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Practice Perspectives: The Science–Practice Gap in
I-O Psychology: A Fish Bowl Exercise

Rob Silzer
HR Assessment & Development Inc./Baruch-CUNY



Rich Cober
Marriott International

The gap between science and practice has been an ongoing concern in the field of industrial-organizational psychology (see Cober, Silzer, & Erickson, 2009a, 2009b). A fishbowl exercise was held at the 2010 SIOP conference in Atlanta to have a productive discussion between researchers and practitioners on the science–practice gap (Silzer et al., 2010). The objectives of the session were:

  • To discuss the nature of the science–practice gap
  • To identify some recommendations on how to bridge the gap

The fishbowl session began with the following statement:

The science–practice gap in I-O psychology remains a critical area of concern to SIOP members. This fishbowl exercise brings together two teams of highly seasoned researchers and practitioners to explore the nature of the gap, discuss existing barriers and issues that may perpetuate a gap, and identify ways to better integrate our field into a collaborative team. The fishbowl process involves having two teams question each other in a search for common ground and workable steps for changing the future. The goal is to identify constructive recommendations for bridging the gap and bringing science and practice together.

Participants included:

Rob Silzer, HR Assessment & Development/Baruch-CUNY, Chair
Jim Farr, Pennsylvania State University
Milt Hakel, Bowling Green State University
Dick Jeanneret, Valtera
Lise Saari, New York University
Ed Salas, University of Central Florida
Rich Cober, Marriott International, Moderator

The session generated a productive and lively discussion on the science–practice gap. Because Ed Salas, the incoming SIOP president, has indicated an interest in addressing the science–practice gap as a priority for the coming year, we thought TIP readers would be interested in reading a summary of the discussion.1

1 The fishbowl discussion was documented during the session. The comments presented below are almost verbatim, after some minor word and grammar editing.

The Nature of the Science–Practice Gap

The researchers—Jim Farr and Ed Salas—made the following points regarding the nature of the science–practice gap in response to practitioner questions:

  • There is a divide with regard to valuing science and valuing practice.
  • Our colleagues in both areas can hear the same message and take away very different perceptions.
  • There have been discussions this semester in classes about the gaps. We try to assign readings from both sides and talk about HR interventions and the role of theory.
  • The gap is at least a perception, perhaps ill-formed, but there is no clear perspective of what the gap means or the implications for practice.
  • In classes we do not discuss the gap but rather try to train students to be scientist–practitioners. We believe in the model of using science to solve problems and letting the problems inform the science.
  • I-O is not alone. It is amazing how many professions have written about a gap in their field (including finance, health, software engineers).
  • The characteristics of a good team include common vision and objectives, specialized roles and responsibilities, good communication mechanisms to engage. When thinking about our profession these may help us address any gap.
  • We need to stop the divisive nature of the conversation. We don’t publicize enough the science and practice collaborative efforts—that is one of our missing communication links. We have done this best in our past when fighting off other parties. It could be that in the good times we don’t see the “enemy” and fight among ourselves.
  • We may see the gap differently. For example a question on the practice side is, “Why read JAP? Nothing in there is immediately applicable.” A question on the academic side is, “Why don’t practitioners spend enough time understanding and referencing theory in applications?” Each side has the high path—the other does not do it right.
  • The reason the gap has persisted is the ASA model. The two sides attract different people. The downside of ASA model is that over time there is more homogeneity within each group, which naturally develops over time.
  • Some of these differences get rooted in academic settings. Some institutions just want to produce scientists. At our institution for the first time we are discussing the issue, particularly since we moved to a PhD program.

The practitioners—Dick Jeanneret, Lise Saari and Rob Silzer—made the following points regarding the nature of the science–practice gap in response to researcher questions:

