— Cultural Sources of Newness

Love-child or Wahlverwandtschaft? The relationship between OD and artistic interventions in organizations

Colleagues in the US and UK recently invited me to co-author an article with them on the relationship between organizational development (OD) and artistic interventions in organizations. Their question has sent me back to the literature on OD and I am finding the exploration both inspiring and intriguing. At first glance, the two fields appear to be intimately related, indeed artistic interventions could be conceived of as a love-child of the founders of OD.

In a thoroughly researched and highly readable book Art Kleiner (1996) characterized the beginnings of the OD movement in the late 1940s and 1950s as “The Age of Heretics”, because the founding generation dared to challenge the dominant views of organization and relations at work. David Jamieson and Christopher Worley summarize the context and the resulting aspirations succinctly:
“The practice of OD is more than 50 years old. Before World War II, organizations typically operated on principles of mechanistic and bureaucratic system, including authority and obedience, division of labor, hierarchical supervision, formalized procedures and rules, and impersonality (and many still do). After the war, increasing interest in social change, attitudes about democracy, and self-actualization brought distinctly different values that were a counterforce to the extant organizational values in use. OD grew in popularity by offering a more holistic view of people and organizations, with an emphasis on humanistic and democratic values and the belief that this different perspective was better not only for people but also for organization performance.” (Jamieson & Worley 2008: 100)

Don’t these values and beliefs correspond closely to the humanistic values associated with the arts, so shouldn’t artistic interventions in organizations be classified as a direct descendant of OD pioneers? Tempting. But a closer look shows that the actors come from very different backgrounds, and the stakeholders involved in artistic interventions bring diverse values and objectives to their engagement with organizations.

The founding fathers and mothers of OD were behavioural scientists who sought to “solve real-world problems by applying group process knowledge to contemporary issues” (Jamieson & Worley 2008: 100). Some of them, such as Edgar Schein, had been exposed to social and organizational problems (e.g., brainwashing) during or resulting from World War II and the Korean War (Schein 2008). They developed a participative method, action research, to generate data with the objective of enabling people to gain insights into the dynamics of a situation and make changes in their organization.

Whereas the drivers of the OD movement were academics with a strong interest in practice, the primary movers in the emergence of artistic interventions in organizations are artists, managers, intermediaries, and policymakers. Academics have joined the field only quite recently to study the phenomenon and its effects.  (Some academics have also brought the arts into their teaching in professional schools, e.g., to develop leadership and creativity at business schools, and to develop observation skills in medical and engineering schools. It would be interesting to follow up on them with studies to see whether the exposure to arts-based methods in such courses leads the graduates to consider drawing on artistic interventions in their organizations to support OD processes.)

I have learned from my interviews that the artists who engage in artistic interventions do so for many reasons: some see in organizations the material and space with which to create art; others want to offer their skills to develop employees’ creativity and communication skills, for example, thereby contributing to enhancing the organizational culture and its capacity for innovation; some artists also have a socio-political motivation for engaging in artistic interventions, seeking to influence society where it bundles its resources. The managers who invite artists into organizations do so for a variety of reasons, which overlap with but are not the same as those that motivate the artists. And intermediaries are active in the field because linking the world of the arts with the world of organizations is their business, and they believe that both worlds can benefit from learning together. Some policymakers are interested in artistic interventions in organizations as new opportunities to employ artists, but the strongest policy interest is driven by the search for mechanisms to stimulate innovativeness and competitiveness of companies, cities and regions.

These two thumbnail sketches suggest that the “DNA” of artistic interventions is not an immediate match with the founders of OD. The differences in actors, motivations and values are evidently much more significant than appeared at first glance. But this is not a reason to conclude that there is no value in exploring the similarities and differences more closely, to the contrary: the examination is likely to be far more interesting. OD has developed and changed over the past 50 years, its “humanistic values have been augmented with economic interests and societal concerns about environmental sustainability, employee welfare, and corporate governance” (Cummings 2008:1) and the connections to artistic interventions may emerge in different ways.

So I am off and running with the chapter, in which I hope to elucidate the potential learning that could be generated by a Wahlverwandtschaft.

Cummings, T.G., (2008) Introduction. In Cummings, Thomas G., (ed.) (2008). Handbook of organization development, Thousand Oaks. Sage: 1-9
Jamieson, David W. & Worley, Christopher G., (2008). The practice of organization development.  In Cummings, Thomas G., (ed.) (2008). Handbook of organization development, Thousand Oaks. Sage: 99-121.
Kleiner, A. (1996). The age of heretics. New York: Doubleday.