The Relevance of I/O Psychology

A recent email I received asked why I so openly critique my own discipline. The answer to this is actually simple; because I’m passionate about psychology and psychology applied to work. If psychology is to be relevant to the world of work, it must first be honest with its self. Psychology has a huge role to play in society and this will only be achieved when we as a discipline grow up, stop fighting for commercial ground, and commit ourselves to furthering the discipline.

I’m not the first to say this and I believe there is a growing swell of committed academics, practitioners and “pracdemics” who share the same sentiment. With this in mind, it is time I turned the stage to my more esteemed colleagues who I think convey it better:

Cascio, W.F., and Aguinis, H. (2008) Research in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from 1963 to 2007: changes, choices, and trends. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 5, 1062-1081.

The authors conducted a content analysis of all articles published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology from January 1963 to May 2007 (N  5,780) to identify the relative attention devoted to each of 15 broad topical areas and 50 more specific subareas in the field of industrial and organizational (I–O) psychology. Results revealed that (a) some areas have become more (or less) popular over time, whereas others have not changed much, and (b) there are some lagged relationships between important societal issues that involve people and work settings (i.e., human-capital trends) and I–O psychology research that addresses them. Also, much I–O psychology research does not address human-capital trends. Extrapolating results from the past 45 years to the next decade suggests that the field of I–O psychology is not likely to become more visible or more relevant to society at large or to achieve the lofty goals it has set for itself unless researchers, practitioners, universities, and professional organizations implement significant changes. In the aggregate, the changes address the broad challenge of how to narrow the academic–practitioner divide.

From page 1074:
Our review showed that the vast majority of published I–O research is generated by academics. Palmer (2006) argued that a silent majority of academics advocate disinterest in practice to achieve scientific objectivity. Doing so ensures that their interests and values will not be subverted to those of management and that they will not become mere servants of those in positions of power (Baritz, 1960). To the extent that this is true, however, then one can argue, as do Tushman and O’Reilly (2007) that this self-imposed distance from practical concerns reduces the quality of our field’s research, undermines the external validity of our theories, and reduces the overall relevance of the data used to test ideas. Although there will always be a need for basic research that addresses important questions that may not be relevant to practitioners immediately (e.g., statistical, methodological, and psychometric research) or research that is stimulated by the simple desire to understand the psychology of people at work (Hulin, 2001; Rupp & Beal, 2007; Ryan, 2003), if the bulk of research in I–O psychology falls into that category, then the field will not have a major impact on public policy or on management practice.

Although there is a spectrum of applied research, Murphy and Saal (1990) emphasized that the scientist–practitioner model discourages both practice that has no scientific basis and research that has no clear implications for practice. Using the scientific method to conduct actionable research is consistent with this position (Aguinis, 1993). As long ago as 1965, Guion argued that there is a false dualism between knowledge generation and “getting things done.” He wrote, “while industrial psychology is indeed a professional field of practical endeavor, and while it does in fact offer much that is useful to managers and administrators, it is also a broadly significant body of knowledge that intrinsically deserves to grow” (Guion, 1965, p. 815). More recently, Zedeck and Goldstein (2000, p. 394) indicated that one of the implications of our adopting the scientist–practitioner model is that we are active in researching and resolving social issues and questions. In this regard, I/O psychologists should use the scientific method to develop research that is responsive to these issues and questions.

On the basis of our review, if we extrapolate past emphases in published research to the next 10 years, we are confronted with one compelling conclusion, namely, that I–O psychology will not be out front in influencing the debate on issues that are (or will be) of broad organizational and societal appeal. It will not produce a substantial body of research that will inform HR practitioners, senior managers, or outside stakeholders, such as funding agencies, public policymakers (including elected officials), or university administrators who control budgets. There is evidence indicating that most practitioners do not read JAP or PPsych on a regular basis (Rynes et al., 2002). We speculate that this may result from a perception of lack of relevance. If the published research is seen as relevant and useful, then there is a higher likelihood that practitioners will read it and that the research findings will affect their practices. After discussing some limitations of our study, our final section focuses on what we can do in the future to heighten the impact of I–O psychology research. ”

The corollary of this work is that the discipline is two-fold. If the scientist-practitioner gap remains a chasm, then the industry of I/O psychology will remain dominated by commercial interests at the expense of science. If the academics and standard setting bodies fail to openly critique practitioners and apply viable alternatives, they will continue to remain ineffective for forcing standards or quality change. All I can hope for and try to achieve is to personally, and through the companies I’m involved in, fight to make sure this is not the case and the discipline continues to be a truly practical science.


One thought on “The Relevance of I/O Psychology

  1. Richard N. Landers

    Part of the issue, I think, stems from what is perceived as valuable by each side. I am an academic, and I love doing applied research – but I have a hard time locating practitioners who are interested in letting me work with their organization to do any unless I can give them a specific, articulated proposition of added (dollar) value as a result of conducting that research. In the academy, the value comes from “knowing,” and I think that disconnect creates the perception that Cascio and Aguinis articulate: the need that “their interests and values will not be subverted to those of management.” I want to conduct research to help all organizations. Many practitioners, at least in my experience, typically only want to help their own.

    As a result of this, there is also an expectation from many practitioners that academics will work with the good of the company in mind, but this may not be the primary goal of the academic. When results come back that are negative, or cast the organization in a poor light, academics say, “Look, we have discovered something interesting! Let’s share it with the world so that all may learn from this mistake,” while the practitioner says, “Look, we’ve discovered something interesting! Now let’s fix it as quickly and quietly as possible.”

    By the way – I like your blog. Just came across it for the first time and am adding it to my amorphous list:


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