Gervase BusheGervase Bushe formalizes organizational development methodologies.

In today’s constantly evolving business landscape, change can, and will, come in many shapes and forms. Whether an organization seeks to implement a new strategic vision, restructure their hierarchy, or lay the foundations for a new sustainability initiative, facilitating effective change processes is a mandatory requirement for any company.

Yet somewhat surprisingly, the majority of the change processes taught in programs across the globe focus on techniques dating back decades. Practitioners in the field, meanwhile, are utilizing a new set of organizational development processes – ones that have been utilized for many years now in real world situations.

While these techniques have been in existence for some time, the underlying theory in these processes has never been explored, with many practitioners performing these methods instinctively, with little understanding of how and why the individual techniques should be applied to different situations.

Research from Beedie professor Gervase Bushe and American University professor Robert Marshak has identified two distinct sets of change management processes: the traditional organizational development techniques they call Diagnostic Organizational Development (OD), and a newer set of techniques, referred to in their research as Dialogic OD.

The study, “Revisioning organization development: Diagnostic and dialogic premises and patterns of practice” was published in the Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, and was the winner of the 2009 Douglas McGregor Memorial Award.

The research defines Diagnostic OD as based on a set of change theories developed in the 1940s, known as action research. These theories conceptualize change as unfreezing a current social equilibrium, creating “movement” to a new, more desirable equilibrium, which is then “refrozen” in order to sustain the change. This approach is performed through a collaborative process emphasizing valid data, informed choice, and commitment.

According to Bushe, however, since the 1980s Diagnostic OD has become less prevalent as a host of new change processes have been created by organizational development practitioners.

“In the 1980s, people started to develop new change methods that did not follow the diagnostic pattern,” says Bushe. “Many of these techniques had no theoretical basis and no one really knew why they sometimes worked or didn’t. The more I studied the transformational potential of these models, I started to develop the notion that the underlying change triggers for all these methods are the same, and quite different from traditional Diagnostic OD.”

Dialogic OD adheres to the same underlying values and ethics as that of diagnostic OD, but approaches the process with a different mindset. Dialogic OD utilizes theories of discourse, emergence and generativity to understand how to foster or accelerate change. The Dialogic OD consultant’s role is that of a choreographer who designs and fosters conversations among the participants. And while the term “Dialogic OD” may suggest that the process revolves around a dialogue, this is not the case. Rather, social reality is constructed, maintained and changed through conversations.

“I don’t know any organization doing transformational change work that isn’t using a Dialogic OD process these days,” says Bushe. “In some instances, a consultant may use a diagnostic approach to collect data and present evidence to the senior management of an organization that a change is needed, but they will then move to a dialogic process when the transformational work begins.”

When Walmart’s CEO famously announced several years ago that every one of its suppliers must meet or exceed all social and environmental laws and regulations, the company utilized a Dialogic OD process to implement change throughout their vast supply chain.

Faced with the challenge of coordinating with several thousand different suppliers, many of whom were based in third world countries, Walmart decided to create a mechanism for measuring the sustainability of their supply chain. The company brought together a mixture of suppliers, academics, activists, and employees over a four-day summit to engage in a dialogic process, with many of the resulting ideas put into practice.

“When dialogic processes are successful, new ideas emerge,” says Bushe. “This is fundamental – the most powerful force for change is a compelling new idea. However the idea cannot be forced upon people, which is why we increasingly see large engagement strategies in these change processes. Those who ultimately have to make the change need to be engaged in the process – this is the key factor. You can’t have a dialogic change process without engagement.”

However Dialogic OD is not only suitable in corporate environments, but can be used to facilitate social change as well. Bushe himself was recently involved in a social project that required an unusual approach. Working with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, in conjunction with the Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House in the eastside of Vancouver, Bushe was tasked with engaging the community by “educating the heart of its children” – a remit that few, if any, change practitioners will encounter in their working lives.

The team opted to train volunteers to run inquiry circles, which they dubbed “compassion circles”. Neighbourhood residents were asked to tell stories of their most powerful childhood experience of learning compassion, before discussing as a group how to increase their children’s capacity for caring. Every good idea mentioned in the compassion circles was noted and sent back to Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House. The process quickly went viral, with other organizations expressing their interest in joining the scheme.

In partnership with Marshak, Bushe is now in the process of writing a book to document the underlying principles behind Dialogic OD. Their goal is ambitious – to produce the required textbook in every organizational development program in the world.

“Many of our contributors to the book have been mixing and matching a lot of these different methods in practice for 20 years, but if you ask them how they know which one to use in a particular situation they can’t answer the question,” says Bushe. “They apply the correct methodology to a situation instinctively without thinking why. We are forcing them to make their tacit knowledge explicit in the production of this book by engaging with us in a dialogic process.