Many of my students ask me about the difference between Organization Development (OD) and Organizational Behavior (OB). It isn't always a question about the difference but rather, "aren't OD and OB just different names for the same thing?" With that question usually followed by some discussion about how having different names for the same thing can be really confusing.
This isn't a surprising question because it is not uncommon for people outside of the fields of OD and OB to mistake one for the another. Both are focused on people issues such as leadership development, talent management, and employee relations. Both address organizational dynamics such as design and performance. Both also draw from a theoretical basis that grew out of the work of pioneers such as Fredrick Taylor and Abraham Maslow. Despite these similarities, however, there are some fairly important differences that while confusing to the novice, make them quite useful as ontological companions.
Organization development (OD) can be described in a number of different ways. One of the most common is the system wide application and transfer of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development, improvement, and reinforcement of the strategies, structures, and processes that lead to organizational effectiveness (Cummings & Worley, 2005). Burke describes OD in terms of its approach to organizational change, centered around behavioral change and strong research methodology (2002). French and Bell’s definition of OD focuses on it being a systematic process for applying behavioral science principles and practices in organizations to increase individual and organizational effectiveness (1999). Regardless of what definition is applied, OD practitioners try to strike a balance between attempting to identify ways to maximize the value of that organizational experience for the individual, and finding ways to maximize that interaction to improve the organization’s performance. OD also seeks to find a balance between promoting humanistic values within organizations, and applying the field’s competencies to the analytic and rational based approaches of efforts such as strategy formulation and organizational improvement (Worley & Feyerherm, 2003). We do this because an organization’s success is dependent upon its ability to be innovative and responsive in increasingly complex environments, and because an organization’s ability to meet these kinds of challenges is greatly increased through the appropriate application of the OD skill-set.
Organizational Behavior (OB), by contrast, is the study of human behavior in an organizational setting, the human/organization interface, and the organization itself (Moorehead & Griffin, 1992). OB tends to focus on organizations as closed systems at a particular point in time, and is further toward the academic side of the scholar-practitioner continuum. This is in contrast to OD which tends to consider organizations as open systems, and looks at how they change and evolve over time. As a result, OD tends to lean further toward the applied side of the scholar-practitioner continuum than OB which is much more focused on research than application.
Perhaps one of the better metaphors for the relationship between OD and OB is to look at an MD who spends their day seeing patients and trying to make them better as compared to the research scientist who spends most of their days in a lab. Both are looking at the same topics. Both are trying to make the world a better place. And both would not matter nearly as much without the other (even if neither wants to admit it). So are OD and OB the same thing? No they are not, but neither one would be able to contribute as much if they didn't have the other.
Burke, W. W. (2002). Organization change, theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2005). Organization development and change. (8th ed.). (Eight Edition ed.) Mason, OH: Thomas South-Western.
French, W. L., & Bell, C. H. (1999). Organization development. (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Moorehead, G., & Griffin, R. W. (1992). Organizational behavior (3rd ed.). (Third Edition ed.) Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Worley, C. G., & Feyerherm, A. E. (2003). Reflections on the future of organization development. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39, 97-115.
Related Benedictine Programs
If you are interested in learning more about Organizational Development and Organizational Behavior, how they differ and how they work together, check out Benedictine’s online MS in Management and Organizational Behavior.
About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.