Organizational Development: A Field Under Construction

The field of learning and development has tried and true methods of developing individual employees—from sparking innovation to managing high potentials.

But the concept of organizational development is still very much a field under construction, said David Jestaz, head of the corporate university for management at the EDF Group, the world leader in nuclear energy production.

"The main issue of OD is that right now, it's more an art," Jestaz said. "It's not something of larger knowledge that we can share and replicate."

Check out our video interview with David Jestaz above, or the text version of our Q&A below.

What are the things that are being emphasized right now in your job, and more broadly in corporate learning in Europe?

If you look at the average age of American corporations and you compare that to Europe, you'll see differences that of a magnitude of two to three, which means institutionally speaking, people work in companies that are 60, 70 or even 100 years old. So you need to get that down because this is the DNA of the company.

This is the culture. This is where the values come from, and in Europe, we have these existing companies that are much more experienced in some ways and people enter the company with the feeling that they are part of a longer history.

I also want to touch upon organizational development. What are the trends you're dealing with right now?

I think organizational development is really the field that we don't know much about. We know a lot about individual development. We know quite a bit about leadership development, although it's hard to do.

OD is really about the culture of the organization. And when you talk to people and you try to understand what they talk about when they mean culture, you get very vague answers. So OD is actually a field under construction.

What we're trying to do now, at least in my company, we're trying to define more precisely what are the stakes of OD. How do you do OD? How do you measure OD. How do you make sure that given a problem that is a collective problem, which is: Do we have the competency collectively to make the organization successful?

Given that, we need to address a number of steps to clarify the problem of OD. That is a signal of the progress we have to make in that field.

It sounds like this big overarching issue you're trying to attack—and something that sounds hard to define. Are there specific plans/goals in place for the next year or two?

Yes, from my understanding, we have to gather the professional people who do organizational development because they all do a bit of it.

And we need to sit together and understand what they do in the value chain, what do they do in the total overarching goal which is organization and development. And that's the thing I'm trying to do right now with different consulting firms and universities and business schools in Europe.

The second thing we have to do is to get to best practices to understand what are the best practices that have been experienced in companies and we've been happy enough to experience several in EDF at a recent time.

What about these recent practices, what do they mean in terms of processes, and can we replicate that?

I think the main issue of OD is that right now, it's more an art, which is in the end, is something often best handled with boutique consulting firms, but it's not something of larger knowledge that we can share and replicate. That, I think, is the goal of organizational development right now.

EDF has 12,000 employees worldwide and you're responsible for the corporate education in terms of management. Do the programs you offer take into account those cultural and geopolitical differences of the employees you're dealing with?

They have to. They have to in the sense that if you do individual development and leadership development, you enter into the social fabric of the country.

As an example, leadership is an American word. There's no equivalent in French, nothing equivalent in Italian. German has an equivalent, which has a very different meaning. So you get into a concept that itself is not born in the culture you want to address.

The first thing is awareness. Do we understand the same thing about a leader? China has a different history, there's no hero in Chinese mythology. So would you look at a leader as a hero, like an American would?

The consequence of that is we need to get into the 'how.' How do we do that? If the concepts are quite different, how do we proceed, if we want to achieve the same goal? That is very practical.

How do we do feedback in a culture that doesn't like feedback? We know that part of the reason why people develop individually is because they get feedback. They get rewards. They get sanctions and they get an understanding for what they do. If the feedback is not part of the culture, they're going to be missing one key dimension.

Americans do feedback in a very different way from Asian or from European. Americans over inflate the feedback. Europeans under inflate the feedback.

So these are the kinds of things we have to work on all the time because the devil is in the detail and that's where the value of learning is critical.