Aligning Organization Development to Global Organizing

By Allon Shevat

I Prologue

From its birth, Organization Development was designed for organizations based in the western world.

Consequently the values, diagnostic tools and interventions have a western bias. Increasingly, however we find that organizations are moving towards a global configuration, employing very diverse populations, many of whom do not share those same Western cultural values upon which OD is based. As a result, the application of Organization Development to global organizations is problematic. Frequently, the diagnostic skills of the practitioner are not aligned to understand the complexities encountered, and the interventions chosen are not aligned with global complexity. Most importantly, the Organization Development practitioner may exacerbate the very problems that she is trying to solve, because he over-identifies with one side, and misunderstands others.

Organization Development’s future does not reside in its past. Global organizing supported by IT technology has created a new reality. Clinging to OD’s roots means relegating Organization Development to oblivion. However OD still can play a very important role in organizations and in fact may be even more critical to their success. In this article, I will  explain where the future of OD lies, and provide some direction of what is to be done to illustrate how OD can provide essential support to the global organization


II The Problem

OD principles and tools as practiced in the Western world are not universally applicable. To support global organization, OD’s core and applications need to be reinvented.

Mere knowledge of cultural dimensions by OD consultants is not enough to bridge the gap between the complexity of global organizing and OD, since practitioners often view the resolution of organizational problems via the western bias of Organization Development.

Based on humanistic principals, traditional OD promotes leveraging the full potential of individuals as a major component of developing organizations. OD emphasizes the individual’s needs and desires in the world of work, prescribing ways that people should interact and communicate between themselves and with leadership. Words and concepts like openness, delegation, collaboration, teamwork, and delegation are very frequently used by traditional consultants. In global organizations with acute diversity, many of these words have questionable value.

For many, the collective is the center of society. Thus, harmony is emphasized much more than individual potential. To maintain harmony, conflict may be totally avoided, not managed or discussed. In order to ensure harmony and cohesion, expectations are that strong leaders rule with compassion, rather than via a “destabilising empowerment”. Communication will maintain harmony, by emphasizing and valuing the opaque as needed to smooth out anything that negatively impacts harmony. Obedience, deference, opaqueness, face saving and emotional detachment are likely to be more valued than openness, delegation, collaboration, teamwork, and delegation

Due to OD’s western bias, OD does not address the polarities of global organizing; OD comes down on the side of one set of value, and is judgemental, castigating many of the non-western behaviours as “lying” or non-authentic. Thus, Organization Development is ill equipped to understand, less so be effective, in global organizations.

In global organizations, the work force has vastly diverse values and behavioural codes about organizational life; perceptions of what constitutes appropriate behavior vary dramatically. When an OD consultant is called upon, he must be able drive a platform of how to work together, and not represent one particular set of value. This means that the OD consultant must be ready to leave behind their distinct Western bias.

The western bias of the OD consultant may unintentionally impose OD’s biases in interventions, assuming “one size fits all”. Yet, what is ok for US, Canadian, British and Australian staff is totally inappropriate for Japanese, Chinese, Thais, Israelis and Egyptians.

OD should serve as an enabler between the behavioural preferences of various geographies and cultures, not as a “spokesperson” for Western values and behaviours. The ‘one size fits all’ bias basically means that the western perspective on respect and inclusion, collaboration, authenticity, self-awareness and empowerment may be force fed to all populations in the global workplace.

Respect and inclusion, collaboration, authenticity, self-awareness and empowerment mean radically different things in the East and West.

  • Respect and Inclusion may need to be replaced by- Give face gets face in return.
  • Collaboration may be seen as achievable only via obedience to authority. The western view of so called collaboration with other departments may be seen as betrayal of authority.
  • Authenticity looks more like “total control and repression of emotion” since authenticity may be equated with weakness.
  • Self-awareness becomes: Put your needs aside in order strengthen cohesion.
  • Empowerment becomes: do what you are told, and I will protect you.

Nothing illustrates the cultural and behavioural complexity in global organizations more than the variance of the way “respect” is perceived.

  • Helmut from Hamburg shows respect by keeping to schedule.
  • Baharat from Mumbai shows respect by answering calls from his clients immediately, even when he is running a meeting.
  • Moshe from Israel shows respect by giving people as much time as needed, ignoring the “formal” schedule he is supposed to be following.
  • Paco from Mexico shows a huge respect for people, by ignoring time entirely.
  • Daw from Huahin, Thailand gives respect by never inconveniencing people with whom he works. In public meetings, he is courteous and tends to be amicable to all suggested directions, reserving his disagreements for a private conversation. He sees the gap between what he allows himself to say in public and private as giving a huge amount of respect.
  • Mark from St Paul, USA gives respect by distinguishing between people and issues. He can deliver a critique of an idea, but he never is critical of a person; he is careful to remain civil. Mark sees in civility the ultimate manifestation of respect.
  • Ngai Lam from Hong Kong shows respect by always being in her “professional” persona, concealing much of her emotions, expression of which may be seen as showing lack of respect for the work place.
  • Hank from Holland as well as Moti from Israel show respect by being blunt so that no one needs to guess what their intention is, which would be disrespecting and uncaring.
  • Olive from Germany and Oya from Japan show respect by a very formal use of language when addressing people who merit respect.

Even trying to rally around something as universal as “respect” shows that there is a lack of shared context for the present values for organization development.

Faced with global complexity many OD practioners simply impose the values of the West, assuming their universality.

Organization Development which supports global organizing should not “take sides”.

  • Between openness as opposed to discretion as a communication preference.
  • Between teamwork and a top down approach
  • Between win-win and other negotiation preferences
  • Between participatory decision making and top down decisions, sweetened with compassion

OD needs to transition from the role of “spokesman of western values” to the role of global enabler in the global workplace in order to support global organizing. The rest of this chapter is a view of how this is done.


Read more: III Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing

Read more: VI Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing

Read more: VII Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing


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