Organisation development (OD) has been around for seven decades and counting, but can still be shrouded in mystery. The long-standing question exists: is OD a profession or a practice? There are accepted definitions of what it means to be a profession, including specific training or qualifications, specialist knowledge, ethical standards and often registration or regulation. Using those criteria, OD is not a profession in the traditional sense and, as a result, orienting ourselves in an OD career can be bewildering. 

We are working with the NHS OD community to shape an OD career pathway that is fit for the future. We have pursued the answers to key questions and explored ideas of professional development, but we have also maintained a space of curiosity around issues that need further exploration. This process – asking questions, generating ideas and working with curiosity – underpins OD work.   

While the context for this article is based on the NHS OD community in the UK, the broader application should be of interest wherever you are based. 

The open boundaries to OD 

OD is a broad and varied field of practice. We pride ourselves on the inclusive and participative values that underpin our work. The relatively open boundary to entry for prospective OD practitioners reflects these values. This can have benefits and drawbacks.  

The field of OD is often a mid-career discovery made by people who have a natural curiosity about how things work and an ability to work well with people. The openness of the boundary is seen as a strength when it encourages people from diverse backgrounds to join and contribute to the practice of OD.  

Our work within the NHS OD community has revealed excellent OD practice that is a testament to this inclusivity and breadth of practice. OD practitioners make a real difference to the lives of staff and patients using the service. They lead and contribute to work that improves patient safety, reduces waiting times, improves the experiences of staff and creates conditions for transformation. 

Contrary to some beliefs, it is possible to act professionally, credibly and with fluid boundaries in a way that other professional groups may not when they are regulated and adhere to strict professional protocols and competencies.  

However, there are areas where the OD community could make our work more transparent for clients while simultaneously raising our ambition and deepening our practice. It can often feel confusing to describe, define and demonstrate the power of OD when there are so many views on what it is and what makes it effective (or not). 

Challenges for OD career development  

In the absence of formal systems or structures of regulation, it can be tricky for OD practitioners to find and access a clear route to career development. Few fields have such an open-ended journey, and so it’s left to us to find our path and navigate the space. OD practitioners are expected to self-regulate and demonstrate a commitment to our development and ethical practice. Professional identity is a critical concept that we are exploring with our NHS OD practitioners, evaluating both the benefits and drawbacks of the space we currently occupy. 

We are consistently asked three questions: What is the path into a career in OD? How do we find it? Is it easy to navigate?  

  • How do I move into a job in OD? This can relate to those entering the field for the first time – the OD curious – or people in associated professional groups like HR or L&D who wish to cross into OD. 
  • What do I need to know? OD practitioners lack agreed competencies or standards to work towards. It is hard to know what we should know. Sometimes we can suffer from imposter syndrome, a nagging sense of doubt as to whether we are ‘doing’ OD. 
  • Where can I go to develop my skills? With such a range of options available, from short courses and masterclasses through to master’s degrees and doctorates, it can often be confusing to know where and how to start a development journey. 

CEO conversations 

In considering our development, it’s vital to remain closely connected to the needs of our clients and think about how best we can serve their needs. Conversations with NHS chief executives have highlighted several key points for us to consider and translate into action. CEOs want OD practitioners to co-create the processes for exploration of deep-rooted problems, correlating theory and practice as well as holding up a mirror to the organisation. There are hopes for OD practitioners to help create permissive cultures based on trust, teamwork and collaboration.  

CEOs recognise that stepping into these spaces may not be the natural domain of OD. Organisations can have preconceived ideas that OD is just HR with bells on, or that we merely carry out the ‘soft and fluffy stuff’. OD practitioners need to develop closer links to their senior teams, acting as both trusted advisers and critical friends. We must speak the language of the executive team and understand what keeps them awake. While our role may not be to provide and implement solutions to issues, we can create the conditions and the processes to come to the answers.  

Shaping the future of OD 

We have done significant work with the NHS OD community to shape our future. We held a series of conversations via an inquiry into the role of OD in the NHS. The inquiry revealed five major aspirations for our practice: to be more strategic, agile, impactful, credible and inclusive. NHS OD practitioners also strive to make a positive change that all members of the organisation can engage with to make services better for patients.  

Working across whole systems in innovative and proactive ways will help us to be the catalysts for change that supports transformation. We must step beyond our organisational boundaries, going into spaces we may not naturally occupy and challenge our thinking by asking questions of ourselves as well as our clients. Our tried and tested methods may not work in new and more complex situations, which will require us to be more improvisational and to take the counter-intuitive approach of slowing down as things around us speed up. We recognise a need to be more evidence-based in our practice and more closely aligned to business objectives. 

