“It is necessary to study not only parts and processes in isolation, but also to solve the decisive problems found in organization and order unifying them, resulting from dynamic interaction of the parts, and making the behavior of the parts different when studied in isolation or within the whole.”

   – Ludwig von Bertalanffy *

Our bespectacled Austrian friend Ludwig, known for his General Systems Theory from which this quote comes, is saying here that understanding complex systems means looking not only at the individual parts, but also at the relationships between those parts. Replace “parts” with “cells” and you have the cornerstone of systems biology. Now replace “parts” with “people,” and you have the guiding principle behind organization development. If you are drawn to how systems function, but would rather spend time with people than with cells, you may be interested in the field of organization development.

I met with a family friend who leads organization development in a large city government to learn more about her career. I was struck by the similarities between her field and systems biology:

First, hang on to your one-way ANOVAs. Organization development uses the scientific method to assess the functioning of a system, so an understanding of hypothesis testing, statistics, and data interpretation are essential.

Second, organizations, just like biological systems, must adapt to change to remain healthy. You might study how a worm responds to a sudden drop in oxygen levels. Imagine now that the worm is an IT department, and the oxygen drop is a new database management plan. Organization development is a process that helps teams and individuals adapt to that change… and eradicate worm suffocation?

Finally – and grad students everywhere should appreciate this point – working in organization development inherently means working with systems that have problems. You know that project your PI gave you that was intellectually stimulating, contributed greatly to our understanding of science, and went off without a hitch? No? Oh, that’s right, those don’t exist.

So far we’ve seen that success in organization development requires: an understanding of how systems function; knowledge of statistics and the scientific method; and an ability to perform when faced with change and problems. Also crucial are strong people skills. The woman I spoke with guides teams through conflict and changes, and not all of these changes are welcome ones. You know the uproar every time Facebook changes its interface? It’s like that, only not at all, because these changes actually affect people’s lives and livelihoods. Her job requires the soft skills necessary for managing diverse groups and interpersonal dynamics through difficult situations.

A typical day for her involves many meetings. Whether it’s guiding a group through a team building exercise, facilitating a workshop on new process implementation, or working with the top people on leadership skills, meetings are where her work gets done. Her challenge is to stay on top of all of the preparation that these meetings require.

 I always ask about the educational background that leads someone to their current position and hers is extensive: a BA in nursing/psychology, an RN degree, an MS in psychology and a PhD in organizational behavior, research, and development.  She also took many courses in an MBA program.

 A move from science research to organization development would likely involve some additional training or degree work. Interested grad students might want to look through their university course listings for classes in subjects like organizational psychology, behavioral science, and human resources management. Also check out the Links page for more resources on careers in organization development.

* Von Bertalanffy was in fact a biologist credited with coining the term “systems biology,” but his more pervasive legacy may be his formation of general system theory. General system theory posits that complex open systems share organizing principles that describe relationships between parts of the system to each other and to the whole.