  • The gap for practitioners may in part be due to organizational decision makers who want solutions presented in nonscientific ways. There is pressure from leaders to quickly give an executive summary and move on.
  • The reward structures are different for researchers and practitioners. Writing articles for publication is not recognized or accepted as part of your job as a practitioner in most organizations and consulting firms, but it is critical to academic and researcher careers. In the past SIOP has primarily adopted the academic/researcher reward structure in recognizing and rewarding members.
  • The pressure for speed is very salient for practitioners. Organizations are not willing to wait for highly rigorous approaches; they want to take quick actions. This is a reality that confronts practitioners and affects the extent to which the output of their work would ever be something that is suitable and meet the standards for refereed publications.
  • Practitioners make choices and to the extent that scientist training is strong—you, as a practitioner, should be doing good science and following scientific principles. That is the unique capability that we bring to the market.
  • Practitioners come to the conference for a reason: to embrace science and to learn. They may not be able to apply it, but I think that they come to consume the science.
  • There are some issues on which we disagree—like licensure, the number of referred journal articles that are needed to be a SIOP Fellow, and so on. When we get into specifics, the division between practitioners and researchers manifests itself around the specific actions and the appropriateness of those actions.
  • From an application of scientific principles perspective, we do a pretty good job of this. We do not have as much a gap on knowledge as we do in activities.
  • On a recent SIOP survey there was pretty good agreement across different practitioner and researcher groups on whether science or practice was ahead in specific topic areas. This suggests that there is some shared understanding of both the practice and the research domain.
  • Some practitioners clearly do a better job staying up with research than others. Although some researchers do a better job of staying relevant in their research work. There is a continuum here in both groups.
  • There is still a dearth of research on a number of topics important to practitioners, and we simply want more consumable research to apply. Bring the science to us.

Recommendations to Bridge the Science–Practice Gap

The researchers—Jim Farr, Ed Salas and Milt Hakel—made the following points regarding recommendations to bridge the science–practice gap in response to practitioner questions:

  • In trying to bridge the gap, a lot goes back to our training programs. In our program we are doing a pretty good job producing both scientists and practitioners. It is important to have practicum programs that are designed to give experience and provide lessons on working with clients. For example:
    • We teach our students to translate findings to clients.
    • Perhaps hold a class where no I-O journals can be used to support recommendations.
    • Have a course on how to be a consultant and explicitly focus on getting them ready for consulting.
    • Encourage them to read the current business books so that we are grounded in what business folks read.
    • Arrange for each student in a seminar to talk with I-O practitioners about work motivations.
    • Create a positive student experience and deepen the learning environment.
    • Having practitioners come to talk to us about what they do is very important. Getting practitioners more involved in educational process is the key.
  • Practitioners could emphasize the scientific base of their work and point out how that impacts a program or a system.
  • We want the practitioners to value what we produce. JAP, Personnel Psychology, and other journals have a place; they inform us.
  • What if we took every JAP and Personnel Psychology article and said what this means for practitioners? They pretend to, but that is not so good right now. Our researchers have a hard time coming up with the relevance for practice.
  • If there are no practical implications to an article or research project, then that should be clearly stated. Some research does not have immediate practical implications, and there is a lot of practice that should be researched.
  • Many consultants say that they have file drawers filled with data, but the issue they face is effectively packaging the data together. What has kept SIOP interesting over time, to some extent, is that tension.

The practitioners—Dick Jeanneret, Lise Saari, and Rob Silzer—made the following points regarding recommendations to bridge the science–practice gap in response to researcher questions:

  • We need a superordinate goal. We should be insisting that presentations and papers involve both scientists and practitioners. We need to reward and recognize efforts to be together.
  • Practitioners need to take accountability for learning what is going on in the research world. On other hand, researchers could take more of a role in connecting their results to organizational work.
  • There needs to be a way to make research contributions more accessible. There is so much valuable research production, and it is very hard to keep up with it. There is more information and contributions than practitioners can absorb.
  • We have to do a better job of creating access to both research information and practice writings. There is no way for a practitioner to have online access to all of our journals, and that is a major issue. Often, one hears that academics or scientists have to “dumb it down” for practitioners, but that is not true. If SIOP.org could provide a means for getting access to the journals and practitioner writings (such at the SIOP books) electronically, that would go a long way to help the practitioners.
  • Dick Jeanneret did a little research and looked at participation in the SIOP Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice journal. He classified the first author of each article as either an academic or practitioner and then categorized the 18 focal articles as academic or practice based on the first author affiliation. (Generally multiple authors had the same affiliations but not always).
    • For the 12 academic articles (2/3 of all focal articles), there were commentary responses by 83 academics and only 16 practitioners. There were three academic focal articles that received no replies from practitioners, and there were four other focal academic articles that received just one practitioner reply. Thus, for more than half of the academic articles there was minimal or no practitioner involvement.
    • For the six practice articles (1/3 of all articles), 27 practitioners and 31 academics wrote commentaries.
    • In terms of percentages: Counting all focal article authors and commentary first authors only (175 entries), 72% were from academics. When the focal article was written by an academic, 84% of commentary replies were from academics; when the focal article is by a practitioner, 46% of the replies are from practitioners and 54% are from academics. All practice focal articles had multiple academic replies.
    • The broad subject matter of focal articles (for subjects with multiple entries in the journal) was categorized as selection/assessment–7; organizational issues–4; learning and development–3. The remaining four articles had subject matter that was only presented once in the journal (e.g., legal issues).
    • The IOP journal was intended to help bridge the gap. If journal participation is a measure of how well the bridge is working, then it is not doing as well as we would hope, given that the journal is drawing a lot more participation from academics.
    • Moreover, the academics are participating in more of the practitioner articles than are practitioners participating in academic articles. So we still are not seeing the practitioner participation that would be desired, even when the article is by a practitioner.
    • Despite this early tally on participation, IOP is a great idea and in some respects is bridging the gap by drawing more practitioner participation than might have been expected (i.e., perhaps compared to the participation rate for practitioners as authors of JAP or Personnel Psychology articles).
    • What we do not know is anything about the journal’s readership or the value received by those readers, which is the bottom line.
  • Maybe we should put in place different rewards so that we can work toward some common goal but in different ways and have different roles.

