#Blogtober: What I find interesting about the history of OD

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16 / 10 / 2014 12.01am

By Anne Clare Gillon

#Blogtober Day: Thursday 16 October

I spend most of my research life looking into all aspects of OD, what it is, what it is not, where should it sit, what do we know about the profession. But one of the aspects of OD that fires my imagination most is its history.

I do like to visualise in my imagination as I am researching, so thought it would be fun to see pictures of some of the key figures in the hall of fame in early OD. Have a look at these photographs below and see if you can identify some of the names who are linked with early OD:

ACG Blogtober

The first is Chris Argyris, on his right comes Warren Bennis, it was difficult to find a picture of Blake and Mouton, but I managed to find this one eventually, and they are followed by Rensis Likert, Richard Beckhard and Warner Burke. I love this photograph of Douglas McGregor in the second row, such an authoritative figure with his pipe in hand. Next to him, you can see Edgar Schein, Eric Tryst, Ron Lippitt and finally Kurt Lewin. There are other key figures in the development of OD of course, but the people named above are amongst the leaders in the early field of OD.

What is  most interesting, is that if you read all the accounts of the history in the academic text, how linked the esteemed early leaders of our field all are, their paths cross and criss cross again and again.

Of course you also very quickly spot that (with the exception of Jane Mouton) they are all men. One of the quirks of history is that how it is documented matters and reflects the context of those who write. Professor Bill Cooke points out that in two different editions of a French and Bell text, in the 1984 edition no females are mentioned. However in the 1996 edition, female scholar’s names are included. They are all white and with the exception of Eric Tryst they are / were based in the USA.

I won’t comprehensively put dates or give you the themes to all of the key works of the leading thinkers, but I will pick out a little more detail. What is interesting is, that if you read all the accounts of the history in the academic papers and books, how linked they all are, their paths cross and criss-cross again and again.

In the last picture above, we have Kurt Lewin, the person who is most often referred to as the founder of OD. Sadly, Lewin died in 1947 therefore his direct work ended early in the history of OD, but he is considered to have set the underlying principles for, and the movement of OD in motion.

Ron Lippitt was also influential; he was on Lewin’s team at the Research Centre for Group Dynamics at MIT and in 1946 was one of the first trainers for T groups and a founder of the NTL Institute.

Richard Beckhard developed one of the first OD training programmes in OD at the NTL and Warner Burke established the USA based OD Network, which now has a European offshoot.

When we are carrying out employee engagement, satisfaction or culture surveys, we can thank Rensis Likert, (as in the Likert scale) for founding the tool of organisation surveys. Chris Argyris has written several books on OD, some of which can be considered as classics in the field. Edgar Schein was a key figure in the development of process consultation as an essential philosophy underlying OD and is a leading thinker on organisational culture. We associate Douglas McGregor with his Theory X, Theory Y and Robert Blake and Jane Mouton’s with their Managerial Grid. We should not miss out the UK’s place in the founding of OD, particularly from The Tavistock Institute where, for example Eric Trist and Elliot Jaques carried out the first Socio-technical systems research studies.

In terms of the criss-crossing of paths, The Tavistock Institute and the MIT Research Centre for Group Dynamics jointly launched the Human Relations Journal in 1947. This organisational link is not so surprising when you learn that, after leaving Germany in 1933, Kurt Lewin spent time at The Tavistock Clinic (The Insititute was not formed until 1947) and then Eric Trist visited Yale in 1936 where he again met Kurt Lewin. The cross Atlantic relationship continued with Warren Bennis and Robert Blake also studying at The Tavistock Institute as did Chris Argyris, who held several seminars with several of its leaders in the mid-1950s.

So where are the all the women and where is the diverse mix which we enjoy in our community? We know that in the UK we now have leading figures in the field of OD, with Dr L Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge and Dr Linda Holbeche amongst their number. Our whole community must find its voice, get involved in research and start shaping the future of OD!


Anne Clare Gillon is a Lecturer at The University of The West of Scotland. She is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. In 2015 Anne Clare has been elected to be a Vice Chair of The British Academy of Management (BAM). She is a former Chair of BAM's Organisation Transformation, Change and Development Special Interest Group. Anne Clare is a novice Twitter user @UWSACG, but she is best contacted at anneclare.gillon@uws.ac.uk

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