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Practice Network: I-O Psychology.Com—The Internet and I-O Psychology

Michael M. Harris
University of Missouri_St. Louis

Imagine it is A.D. 5759. As you wake up, you reach for your freshly brewed cup of espresso and move over to your work station. "Greetings," calls out your assistant I.O.Syke. "Greetings to you," you reply. Your assistant continues: "You have a busy day scheduled today. Among today's items are interviews with finalists for the Global Webmaster position, an initial meeting of the Global Competencies Leadership Training Forum, and a meeting of the Global Business Strategy Force. In terms of the interviews, all three finalists have completed the tests and I have scored and analyzed the responses. Oh, by the way, as you probably know, the candidates completed three personality tests, two work samples, two cognitive ability tests, and two automated interviews. I have also compiled a list of contradictory statements (there were very few) and scored the interviews on various speech patterns. If there is any other measure you want, let me know."

Before I.O.Syke can continue, you say "Stop. The Training Forum, what role am I playing on that?" I.O.Syke smiles on the screen J and says "I was just about to get to that. Remember, I am not a human, so I have developed an objective system for predicting your preference order for information. Your role in the Training Forum is that of a `live presenter,' and so you will need to be on your Webcaster at 15:15 Global Standard Time. By the way, if you are traveling at this time, your new `Webframe' glasses are available for use now and they will enable you to drive your carplane while you interact with others."

Does the scenario above sound far-fetched? Thinking that it is as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series? Not really. Believe it or not, there are already products like the "Webframe" that are used by mechanics, for example, which enables them to examine blueprints over the Web while repairing equipment. And, various algorithms already in existence could probably do many of the things referred to above. In fact, I will go out on a limb and predict that 3,000 years from now, there will be new Internet technological innovations beyond our wildest dreams. So feel free to check back with me then!

This column is about the role and effect of the Internet (I include Intranet applications here, although for simplicity, I will only use the work "Internet") on I-O psychology. As everyone knows, the "experts" indicate that the Internet has the opportunity to change many aspects of the workplace, including how businesses operate, how information is shared, and other things. It seemed appropriate, then, to explore how the Internet might affect I-O psychology. Towards that end, I talked with five I-O psychologists. Their comments and my reactions follow next. The three primary questions I asked the I-O psychologists I talked with were:

1. How are you using the Internet currently?

2. How do you think you will be using the Internet in the future?

3. What effect do you think the Internet will have on I-O psychology?

How Are You Using the Internet Now?

I-O psychologists are using the Internet for a variety of purposes, ranging from basic communication with colleagues (e.g., via e-mail) to psychological assessments. Two other popular uses are finding information about vendors (via their web sites) and obtaining copies of papers and reports. As an example, I have found that EEOC's web site (www.eeoc.gov) is a very useful source of information on recent guidelines, number of cases filed with the EEOC, and other items of use. The University of Missouri-St. Louis, my employer, has done an excellent job of making library resources available on-line. For example, students and faculty have access to Lexus-Nexus, which has valuable information about legal decisions, legal news, and legal articles.

Another popular application that respondents discussed was the on-line administration of employee surveys. Among the advantages cited for Internet-based administration of employee surveys is the speed with which the information can be gathered and analyzed. A second major advantage cited for Internet-based employee surveys is greater acceptance and higher response rate by respondents, apparently because of the novelty and ease of responding. As was acknowledged, however, as this technique becomes more widely used, the response rate may drop and approach levels typical of the paper-and-pencil approach. The Internet-based employee survey was not without disadvantages, however. One respondent indicated that there were no cost savings yet and pointed to high infrastructure and maintenance costs. Other parties either have found or merely take it for granted that the costs will be lower. One result may be that customers will try to negotiate lower rates based on this assumption. Other possible disadvantages of Internet-based employee surveys include concern over the security of the information and limited employee access to computers. And, an interesting question that appears to be as yet unanswered is whether responses will differ for an Internet-based compared with a paper-and-pencil-based administration. Yes, there appears to be some potential for interesting research here as well! Finally, one respondent noted that it was easy to get too much data from an Internet-based survey and an important decision was what not to include on such a survey.

Somewhat surprisingly, it appeared that Internet-based psychological assessment was somewhat less frequently used. One respondent attributed that to concerns regarding controlling the environment in which the test was taken. Perhaps, given concerns about who the test-taker is, the Internet provides little advantage over a PC-administered test. In any case, my respondents spent far less time talking about psychological assessments than they did about employee surveys.

Most of the applications described above concern gathering information. There was also some discussion as to the use of the Internet as a means of disseminating information. One respondent described some developments in Internet-based training and development in his organization. At present, his organization was only providing a web site with some "tips" for managerial functions and tasks. The Internet component was viewed only as supplemental and live classes were considered essential for experiential learning. Incidentally, I will note that the University of Missouri-St. Louis has developed an on-line MBA program, but a critical component is the "live classroom" experience. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that the brick-and-mortar university/training classroom will persist for some time into the future!

