By John D. Adams


This chapter is written in memoir form and all opinions and recollections are solely mine. It appeared earlier in Organization Development in Practice (W. J. Rothwell, J. M. Stavros, R. L. Sullivan, & J. D. Vogelsang (Eds.), 2016).

There is no doubting that, as technology has developed so rapidly over the past 35 years, complexity and turbulence have increased as well. Has the practice of OD kept up with this complexity and turbulence? Undoubtedly many readers are working at this whitewater edge, while some others may wonder why their training seems so irrelevant to the needs of today’s organizations.

I remember that my first computer, an Intertec Superbrain, which I purchased in 1981, had no hard drive, but rather two 5.25” 180KB floppy disc drives. One slot was for the program to be operated – in my case usually Peach Tree’s Magic Wand software program, and the second slot for the document files. The screen glowed a dark gray and the text on the screen was bright green. There was no mouse, and all directions had to be typed into each document – formatting of the paragraphs was typed in at the beginning of the paragraph. No pictures or other colors . Certainly no animation. The computer weighed 45 pounds and cost $3500 in 1983 dollars.


I sent my first emails, via CompuServe, to a few other early adopters, and taught an on-line course in the Sonoma State (CA) Masters in OD program from my home in Arlington VA, 2,500 miles away, using a 300 baud acoustical modem. Also during this same time frame, Frank Burns was setting up his MetaNet operation, which allowed for threaded on line conversations, or discussion “boards” – a very distant forerunner of today’s social media opportunities such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. A small network of early adopters avidly embraced these discussions.

Today my smart phone and tablet each have about 30 apps, and each has at least hundreds of times the computing capacity and processing speed of my 1983 Intertec, and my primary computer is a MacBook Air ($1,250 2012 dollars), which weighs 40 oz., and has 8 GB of internal memory. It has color, full graphic and animation capabilities and seemingly instantaneous download speeds. On the dock are a Microsoft office suite (Word, Excel and PowerPoint), Adobe, a directory, iTunes, iPhoto, maps, calendar, memo application, Skype, and a To-Do list. Plus, I have three internet service providers, all free, that I use separately for emailing, web based work, and social networking. There are at least a dozen more apps that I use less often that I can access through Finder. I haven’t even seen a floppy disk in over 10 years!

So, why did I dredge up these 30+ year old memories? Basically, because I want to have a technology advancement baseline for what I, and a small band of fellow travelers in OD, were doing at the beginning of the 1980s.

But first, let me take us back yet another 20 years, to the early mid-60s. Back when “main frame” computers were all there was – big as a house, reel-to reel, card reading monster machines. Today, most of us have cars that have several times the computing capacity available to the NASA Apollo mission that got us to the moon and back a few times beginning in 1969. The advancement from the early IBM computers to the first desktop computers in less than 20 years was remarkable!

In those heady days of the 1960s, OD was being practiced fairly widely, and became coherent enough to be given its name – either by Herbert A. Shepard or by Richard Beckhard, depending on the storyteller’s preference. Most of OD practice was team building, process consulting, coaching, planning facilitation, helping with reorganizations, and a little conflict resolution – with advocacy of participative management. The first books with OD in the title were the first six books in the Addison Wesley series, published in 1969.

Early OD practitioners shared their ideas widely – and gave them away freely –hoping to spread the word and establishing a new field of practice. The NTL Professional Development Learning Community’s “Program for Specialists in OD” and the OD Network meetings in the1970s were both hotbeds for trying out new ideas and giving away the newly minted processes. Three of the four weeks of each year’s PSOD comprised modules, in which the newest ideas were taught to the trainees. Richard Beckhard taught people how and why to use the “Confrontation Meeting”; Stan Herman taught people how to incorporate Gestalt methods into OD; Barry Oshry held endless hotel lobby conversations, as well making formal presentations, teaching people how to incorporate his ideas about power and systems; I introduced stress management and health promotion in the workplace and encouraged people to use the early tools I had developed. And on and on.

Perhaps as a reflection of this informality and “open source” early OD culture, the practitioners almost universally rejected a significant drive in the early 1970s to establish OD as a profession with standards, ethics, and competency assessments. The International Association of Applied Social Scientists (IAASS) was founded in 1972 and ceased to exist by 1975. Ever since, Organization Development has evolved and grown as a field of practice.

Now fast forward to the early mid-80s. While technology had advanced exponentially, causing increasing turbulence and decreasing “half-lives” of ideas and processes, most of OD practice was still team building, process consulting, coaching, planning facilitation, helping with reorganizations, and a little conflict resolution – now with advocacy of participative management and diversity. Not a huge amount of change in the actual paradigm of practice. Most advances in OD knowledge and skills were embellishments on the original basics.

In my humble opinion, the most radical and influential change in OD by the early 80s was that it had spawned a drive towards proprietary ownership of ideas. The Blake & Mouton “Managerial Grid” had been closely held since the mid-1960s, and it was generally seen as somewhat “tainted” by many OD practitioners. By the late 1970s, however, University Associates (originally called Pfeiffer and Jones) and other smaller entities gobbled up and copyright as many OD processes as they could.

With the increased speed of innovation in high technology, plus the carry-overs from the social justice and anti-war movements, organizations were increasingly being influenced by sources external to their own “boundaries.” This was just about the end of the era in which a newly appointed executive or senior manager could reorganize based on his or her personal preferences for managing. Increasingly, the new incumbent would feel that any reorganizing now had to be in response to externally driven, and not well understood, pressures and fluctuations.

I think it would be fair to say that most “OD” was still practiced as the name of the field implies – within the organization (O) and seeking incremental improvements of “what is” (D). As organizations now had to think beyond their own boundaries and make decisions in an increasingly uncertain external environment, OD Practitioners were challenged to make their contributions useful and relevant. First order change (improvement of what is) was well known across the field, but second order (discontinuous change) change, as first promoted by Gregory Bateson, was virtually unknown. “Why are we rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” when our clients needed to be exploring their assumptions about whether this was the right thing to do, or the greatest priority at that moment?


Now, let’s return to the aforementioned […]: click here


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