application.


Talk is action

Dialogic OD is based on a number of assumptions. These are that reality and relations, and indeed organizations, are socially constructed; that is, how people describe and understand situations is how meaning is created, and that the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives need to be recognized and engaged. Language and symbols matter as they both express and influence meaning. So the stories people tell and the metaphors they use in communicating with one another create and sustain change. Accordingly, creating change requires changing the conversation – who talks to whom, what they talk about, how they talk and what is created by these conversations. Talk is action. Participative engagement and inquiry needs to be structured to engage the diversity of perspectives before focusing on convergence and coherence. Transformational change is more emergent than planned in that. It cannot be planned in the way that change management attempts to implement in to a rationally predetermined outcome. As change can come from any part of an organization, it is less hierarchical and top-down. Consultants are not objective observer or facilitators of change. Their presence is part of the conversation and contributes to the creation of meaning.

Bushe and Marshak acknowledge similarities in values between dialogic and diagnostic OD. Both approaches emphasis participation and they focus on the process more than on the content. Both work to help build the capacity of the organization to change itself. For them, dialogic has emerged from the new philosophies, such as postmodern and complexity theory. They refer to the “dialogic mindset” as a newer orientation to the practice of OD that is still evolving.

While the notion of “dialogic OD” is still in its early stages of development, it is clear that OD is an approach that has changed and continues to develop. If we think about different types of change issues then we might see how dialogic and diagnostic OD might have a place. For example, a change may have a limited focus and seek to address a specific problem, such developing team skills or customer service improvement. In such a situation, “diagnostic” OD may be more appropriate – tightly defined goals may be set and the organizational leadership may devise a roadmap as to how to address the issue and direct and command its implementation. Alternatively, in a holistic change programme that aims to address all (or most) aspects of the organization simultaneously over an extended period of time, and where the direction is loosely-defined and leadership points the way and keeps watch over the process, a dialogic OD approach is more appropriate. The key question we need to ask at the outset is what type of change is needed and what approach might fit best.




Dialogic organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change. Gervase Bushe & Robert Marshak (eds.) Berrett-Kohler San Francisco, 2015.