Dialogic OD is a set of techniques used in the practice of Organisational Development.
When a colleague told me about a Dialogic OD workshop she was leading, it sounded a lot like the workshops I’d been running for internal communications and engagement objectives, so I decided to find out more.
Here’s what I discovered when I asked Ali Herdman, a professional OD Consultant, all about it.
What is Dialogic Organisational Development?
Dialogic Organisational Development (OD) is the process of constructing an organisation’s reality through multiple voices. It’s achieved by creating the broadest possible conversation across an organisation, about what people are experiencing; what works for them; what doesn’t work for them and what future they want together.
It emerged from traditional views of Organisational Development, which from the 1960s through to the 1980s were aligned to diagnostic processes. This means the OD practitioner started from the perspective that there’s a problem to be resolved, so diagnostic techniques were needed to identify the problem clearly. This enabled the practitioner to design or prescribe interventions to resolve or relieve that problem.
In the late 1980s the practice of ‘appreciative inquiry’ emerged. This is the idea that you take time to discuss and identify what your organisation looks like at its best in order to decide what the future might be. Around the same time there was a growing interest in thinking about large group interventions, as expressed by Billie Alban and Barbara Bunker. The challenge here is how do you get as many ‘voices in the system’ into the room where the conversation happens, so you can construct a dialogue which engages people in determining and creating their own future. Dialogic OD to me merges these two ideas of appreciative inquiry and large group interventions.
When you agree to work with a new organisation, where do you start?
Initially, I look at where the organisation is now and where it wants to be. For good dialogic OD to work there needs to be a clear purpose; that purpose could be ‘we want to improve customer satisfaction’ or ‘we want to increase profitability’, for example. Without a clear purpose, it’s hard to identify a good reason to make any type of OD intervention and it’s even harder to achieve engagement or alignment across the organisation.
Sometimes OD practitioners work with leaders to help establish the purpose that lies behind their present goals. For example, ‘we want to improve communication across the organisation’ is not a clear purpose. In this case you’d need to ask, ‘To what end?’. Leaders should aim to improve communication in order to deliver an outcome, such as to provide a more efficient service to customers.
How do you translate the dialogue into organisational design?
In order to bring Dialogic OD to life, you have to work on the link between leadership and design. If the organisation is structured and led in a way that fails to encourage contact and networks between people, then it’s much easier for people to fall into silos rather than work together.
If you want to design an organisation that has more collaborative, conversational contact you have to consider what opportunities people currently have to talk to one another. This includes what the processes and forums for conversations are, and whether people are encouraged to use them.
Also you need to assess how easy is it for conversations to be had at all levels. Some organisations accidentally create silos as the only regular points of contact happen at the most senior levels.
When they are designing their organisation for an ideal future, it’s important for leaders to continually talk to their employees about about their experience of working in that organisation and about what ideas they have, or what they feel and think.
How has taking a dialogic approach to Organisational Development added value to the organisations you’ve worked with?
On a practical level, when you bring people together from across a system, a structured conversation almost inevitably drives value.
I recently worked alongside a group of charitable trust boards within a geographic area. We brought 45 public and third sector leaders together and encouraged them to talk about what they are currently doing in one service area.
During the conversation, they identified some duplication and realised they had found a way of saving over £100,000. This commonly happens when people enter into a meaningful dialogue; when they realise their work on A, B & C overlaps a colleague’s work on B, C & D, they can find ways to collaborate on B & C more efficiently. This enables people to release resources and effort just by working together.
In another assignment, I worked with an organisation of 2000 people with highly diverse roles. We established a clear understanding of how information was flowing around the organisation, which helped them to work out how they could better serve their customers and their communities.
This blog was first published on 28 September 2017.