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Organizational Development English Library

O.D. Institute Newsletter

 February 2006


The Socialization of OD Practitioners


Terry R. Armstrong, RODC

The education of the OD Practitioner has changed since the inception of OD.  It will probably change even further as new entrants join the ranks, adaptations to expectations about what is and isn’t OD emerge and the field itself changes.  What I will be describing in this essay is a compilation of what I have seen as an OD Practitioner and Educator as well as what I have heard from others about the early days of OD in the U.S.  I realize there was a parallel development in Europe and that there have been sporadic interactions between U.S. and European OD professionals.  I will look at this short history in terms of how OD Practitioners have developed and been educated in the U.S.   This will provide a backdrop to my brief discussion of the challenges facing OD as a discipline and suggested actions that need to be taken by the discipline.

A very brief history

In the early days, 1940s and 50s, people learned about the field through NTL and the works of people such as Kurt Lewin, Eric Trist, Saul Alinski, Ronald Lippitt, Lee Bradford and Kenneth Benne.  There were many others, of course, that followed this early group of leaders, but much of the awareness and training came from having direct contact with these early founds or their immediate cadre of followers.

During the 1960s many were introduced to the field through social action projects such as the War on Poverty and the Peace Corps.  A large number of NTL folks were trainers for the Peace Corps and various War on Poverty programs.  NTL’s publications also were influential.

In the 70s the concern for productivity in industry and Affirmative Action legislation spurred a demand for people with knowledge about organizational change.  Individuals learned about the field from their work place and organizations started to promote people into formal OD positions who had no or little training or exposure to OD.  Many were engineers, technical trainers, personnel people, teachers and pastors armed with University Associates Annual Handbooks.  If they were lucky they were sent to an NTL course but most entered the field simply because of the demands on the organizations for which they worked.  As might be expected, many of these people soon left the field but some actually stayed and became productive crafts-persons.  Also during the 70’s a number of universities began masters programs and a few doctoral programs and these became serious training grounds for new OD practitioners.

During the 1980s large management and accounting consulting firms started hiring MBAs and graduates from OD programs but borrowed and relabeled what had been OD into branded proprietary products.  The 80s was a decade of repackaging OD and marketing it.  By this time a number of influence-makers were claiming that OD was dead or had been co-opted by the large firms and used for corporate rather than social ends.  People were being socialized into OD and getting much of their training through the consulting firms.

During the 1990s “free market economics” drove organizations to outsourcing and many employees were “fired” or received severance packages.  Many of these unemployed professionals began “reinventing themselves” as OD consultants and the market became flooded with a wide range of folks most unprepared or untrained in the field of OD.  A demand, especially outside the U.S., for certification and credentials began to grow.  Since 9-11 the concerns for social action, personal growth, productivity, and team-work have been replaced by a concern for individual and national security and a turning towards economic and social conservatism.

Challenges facing ODC as an academic discipline

From what I have outlined in my very brief history of OD it should be apparent that the academic discipline has played a rather minor role in the development of the field.  I would argue there is no academic discipline of OD.  Until very recently most of the research has come from the various social science disciplines and most of the influence has come from the “Field” and has been experiential and reflective rather than discipline driven.

OD as a field was originally driven by values rather than theory or research.  An early attempt at “Accrediting OD Academic Programs” focused on:

  • Developing and teaching OD theory
  • Discussion and reflection on OD ethics
  • Having an experiential component in degree programs
  • Early socialization into the field

Since then several efforts at identifying competencies have been undertaken by the Organization Development Institute and the ODC Division of the Academy of Management.
Actions that need to be taken

  • A complete history of OD needs to be written and all students should have an understanding of OD’s history
  • More OD research needs to be stimulated.  This will primarily come from a handful of doctoral programs.
  • New and creative research methodologies need to be created
  • Dialogue with practitioners needs to be initiated.  Research needs to be based on praxis as well as theory.


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