What is Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)?

Organizational behavior management is when the scientific principles of behavior analysis are applied to performance evaluation and improvement in any organizational context. OBM is used widely in healthcare, sports, and manufacturing, and is increasingly being taken into consideration in all types of human resource management systems.

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Effecting Real Change with Organizational Behavior Management

The Veterans Health Administration has been taking care of returning American soldiers since 1930 and has gone through several waves of serious challenges since then. Even so, the Administration was put to the test by a series of events in the early 2000’s.

Just as it was beginning to get a handle on the influx of aging veterans from the Greatest Generation, the agency found itself dealing with three new threats:

  • A new generation of wounded warriors coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Significant budget cuts, fallout from the global financial crisis and Congressional belt-tightening
  • A wave of infections from a deadly, antibiotic resistant strain of staph: MRSA

MRSA thrives in crowded wards with open wounds, exactly the situation in many VA facilities coping with amputations and traumatic injuries. Like other American healthcare facilities, patients at VA hospitals had a roughly 1 in 25 chance of contracting a new infection during their stay.

At least, until 2007. That year, the VA launched a new multi-prong effort at stamping out MRSA infections. Infection control measures had been tried before, with mixed results. But this one had one feature that made it different: an intensive behavior management program designed to improve staff compliance with infection control protocols.

By 2012, MRSA infections at VA facilities had dropped by nearly 70 percent. The program had greater success than any previous infection control regime, and 40 percent better than private healthcare systems, despite having patients largely older and sicker than the general population.

And that success was largely because of an offshoot of applied behavior analysis called Organizational Behavior Management.

OBM Applies Individual and Group Behavior Analysis to Improve Performance and Safety

At the same time that B.F. Skinner’s writings on the science of human behavior were revolutionizing the practice of psychology and helping to inspire the new field of applied behavior analysis for individuals, they were also being looked to for explanations of group behavioral dynamics.

Ever since the industrial revolution, managers have been looking for ways to improve work efficiency. As new science became available on why and how people were motivated, management theorists were eager to apply the principals of this science in the workplace.

How Organizational Behavior Management Works

Organizational behavior management specialists often work as consultants or in Human Resources (HR) departments. They typically interact closely with management and decision-makers in the business to analyze and advise them on improving performance and efficiency.

OBM specialists use many of the same tools as mainstream behavior analysts, including:

  • Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) analysis: The so-called “ABCs” of behavior analysis work, it involves analyzing the environment, studying behaviors resulting from that environment, and adjusting the consequence to reinforce or eliminate the behavior.
  • Pinpointing: Establishing specific modifiable behaviors or consequences.
  • Behavior-based checklists: Incorporating self-monitoring programs based on checklist items.
  • Observation and feedback: Behavior analysts use observation to understand behavioral systems and devise feedback methods to reinforce positive and eliminate negative behaviors
  • Interobserver reliability techniques: To ensure consistency in shared environments, behavior analysts use interobserver agreements and other techniques to ensure that values observed for identical events by different observers are the same.

OBM specialists often find their work incorporated into other management tools and techniques. The primary difference in the work done in OBM, however, is the use of psychological insights to influence behavior dynamics in groups and workplace scenarios. These skills are used both in observing and diagnosing organizational issues and in developing effective behavior modification plans to address those issues.

As with the VA infection control program, this can involve creating cultural changes to encourage staff to take ownership of outcomes. Or it may involve creating checklists and other rote mechanisms to encourage the development of positive feedback loops in safety procedures around heavy equipment. Any workplace function involving human variability may be subject to behavior modification.

The Influence of OBM on Other Management Tools and Techniques

Traditional behavior analysis techniques are increasingly becoming wedded to outside practices such as systems theory (a study of the patterns and principles governing processes in complex, interdependent systems), which are more useful in large organizational contexts. Conversely, OBM is finding its way into larger management frameworks as a tool or concept that is not always central, but usually integral, to the system. The Integrated Cultural Framework (a six-dimension survey used for determining prevailing corporate cultural norms) is one example of an OBM-influenced tool used in other management systems. And many traditional management techniques that have proven successful inadvertently incorporate OBM tenets such as positive reinforcement and consistent feedback.