The session then evolved into a general discussion with contributions from the researchers, the practitioners, and the audience. Highlights from that discussion are listed below:

  • Could SIOP help to encourage collaboration by recognizing those graduate programs and nonacademic organizations that develop mutually beneficial relationships? Perhaps a different kind of reward structure is needed for recognizing collaboration.
  • There are also competitive advantage issues in practice. Many practitioners cannot publish technical reports because of company proprietary policies. Requiring peer-reviewed publications has created a very high hurdle for practitioners. What other ways can we recognize practitioner contributions to advancing the field? There has been some movement to reward both sides, and there is more to come. There has been some criterion modifications on how practitioners can be become Fellows, and there have been some increases in the number of practitioner Fellows in recent years.
  • Licensure is a very sensitive issue. Why do we have such diverse opinions on that topic? Licensure is a way of life and a legal requirement if you want to call yourself a psychologist and do such work in most states. If you don’t do that, then you can’t call yourself a psychologist and do psychological work. You cannot evade it by calling yourself a management consultant and doing psychological assessment. So we need to provide support to help members comply with the licensing laws.
    • The perspective to not support licensure means that we put ourselves at risk of violating the law.
    • Regarding the Model Licensure Act: APA is not licensing us; APA is just providing guidance to states to do a good job in structuring licensing requirements. Some in our profession have said that we should not support the MLA but support I-O being licensed.
    • Three of the current SIOP representatives to APA (all academics) have suggested to the APA Council that “the role of psychology be restricted to the provision of psychological counseling and psychotherapy.” Is this the new SIOP position? This view puts many practitioners in a very precarious position.
    • One related issue is the level of regulation on curriculum. Academics do not want to have an external body mandating what to teach and not teach via an accreditation process. This only brings all programs to the lowest common denominator level.
    • This issue is not going away. Certification bodies such as the ABPP board have dropped I-O psychology because so few practitioners in our area applied for the Diplomate. (ABPP now offers a slightly broader Business and Consulting Psychology ABPP—BCP-ABPP—which replaces the I-O ABPP.)
    • Having a license helps on the witness stand when asked if “I am licensed and whether there was an examination associated with getting licensed.”
    • Is it possible to hold the following two beliefs: (a) We do not need licensure to do what we do and serve the public good and (b) state boards have regulations; where they exist, there is no choice.
    • One issue where we get challenged on the public good is on individual assessment. What we do there could impact the mental health of an individual. When you look at what licensing boards are asking for, they are not asking for an accreditation in I-O but are asking whether you have a degree from a recognized institution.
  • Our gap today is small compared to other disciplines like medicine. Our gap would widen if we had PhD programs on one hand and on the other hand had PsyD programs that were diluted in terms of training associated with scientific rigor.
  • We do want variety; that is an evolutionary necessity. If you learn a set of practices for today, they will last only so long. We have to train our students to be adaptable and continuous learners.
  • It is striking that there is published research that has no implications for practice.
  • Part of the issue with research implications in our field’s published literature is the time period for application. This is the evolution of science. Sometimes there is no direct application immediately, but it is foundational. It is ok to do the primary research without direct implications. But clearly that should not be the only type of research done.
  • We did not hear a lot of ideas about how we showcase and recognize people that come together as scientists and practitioners. How do we make that spirit more relevant?
  • The gap is good. The gap is not so evident at the conference, rather it manifests itself when we go to organizations to apply theories and findings.
  • Both sides are facing gaps but perhaps of a different nature:
    • For practitioners, it is between science and the application in organizations.
    • For academics, it is between what academics are studying and the perceptions of other academic colleagues.
  • There is growing pressure that to be promoted to full professor, you should have funding from NSF or NIH. Money from organizations is considered “second-rate money.” The rating of grants and contracts creates problems for academics.
  • What are the economics that are driving things? Most people are going into practice because that is where the jobs are. What serves me well is training that is both practical and scientific. What is being done at the academic level to understand the implications of where jobs will be in the future?
  • This group (of panelists) is not representative of all the I-O psychologists; this group does actually talk back and forth.
  • Until the reward system changes, we will not get a vast movement around creating a single standard for training.
  • One other issue is communication: The press paragraphs that are being written on our work are not that articulate or appropriate for public consumption. Both scientists and practitioners need to do a better job of communicating to the public.

