Contextual acumen is a fundamental competence for an OD practitioner. Effective diagnosis and choice of intervention requires a clear understanding of the context from which (or in which) the organisation functions. ‘Context’ has at least three aspects:
- The nature of the organization sector— whether it is a commercial trading company, a public service, a ‘third sector’ organisation, or some kind of hybrid. Specific sector knowledge is important to help the OD practitioner assess what is and is not genuinely relevant to an intervention. (Sector ignorance has sometimes been a critical downfall of OD practice.)
- The nature of the external environment in which the organisation functions. Knowing the impact of the external environment on an organisation is a critical condition to discerning whether or not the organisation is functioning effectively. Determining, for example, whether the environment is hostile to an organisation, presenting endless challenges to the organisation, or whether the environment offers growth opportunities. Increasing an organisation’s ability to observe and manage its external environment constructively and creatively (as opposed to being dominated by that environment) is an important OD goal.
- Context can also refer to the internal environment—the character and qualities of the field in which the work is being done. Important considerations include, for example, whether the internal environment provides conditions necessary for staff to give their best, or whether the internal environment manifests systems, processes and mindsets that raise barriers and obstacles that prevent staff from achieving high performance. Likewise, is the system tired and worn down from nonstop challenges? Or is it resourceful and resilient, ready for further changes and growth?
Being savvy in judging the context in which the OD work is being done is a critical competence. If an OD practitioner fails to correctly understand an organization’s multiple contexts, the ‘right’ intervention will not be forthcoming. Sound judgement of context will inform the depth and scale of an intervention, as well as providing clarity as to whether the ‘soil’ in which the OD work intervention will be executed is ready for the work to be done.
All of that to say that a competent OD intervention is always firmly grounded in the client’s particular context. As every organization is unique, every effective OD intervention will reflect that uniqueness. As opposed to ‘cookie-cutter’, ‘out-of-the-box’ initiatives, the competent practitioner designs their OD interventions in ways that are sensitive and responsive to the organizational context, ensuring that they possess the acumen required to engage client systems with integrity and credibility.
Experienced by clients
OD practitioners who are competent at discerning and making sense of organisational context are experienced by clients as well-informed partners. Clients will feel safe knowing that their consultant understands their world, showing empathy and an understanding of the types of challenges and opportunities they face. Rather than judging and being critical of how effectively or ineffectively the client operates, the OD practitioners speak the language of the client. They take into consideration the external and internal dynamics of the client systems. Clients are able to trust these OD practitioners, confident that the practitioner understands their ‘reality’.
What the competence ‘looks like’
The characteristics and qualities noted below are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. Nor are they in any particular order. Nor are the distinctions between ‘Knowledge’, ‘Skills/Abilities’ and ‘Character/Attitude’ hard and fast—rather they are heuristic categories with obviously overlapping edges. The intention is merely to provide a frame of reference for considering important aspects of the Contextual Acumen competence, especially as it relates to one’s own practice.