The Relationship Between Organizational Behavior Management and Applied Behavior Analysis

OBM has roots in ABA (applied behavior analysis), but it’s truly an amalgamation of a number of different branches of psychological and management theory, including:

  • Industrial psychology
  • Programmed instruction
  • Scientific management theory

Because of the diversity of fields that fed the modern practice of organizational behavior management, it has grown up into a field that nearly parallels applied behavior analysis. The first OBM graduate program was offered at Western Michigan University in 1978, only nine years after the first graduate program in behavior analysis was introduced at the University of Florida.

Despite the close relationship between the fields and the fact that both have a history that includes many of the same groundbreaking researchers, according to a 2016 article at BSci21, today many ABA students remain unaware of OBM or how it relates to behavior analysis.

One of the greatest crossover practice areas between OBM and ABA is in the healthcare field. Among the first widespread uses of OBM was in residential human services settings. According to a 2010 research paper published by Southern Illinois University, this may have come about precisely because of the novel and comprehensive nature of behavioral treatments… having written detailed behavior management plans for their patients, ABAs found themselves having to do something similar with the staff to ensure the patient plans were executed properly!

Numerous studies have shown the efficacy of this approach in healthcare settings, the VA MRSA example among them.

Today, OBM is making inroads across a variety of industries as diverse as manufacturing and sports. In manufacturing, safety systems and efficiency are addressed through behavior modification with factory workers. And in sports as diverse as football and ballet, some coaches have found their teams improving through the application of OBM techniques.

In some cases the crossover is going in the other direction—OBM practitioners are moving into behavior analysis practices, such as at the Shape of Behavior autism treatment centers in Texas. Recently, the chain hired an OBM specialist to assist with ABA training!

Planning for a Career in Organizational Behavior Management

Because of its business applications, most practitioners come to OBM through a college degree in business with a concentration in organizational behavior management. As with every other field, however, the trend toward professionals with expert knowledge means that even human resources positions are increasingly going to master’s-educated applicants.

There are a number of different types of master’s degree programs that can lead to a career in OBM, including:

  • Psychology with OBM concentration
  • Industrial Organizational Psychology
  • Applied Behavior Analysis

There are also certificate programs available for students looking to pick up skills in OBM after graduating with a degree in a different field. Programs at institutions such as Harvard and the Florida Institute of Technology are open to those that hold advanced degrees in other fields.

Additionally, many positions are beginning to require that OBM practitioners hold a Board Certified Behavior Analysis (BCBA®) certification from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. This certificate requires a master’s or higher degree in behavior analysis or an advanced degree in psychology or education with significant coursework in behavior analysis, as well as practicum or independent field experience and passing scores on the certification exam.

Many ABA master’s programs now specifically include and advertise the necessary educational credentials to qualify for a BACB, which can make getting a foot in the door in the OBM world an easy step forward!

Behavior Management Licensing Issues in OBM

The question of how closely related OBM is to applied behavior analysis is beginning to come up in the legal world as more and more states pass licensing laws for ABA providers.

Although generally aimed at healthcare practices, and designed to protect the public and provide insurance companies with a recognizable credential indicating the holder is a legitimate healthcare worker, some of the laws that are being passed regulating behavior analysis do not distinguish between providers working in a medical context versus those working in an organizational context.

Obtaining BCBA® certification is one way to hedge against any potential licensing issues, since most states will accept that certification as a core component of their licensing process. Joining a state-level ABA association will also keep you stay abreast of any developing enforcement efforts as regulators continue to refine their approach to licensing.

Additional Resources Related to Organizational Behavior Management

The OBM Network – Founded in 1982, this organization serves as a resource for both practitioners and students interested in entering the field.

The Journal of Organizational Behavior Management – The official journal of the OBM Network publishes studies and articles on the most current information and practices in OBM.

Behavioral Science in the 21st Century – A blog devoted to all elements of behavioral science, but with better coverage of OBM topics than most.

Behavior Analyst Certification Board – The national non-profit organization that sets standards for behavior analysis certification and practices.

Association of Professional Behavior Analysts – A national organization devoted to representing the interests of professional behavior analysts, including those practicing in OBM

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