One respondent discussed the role of the Internet as a way of disseminating results of a survey or other relevant HR indices (e.g., turnover data) and inducing people to act on this information. An interesting question, according to this respondent, was how can we use the Internet to get people to attend to key information? Does this take I-O psychologists back to consumer behavior theory? I think the answer is possibly yes, which takes us to other interesting questions, such as how the Internet might be used for organizational development and change. As an example, does the proliferation of information over the Internet and the availability of e-mail change organizational structures and processes? Again, I think the answer is probably "yes." Another respondent described an interesting application of the Internet to obtain a variety of documents, including governmental, financial, and industry reports on an organization and using this information to examine how the organization changes in terms of strategy, structure, and processes. As he observed, use of the Internet for this purpose may provide a longitudinal perspective on the organization.

In sum, the Internet is being used in a number of different, interesting ways by I-O psychologists. At the same time, the application of the Internet appears to be moving more slowly than I would have anticipated.

How Do You Think You Will be Using the Internet in the Future?

I received fewer and briefer answers to this question than I expected. I don't know if this was because I had already bored respondents too much by this point in the phone conversation, or more likely, because it seems pretty tough to predict just what Internet applications will be like in the future. In any case, I received two basic, interesting comments in reaction to this question:

The Internet will be used to enhance interpretability of information. For example, say an employee takes a battery of tests for career development purposes. An algorithm might be developed to lead the employee to relevant documents that explain what those scores mean, provide developmental advice, and then offer a menu of appropriate training modules.

The Internet will be used to integrate between different levels and different processes. One respondent described the use of the Internet for linking between the micro and macro levels of analysis. For example, psychological assessments, including 360-degree feedback, test information, and so forth, might be used to make individual decisions (e.g., promotions) and then combined across employees to make organizational level decisions (e.g., HRM planning). This seems to be a novel application of potentially great interest. In terms of different processes, information used in assessments made for hiring might then be used to develop developmental plans, training programs, and other I-O processes. Other examples abound, such as linking employee strengths and experiences to customer preferences and styles.

In sum, I think there are a number of interesting possible uses of the Internet to I-O psychology that as yet have been relatively unexplored.

What Effect Do You Think the Internet Will Have on I-O Psychology?

The answers ranged considerably regarding this question. One respondent indicated that he felt the Internet would have little impact because I-O psychologists are not intermediaries, rather we are direct providers of products and services. Unlike, for example, car dealers, our customers cannot simply bypass us and go directly to the car manufacturers. Others felt that the Internet would serve as a useful tool in the I-O psychologist's toolkit, but that the Internet was not going to fundamentally change I-O psychology. One concern raised was that some technology-oriented businesses might invade our turf by offering "user-friendly," high-tech products, such as tests, that would fail to meet our professional standards (e.g., validity). In other words, our reputation might become tarnished by I-O-like products created by other organizations.

One of my respondents felt quite differently about the potential impact of the Internet on I-O psychology. First, he felt that I-O psychologists need to have a much greater understanding of these new media forms and to incorporate them into the practice of I-O psychology. In support of this notion, a different respondent indicated that 2 years ago, his clients didn't seem to care whether an employee survey was administered in a paper-and-pencil form or Internet-based; today, this same client might require that it be administered over the Internet. It may be the case, then, that our customers will make increasing demands for the greater integration of the Internet with our services and products. This has implications for the training of I-O psychologists, a question that there is simply no space to cover in this column.

Second, this respondent made another, and I think very valuable, insight about the fundamental paradigm of I-O psychology. I-O Psychology has typically focused on people (e.g., SIOP's goal "is to promote human welfare through the various applications of psychology to all types of organizations providing goods and services"). But what if we view the paradigm of I-O psychology as "creating value" for organizations (which, I would guess, is the actual mission for most I-O practitioners)? If we say that "creating value" is the appropriate paradigm, then the Internet may become a far more important development (e.g., there may be circumstances where the Internet could replace people and I-O psychologists should be capable of understanding and using the Internet). Perhaps rather than a tool, then, the Internet serves as an important technology in its own right. Based on this perspective, we may need to learn a lot more about the Internet to enable us to recommend it where and when appropriate.


Based on my review of some I-O psychology sites as well as these discussions, I-O psychologists may want to give more thought to the implications of the Internet for the field. Those individuals interested in learning more about the Internet and I-O psychology should examine previous issues of TIP for articles on this topic. Jack Jones has written two books on the Internet, including one entitled Virtual HR: Human Resources Management in the Information Age. My guess is that there is a lot more to say about this topic. In light of the fact that I only talked with five I-O psychologists for this column, I would really like to hear more from my readers about how you are using the Internet and your thoughts for the future.

As always, please, continue to contact me with reactions to this column and topics you would like to see covered in the future. Please e-mail me at mharris@umsl.edu  call (314) 516-6280, fax (314) 516-6420, or snail mail me, Michael Harris, School of Business Administration, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63121. I look forward to hearing from you!

I would like to thank the following individuals for their help in preparing this column: Thomas Jeswald, PNC Bank; Jack Jones, NCS; Bill Macey, Personnel Research Associates; Jeff McHenry, Microsoft Corporation; Michael Olson, State Farm Insurance.

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