Learning organisational development as a community

Learning organisational development as a community
posted 16 June 2021 in category Organisational Development Community of Practice

The term ‘community of practice’ is a relatively new addition to the consulting vocabulary, but it describes an age-old phenomenon. It refers to any group of people brought together by a shared interest and desire to learn, from ancient tribes learning survival skills to kids playing football after school. 

Etienne Wenger, the educational theorist who first formalised the concept in 1991 with anthropologist Jean Lave, defines a community of practice as a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” 

Amongst the myriad definitions of organisational development (OD), at PPL we like Warren Bennis’ 1969 definition of OD as ‘a response to change, a complex educational strategy intended to change the beliefs, attitudes, values and structure of organisations so that they can better adapt to new technologies, markets and challenges, and the dizzying rate of change itself.’ 

For organisations like our clients whose work is delivered through their people, OD means putting people at the heart of change, and equipping them with the skills, knowledge and motivation to make change stick.  

OD sits at the intersection of PPL’s key specialisms, including change management and quality improvement. This meant that the development of our team’s understanding of OD through collective learning was a logical next step. 

We began laying the groundwork for our OD community of practice (OD CoP) just under a year ago. The intention was to create a space where OD experts with decades of combined experience, together with those less familiar with OD and even complete beginners, could review and learn from previous PPL OD work and develop our OD methodology. 

Despite COVID-19 forcing all meetings to date online, the group has been well-received by the PPL team, especially our analysts and consultants with little-to-no prior OD experience. It has: 

  • Helped them understand what applied OD looks like in an interactive way. 

  • Provided an opportunity to walk through real OD work with experienced practitioners. 

  • Given them an opportunity to shape PPL’s OD offer. 

OD CoP participants have highlighted what they have learnt since joining the community: 

  • “I’ve learnt that OD can take many different forms and that we should be thinking about it in the context of almost everything we do.” 

  • “OD CoP has shown me the importance of investing time in people to achieve change.” 

  • “For me, OD is the piece often missing or overlooked in all walks of life – the power and importance of individuals.” 

The OD CoP is helping us continuously improve our work with clients by making sure our whole team is equipped to help consider what the issues under the surface of a given project might be, and what "people factors" might be driving or hindering change. 

The community of practice format has been particularly effective in lessening the learning curve for those with little-to-no experience in OD. Attendance has been strong and sustained, and as junior team members have gained confidence they have taken a more active role in designing and facilitating OD CoP sessions. 

As a team we are looking forward to building on the work of the past year by holding our first in-person OD CoP, whilst continuing to develop our new skills in online working as we enter a new hybrid-working future. We also hope to share the enthusiasm generated by our OD CoP for the benefit of the wider health and care sector through open seminars, training days and other events in the future, so watch this space for details!  




Further reading: 

  1. Building a career path for organisation development practitioners within the NHS 

  2. Organization Development Community’s introduction to OD 

  3. CIPD introduction to organisational development 



  1. Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner