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HR vs OD: let there be peace

Effective collaboration between OD and HR is key to optimising a firm’s ability to initiate and sustain high impact change, writes Wayne Brockbank

The remarkable and challenging world of change has been well documented. Sources of change continue to accelerate: radical revolutions in technology, big data analytics, information asymmetries, hyper-competition, uncertainty in capital markets, morphing demographics, geopolitical disruptions, climate irresolution, globalisation, income disparities and emerging market imbalance. In sum, the management of change is a competitive imperative for virtually all market-based institutions.

In the Human Resource Competency Study at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, we have distinguished between two related but conceptually and statistically distinct aspects of change management: initiating change and sustaining change. Of the total impact of change management on business performance, 46 per cent is through initiating change and 54 per cent is through sustaining change. The overall message is that balance of the two is central to successful change.

Initiating change includes:

  • Having a clear and market-based vision of the desired future that includes the case for change
  • Aligning leaders from top to bottom and side to side around the vision, including senior leaders who champion the change
  • Identifying and reducing resistance to change, and
  • Building commitment of key implementers to support the change effort.

Sustaining change includes:

  • Ensuring that the right people with the right training are in the right place at the right time to drive change
  • Accounting for change initiatives in performance management, including financial and non-financial incentives
  • Providing the necessary capital and informational resources
  • Communicating the importance of the targeted changes, and
  • Monitoring and learning from the change experience. 

The roles of HR and OD
One challenge that companies face in their change management efforts is the clarification and integration of the respective roles of HR and organisation development (OD) in change management. Historically, OD professionals have tended to be the initiators of change – they identify and drive the momentum of change. They see themselves as the “change managers” who work with the line managers the make change happen, with the focus on initiating change as defined above.  They see themselves as strategic partners who implement team-based change processes. A challenge is that they sometimes see HR as inflexible tactical administrators who are driven by processes that may be obstacles to change.

On the other hand, HR professionals tend to strongly influence the levers for sustaining change as described above. They apply focused discipline in ensuring that the supporting human and organisational infrastructures are in place to sustain the requisite changes. HR professionals may occasionally view their OD colleagues as disruptive, in over their heads, undisciplined and (ironically) insufficiently collaborative.

Unifying HR and OD
But what should unify HR and OD is greater than what separates them. The fundamentals that both must exhibit to be optimally effective are a full understanding of the business strategy, an in-depth sensitivity to external sources of change, and a shared view of the cultural capabilities that both must create for sustainable competitive advantage.

Most important is that they must both understand and appreciate the role that the other plays in change management and work together as partners in change. To do so, HR needs to develop greater OD facilitation and process skills while OD needs to exert greater expertise in ensuring that HR and organisation practices are in place to sustain change. They must work together to provide seamless change management processes that include both initiating and sustaining change initiatives. As they do so, they will optimise the full impact and effectiveness of their firms’ ability to initiate and sustain high impact change.

4 steps to unifying HR and OD

  1. Your HR and OD professionals should meet to develop a comprehensive change management process that includes the above steps in both initiating and sustaining change.
  2. The respective HR and OD professionals should become conversant with and appreciative of their respective roles in change management.
  3. Since both are working towards the shared end of effective change management, they should both have some level of competence in the other’s domain.
  4. They should then co-operatively ensure the seamless implementation of both initiating and sustaining change initiatives.