The feedback from our inquiry stopped short of using the word ‘profession’. Perhaps this comes with the associated fears of being harnessed or constrained. It may also reveal a nervousness around accountability or expectations. Professionalising our practice could help increase our visibility and profile in organisations. It may reinforce our legitimacy to act and demonstrate our practice rigour. In the absence of a professional body or set of standards, it is up to us to hold ourselves and each other to account and ensure that we both ask for help and offer it to others. Our NHS OD community has gone some way to making the path more transparent and straightforward, but we have more work to do. 

Tools for change 

To support the shift that our NHS OD community wants to make, we have taken steps towards creating and shaping a more visible and viable professional development pathway. While the content of these offerings is important, we have paid equal attention to how we are creating a professional pathway; working collaboratively with our NHS OD community and calling on global OD expertise. All our conversations are with, by and for the OD community. This dialogue leads to better engagement, deeper ownership and a strong link to operational need. 

We have designed a suite of tools to support career development: 

  • In response to questions about learning the basics of OD, we created an online course for NHS staff new to the field called ‘OD Essentials’.  
  • Emerging and developing practitioners have access to a pool of OD Virtual Mentors who help them with current and future practice issues.  
  • Our community created a tool to help with continuing professional development which we translated into a digital resource in our free ‘Do OD’ smartphone app.  
  • An inquiry into the confidence, capacity and ability of our OD practitioners led to the creation of our Do OD capability model, a tool for reflection and planning.  

We are also exploring further spaces, including OD apprenticeships and OD supervision, attempting to piece together the various bricks into a coherent pathway. The updated CIPD Profession Map, the ODN Global Practice Framework and emerging work from a cross-sector group looking at OD standards are helping us to signpost the development journey more clearly.

Building a future-fit OD career path  

We’re very proud of the work that we have done, but there is an ever-increasing demand to expand knowledge of OD, and to understand the skills and mindsets needed. The time is right to think about how OD practitioners build a credible development and career path that is fit for the future. One of the challenges to innovation is the traditional model of a career ladder. For some, it offers a framework for development and promotion, but for others, it can constrain and exclude.  

Perhaps by re-framing the notion of a career ladder for OD practitioners, we can encourage more creative thinking about how we develop ourselves and shape our futures. Instead of a career ladder, let’s create a different OD career model. What about a career playground? Could a new model help us to see our development as both horizontal and vertical, giving equal weight to deepening our practice as well as professional advancement? This involves a different narrative to the traditional horizontal career ladder, which requires us to keep climbing up the hierarchy. 

To be effective, we need to undertake some self-analysis and exploration. We must ask: who have I been, who am I now and who do I want to be? Identifying our ambitions can help us to take those next steps on the development path. For example, we may choose to take on a new role in a new organisation, using similar skills and practice. Or we could stay in our current position and narrow the focus of our work, going deeper into issues than before. Alternatively, we may take on a more significant role, with greater responsibility or a more diverse portfolio. We may choose a blend of different roles, weaving them into the changing fabric of our lives to suit our energy, ambitions and skills. 

No time to lose

Shaping an OD career path that is future-proof will not be easy, but we believe that the time is now for OD colleagues in the NHS and beyond. If we wait for someone else to do this for us, we will be waiting for a long time. To create new paths to our development and strengthen our practice we must: 

  • professionalise our mindsets 
  • take responsibility for our career playground 
  • confront the feelings that hold us back 
  • make connections and increase our networks across OD and related professions.

We have a mantra about OD in the NHS – to raise our ambition and deepen our practice. It takes courage, curiosity and creativity to do so, but there are many of us taking these steps together.  


About the authors

Paul Taylor-Pitt

Paul is Assistant Director of OD at NHS Employers, co-leading Do OD with Karen. He has a degree in Psychology, a Masters in HR Leadership and a Doctorate in Professional Practice (Organisation Development). He is an Associate Member of the CIPD, a Member of the BPS and a Fellow of the RSA. He has found his home in OD.

Karen Dumain

Karen is National OD lead at the NHS Leadership Academy & co-leads Do OD with Paul. A CIPD fellow with an MA in Leadership & HRM, her behavioural science degree started her journey into the practice of OD and her passion & curiosity to enable and challenge people & systems to be the best they can be.

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