Organizational Development Theories vs. Change Theories: Which Should You Apply?

Are organizational development theories and change management theories the same?

Or are they different?

And – if they are different – which should you apply?

Below, we will examine this issue in more detail, including:

  • Whether organizational development theories are different from organizational change theories
  • The history and relevance of both
  • Which approach you should take when engaging in organizational change and development

To start with, let’s look at these two theories in detail.

The History of Organizational Development and Change

Interestingly, the same scholar is cited as the forefather of both fields – Kurt Lewin.

Lewin developed a number of ideas that contributed to the growth of both fields, including:

  • Action Research – The process of engaging in research while simultaneously seeking transformative change.
  • Group Dynamics – How groups and individuals react and act when circumstances change. This perspective has become vital to change managers, since organizational change affects and is affected by group dynamics.
  • Force Field Analysis and Field Theory – A psychological approach that views people and psychology, to oversimplify a bit, as variables in an equation. 
  • The 3-Stage Change Process – A straightforward model of any change process that has three stages: unfreeze, transition, and freeze. This model has informed many other change management theories and frameworks since its conception.

These concepts, as well as Lewin’s other ideas, have become foundational to both approaches to change.

However, the business professional is likely more concerned with results than history.

That is – which approach should be studied and applied?

Organizational Development Theories vs. Change Management Theories

Change management and organizational development are distinct. 

But they spring from the same source.

Since Kurt Lewin’s work in the early 1900s, each field has covered the same territory – but followed a slightly different path.

Organizational development theories:

  • Focus on group dynamics and action research
  • Explored group training methods
  • Adopted various values and objectives, such as humanistic values

Organizational change management, however, has emphasized:

  • Practical, step-by-step change models and frameworks
  • Shorter-term change projects, versus longer-term organizational development programs
  • Effecting organizational change through individual change

Officially, change management as a field has a shorter lifespan. 

However, both theories share many of the same roots, ideas, and aims, such as:

  • Increasing efficiency across the organization
  • Influencing corporate culture
  • Streamlining business processes
  • Improving employee productivity
  • Enhancing the work environment

Among many other things.

Which Approach Is More Popular?

Over the past few decades, change management has gained significant momentum.

Compared to organizational development (or organization development), change management is more popular and more recognized.

A simple Google Trends search, for instance, shows that change management has significantly more search volume than organizational development.

And because the field is larger, it is easier to find resources devoted to change management, including:

  • Research – Academic research continues in both fields. And, as we have seen, there is significant overlap. However, in both academia and the business world, more research is devoted to change management than organizational development.
  • Information – There are more blogs, websites, and articles that cover change management. These can be found in a variety of places, from niche websites to academic institutions.
  • Education – Also, it is easier to find more educational resources for change management. Change management certification courses, training courses, degree programs, and other opportunities abound.
  • Change Models – After Kurt Lewin, others have developed change management models designed to implement organizational changes. John Kotter’s 8-Step model, for instance, has been popular since it was developed in the 1990s. 

To name a few examples.

Because more effort is being devoted to the discipline of change management, it is easy to argue that this is where businesses should go to learn more.

However, this is no reason to discount organizational development entirely.

Many businesses and academic institutions still offer:

  • Organizational development certificates, degrees, and courses
  • Training and education that go under the title of organizational development
  • Jobs and positions for organizational development professionals

In short, both fields are still alive and well – and both have a lot to offer when it comes to organizational change.

Organizational Development or Change Management: Which Is Best?

Anyone interested in organizational change will certainly want to know how best to invest their time.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Some people and businesses use the two terms interchangeably. A business that is recruiting for a change professional, for example, may be thinking of change management even if it uses “organizational development” in its job description. The reverse can also be true.
  • Others, however, do not – they each involve different approaches, frameworks, and ideas. However, there are also instances when jobs, courses, or businesses are looking for a specific approach to organizational change and development. It pays to read between the lines and learn what the objectives are of any given job description, course, certification, and so forth.
  • Ensure your objectives align with the field you choose to study. Different businesses, jobs, and courses will have different values. These values and objectives will be reflected in their approach to organizational change and development. Before signing up for a job or a course, be sure that your values match with the aims of that organization.

Clearly, the waters can be a bit muddy when discussing organizational development and change.

Different terminology can refer to the same thing.

Or the same terms can have different meanings to different people.

Ultimately, when researching these two fields, it pays to dig a bit deeper to understand the intention and objectives of any author, business, or institution.

After all, we have seen that these two fields do have divergent approaches to organizational change and development.

Choosing the right approach can make a big difference in the end result – whether you are an individual or a business.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.