Why internal OD departments are often unable to drive relevant changes?

Just last week, I was called to a meeting with a CEO who wanted to discuss the ramifications of “being forced to unionize”. The internal OD department in this very same organization was deploying 360 degree feedback at the level of junior supervisors, which was as relevant as chiropractic treatment for a corpse.

This CEO’s HR department employs 4 OD consultants, all of whom are irrelevant in dealing with the strategic organizational issues at hand. Instead of being relevant, they are dealing with chicken shit.  Why is this so characteristic of internal OD departments? In this post, I will try to make sense of this matter.

Large, bureaucratic government organizations, public utilities and veteran conglomerates develop internal OD department as they age ungracefully simplifying “organizing” into a set of processes and products which can be “administered” by what the Russian and Israelis armies both call a “politruk,” that is a political commissar, serving warm corporate lemonade.

These OD departments generally report into HR, which saves costs. Because of the growing anxiety of HR management about HR’s positioning, not rocking the boat becomes a dominant element of HR strategy. And nowhere is this conservative stance more apparent than in an internal OD department. Instead of positioning internal OD to be be strategic drivers of change, the emphasis is placed on delivering and administering regime goodies cooked up by the company kitchen. This breeds phenomenal cynicism and lack of trust.

Internal OD departments generally implement such routine tasks as the administration of surveys, and packaged training for middle management, commission outdoor training or perhaps force feed “engagement”, whatever the hell that means. As Levis Madore points out in comments section below, “castrated internal OD functions quickly become eunuchs who pose no danger to the executive levels as they proceed to (administer) cutbacks in the HR department which gradually (are)  transformed into process boxes with mere transactional tasks (to perform).”

The internal OD departments control access of junior external OD  consultants to the company. Very often when there is a budget to hire externals, they hire OD technicians who are controllable, inexpensive and slavishly  loyal. 

As a result, more experienced OD consultants are often commissioned directly by very senior managers, who ask these senior externals to “work in coordination” with the internals, or more often ignore them. Both scenarios are often ugly.

When does an organization need an external OD consultant? In my mind, the answer is counter-intuitive. A skilled internal OD consultant (not an OD product hack or what the Chinese call a barefoot doctor 赤脚医) is needed in the initial formative stage. That’s where organizations can get the bang for the buck, especially in organizational design.

However, very often start-ups in their formative stage commission external OD workdue to high cost, and end up “bringing the OD work inside”, after due castration by the HR manager, who may have been a senior admin or office clerk at the very beginning.


The inspiring  politruk

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14 thoughts on “Why internal OD departments are often unable to drive relevant changes?

      • A better one: internal OD staff preparing “survivor” interventions just before being axed themselves!! However, the writing was on the wall and we all carried our work home prior to the layoff day!!
        On another point: when I worked at a Fortune 100 company as the sole OD practitioner, I did an internal review using a systems approach and gave it to my HR Director boss. The company then brought in consultants from a well-known university to do the same thing for a $20K fee. When the consultants left, my boss came in and threw the report down… moaning that they should have just used what I had prepared. It was more complete and on target…haha! You know the prophet story…

  1. Castrated internal OD functions quickly become eunuques who pose no danger to the executive levels as they proceed to cutbacks in the HR department…gradually transformed into process boxes with mere transactional taskings. The results: Organizations that fuse cost-cutting strategies with vision and no one from the inside to point that out.

  2. Much of the problem lies in that the tenure of internal OD consultants who do a respectable job of fostering beneficial change becomes limited when line managers become defensive about their need for change. Internals effectively get rewarded with continued employment for not rocking the boat,. Unfortunately, truly effective and conscientious internal change agents often find themselves to be victims of their own success. This occurs because it feels threatening to those senior managers who are hiding from their inadequacies rather than confronting their limitations and benefiting from OD services.

  3. I have seen a lot of what you describe, Allon. That said, I was once part of an internal OD unit in the U.S. Navy, back in the early 1970’s, and it was very effective. Why? A few reasons come to mind. First, we had genuine support from the very top of the organization. Second, although we were tucked in under what most would call HR, we were in fact very independent, with a separate charter. And third, we internals were all career Navy men, dedicated to our work and to to the Navy. Those things are typically missing from internal OD units in the private sector.

    • Fred, i was also internal military OD unit for many years and had the same experience as you. The IDF invested a huge amount of time training us, for which I am very grateful.

  4. OD by its very nature is meant to be strategic and unfortunately few members of OD Divisions in my experience are skilled strategic thinkers and/or understand the profound difference between transactional versus strategic. Frankly, this trait is also shared by many in the C-suite.

  5. Hi Allon – you liked this on LinkedIn so I thought I would share this here. I am a long term supporter of this / your perspective. In my experience, internal OD ‘practitioners’ are bounded by the organizational hierarchy, institutionalized by the culture that itself needs to be changed, captured by the internal politics, and ‘prosticized’ by the internal authority that itself needs to change.

    HR has basically destroyed the heart, soul and power of fundamental OD for its own HR image and to satisfy HR’s need to find a better ‘position/power’ in an organization (began with the AMA 30 plus years ago where AMA HR was trying to ‘find themselves’ and linked onto OD without understanding what OD is, and still do not).

    Yes – take some 4-6 week ‘certificate’ class, get a piece of paper and call yourself an OD practitioner. It takes 8-10 years to understand and ‘master’ the practice of OD… as in any other valid profession.

    All this puts a damper on those that have gone through the time, commitment and ‘blood and sweat’ to become a real and valid OD practitioner.
    The market is swamped by these pseudo HR-OD / OD people which makes organizations not able to know who is real, and who is not, and certainly does help the profession nor the reputation of OD.

    AND, ‘training’ is not OD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Pingback: Indicators that an Internal OD function is not properly focused | Allon Shevat-אלון שבט

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