Organisational Development in Oxford

In the last week in June I had the privilege to facilitate a five-day course on Organisational Development at St Edmunds Hall in Oxford. The course is part of INTRAC’s short course programme and I have been facilitating it annually since 2001. Fourteen participants attended the course from civil society organisations in Afghanistan, Denmark, Ethiopia, Georgia, India, Macedonia, Malawi, Nigeria, Norway, Sudan, Switzerland the United Kingdom and Yemen. Working with such a wide geographical range of participants and organisations is one of things that makes the course a high spot of my year.

The course covers all of the phases of organisational development from initial contact through to evaluation and uses a range of methods from presentations and case studies to triads (mini action learning sets) and drawing ‘rich pictures’ to illustrate real issues facing the participants.

It was a great group to work with, the setting of an Oxford college was inspiring, the logistical backup from INTRAC was excellent and the weather was warm and sunny – what more could a facilitator ask for?!

I have facilitated the course nearly ten times now, and it has evolved a lot thanks mainly to the feedback from participants gathered daily (through the ‘home’ groups that meet at the end of each day to reflect on what went well, areas for improvement and ideas for the course) and through more conventional evaluation forms at the end of the course. Two other factors have helped to shape the development of the course: changes in the field of organisational development and my own developing experience which I use as much as possible to illustrate the concepts we discuss.

The course always raises interesting issues concerning confidentiality. With participants, I encourage everyone to be as open as they feel comfortable to be and to ensure that it is the learning and not the names that goes beyond the boundary of the training room. For myself, I have written up a few of my consultancy experiences as case studies – almost all of which are heavily ‘anonymised’ to protect client confidentiality. In a few case examples that focus only on methodology rather than ‘issues’ I have retained the real names of the organisations as there is definitely a different ‘feel’ to using authentic names in illustrative examples. My ‘fail-safe’ position is “if in doubt, retain anonymity”.

One of the topics I find particularly interesting on the course is the subject of Organisational Assessment (OA). OA – as I use the term – is a systematic process of assessing the overall capacity of an organisation. Many of the international organisations I work with use (or are planning to use) a process of OA with their partner organisations.

There are, of course, countless OA tools around and on the course we examine only a few of them. Tools can be broadly categorised into those that are intended for ‘self-assessment’, those that are used for ‘self assessment with support’ (from outside the organisation) and those that are used by one organisation to make an assessment of another. Conventional wisdom suggests that OA should always involve self-assessment but the reality is invariably more complex especially in the context of ‘partnership’ relationships between organisations where one provides funding for the other.

I’m working with two organisations right now that are jointly building an OA process into their respective impact assessment frameworks. By examining changes in partners’ organisational self-assessments over time they plan to identify improvements in capacity that can be plausibly associated with the input of their development workers.

Most of the OA tools available use performance-related indicators. These provide a way of assessing organisational effectiveness. But very few examine what can be characterised as organisational ‘health’. At our most recent Framework Community Day I facilitated a session examining the indicators that a tool taking organisational health seriously might include. For me, the most powerful indicator of organisational health that was suggested was that people feel they are cared-for by their colleagues. Imagine if we could say that about every organisation.

My colleague, Andrew Woodgate, and I have started working on an OA tool using some of the ideas that were generated during the Community Day session. We intend to make the tool available through the Framework website.

Meg Wheatley on YouTube

One of the wonders of YouTube is the availability of video clips of people who we might not ever get the opportunity to hear and see in person. One of my biggest disappointments this year (so far!) was being unable to attend a course run by Meg Wheatley (the writer on community development and change), at Schumacher College in Devon, England. However, thanks to the generosity of people all over the world, it is possible to become part of other audiences. The people at Grand Rapids Community College in the US have posted an inspiring presentation by Meg Wheatley. During her lengthy and wide-ranging presentation she raises some tough questions and inspiring ideas. For example, she talks about the conventional way that states learn from disaster – to create new regulations. She quotes a friend who works for the chemical company DuPont who describes the complex rules and regulations for the chemical industry as a “history of our tragedies”. The problem is that we tend to legislate before we fully understand the complexity of the problem. So what starts as a solution to one problem becomes the unintended cause of another. What struck me was how this also applies to complex social problems such as child protection legislation. So what can we learn from Meg Wheatley’s approach to communities solving complex social problems? She summarises this neatly in a series of ten ‘Principles for Creating Healthy Community Change’ and by ‘community’ she means any type of group where communities get together, including organisations. You can hear Meg Wheatley talking about these principles at YouTube:

  1. People support what they create
  2. People act responsibly when they care
  3. Through conversation we discover shared meaning
  4. To change the conversation, change who is in it
  5. Expect leadership to come from anywhere
  6. Focus on what’s working and it releases energy
  7. The wisdom resides within us
  8. Everything is a failure in the middle
  9. People can handle anything as long as we are together
  10. Generosity, forgiveness and love are the most important

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