Conclusions

The fishbowl exercise emerged as a useful way to further discuss the science–practice gap. Other efforts in this area, such as the recent Practitioner Needs Study (Silzer, Cober, Erickson, & Robinson, 2008), previous TIP articles (Cober et al. 2009a, 2009b), and an earlier Science–Practice Integration Task Force (Avedon, Hollenbeck, Pearlman, Salas, & Silzer, 2006), have reviewed the key issues and made helpful recommendations. We have talked a lot about these issues over the years, so now is the time to act. We should all support Ed Salas’ efforts to take action to address this issue by bringing science and practice together.

It was clear, given the perspectives of the panelists and engaged audience members that there is a range of views on the science–practice gap. This heterogeneity of interests is a strength for our research, our practice, and our career paths. But it also challenges our ability to readily integrate our field’s perspective at any given point in time. As we look ahead, members are suggesting that we focus on the positive benefits of our science and our practice.

Many SIOP members have built reputations and careers on being seasoned practitioners whose rigorous methods and intellectual curiosity make them valuable contributors to other disciplines and strategic issues. Our contributions in practice are helping to change the face of human resources and I-O psychology and the perceptions of our value to senior executives.

Our researchers are publishing at tremendous rates and making significant contributions to our field and to other disciplines, including other areas of psychology, business management, and so forth. Our work is at the leading edge of a global economy, helping to drive selection, training, and performance management practices that make our world more integrated.

The fishbowl discussion provided insights from some of our leaders on where the gap stands today and suggestions on how we may leverage the gap tomorrow for even greater contributions. Our future contributions as I-O psychologists will be based on leveraging our diverse strengths as well as adapting to future needs.

The science–practice gap may cause some tension in our field because of the differences in the professional interests, needs, and activities of the two groups: researchers and practitioners. However, there should be broad agreement that the success of industrial-organizational psychology and the ongoing professional sustainability of each group rests on the value-added contributions of the other. We are two parts of a whole, and both parts are critical to our shared future.

References

     Avedon, M., Hollenbeck, G., Pearlman, K., Salas, E,. & Silzer, R. (2006). Science and practice integration recommendations. SIOP Strategic Task Force Plan, SIOP Strategic Retreat, Chicago.
     Cober, R. T., Silzer, R. F., & Erickson, A. R. (2009a). Science–practice gaps in industrial-organizational psychology: Part I: Member data and perspectives. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 47(1), 97–105.
     Cober, R. T., Silzer, R. F., & Erickson, A. R. (2009b). Science–practice gaps in industrial-organizational psychology: Part II: Perspectives of experienced I-O practitioners and researchers. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 47(2), 103–113.
     Silzer, R. F., Cober, R. T., Erickson, A. R., & Robinson, G. (2008). SIOP Practitioner Needs Survey: Final survey report. Bowling Green, OH: Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
     Silzer, R. F., Farr, J., Hakel, M., Jeanneret, P. R., Saari, L., Salas, E. et al. (2010, April). The Science–practice gap: A fishbowl exercise focused on changing the future. Exercise presented at the 25th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Atlanta, GA.