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TIP-TOPics

Andi Brinley, Jaime Durley, & Corey Muoz
University of Georgia

Chances are you are either just returning from a wonderful trip to Chicago for SIOP or you are beginning to wind down after another semester of school. For those of you who will be graduating in the next few months, here is an early congratulations for all of your hard work! We hope that this column has given you some of the tools and advice necessary to help make that transition from graduate school to your professional life a little bit easier. 

This issue dives into the world of internal consulting, which is often referred to as working in industry. Once again, we take you through the sections of our column that discuss how to develop as a practitioner, student, and researcher on your way to a position as an internal consultant. In addition, we give a general job description that describes the basic job duties and provides a glimpse into the everyday life of an internal I-O psychologist. Finally, we show how internal consultants jobs are similar and different from other paths I-O psychologists may take in our Career Connections section. 

All of the internal consultants we contacted have obtained their doctorates and are working for specific organizations that specialize in services and products other than consulting. Of course, the responsibilities of an individual consultant will vary depending on the structure of the organization in which she/he works and the needs of that organization. In fact, there is not even a distinct division between internal and external consulting. One respondent to our survey reported that while most of her work is internal, she performs some external consulting duties for the clients of her organization as well. 

Overall, internal consultants do not just answer to one person or department. They must interact with a broad range of individuals at all levels of the organization, from senior-level management to hourly employees. They may have frequent dealings with doctoral-level colleagues, human resource executives, senior business executives, line leaders, and local and international union leaders. Therefore, an internal consultants ability to communicate effectively with and consider the needs of employees at all levels is essential. 

In general, internal consultants perform much of the same tasks as that of external consultants (see Muoz, Brinley, & Durley, 2004). However, the true nature of their job depends on the type of positions they hold. Some consultants specialize in more industrial topics, such as designing and implementing performance appraisal systems and measuring human performance, creating and administering employee surveys, and conducting training. Other consultants cover areas that may be considered more organizational, such as change management, leadership development, and identifying organizational effectiveness needs in relation to business objectives. Other areas of consulting may include conducting 360 feedback, competency modeling, mentoring, succession planning, career development, coaching, and designing promotion and retention systems. 

With respect to thoroughness of their graduate education in preparing them for their current jobs, internal consultants do report much on-site learning. Although they claim their graduate training was essential for establishing rigorous thought processes, solid methodological foundations, and an understanding of basic job duties, it did not prepare them for certain aspects of the job. Issues such as managing relationships, facilitating meetings, and conducting focus groups had not been included in their graduate training but were expected of the consultants once they were hired. Also, understanding corporate policies, politics, and culture takes time and cannot be learned or taught in graduate school. Many of these issues are idiosyncratic to each organization and must be learned on-site.

The ability of internal consultants to conduct research highly depends on the organization for which they work. All the consultants report that time constrains them from doing more research, and beyond that, their autonomy in carrying out research varies, from self-selected projects that mutually benefit the company to projects that are wholly dictated by the company and/or the demands of the job. But, even those research opportunities that are determined by the organization offer some freedom for the consultant who usually has full oversight of the methodology utilized and the manner in which the research is carried out. Also, because the consultants are often the owners of certain aspects of HR (e.g., appraisal forms, tests, surveys), they do have some influence over how the research is handled and which topics are investigated. However, there is little tolerance for purely scientific pursuits. Organizations are typically more concerned with building political support for programs from higher level executives than establishing scientific validity, but a good consultant should be able to address both of these issues with an appropriate research agenda. 

Although all the consultants we contacted seemed very satisfied with their jobs and preferred it to alternative career paths, they did report several drawbacks to internal consulting. Some consultants are required to travel for work, which can wreak havoc on their workfamily balance. They report the need to manage this balance carefully and to set clear expectations with the company about their willingness to travel early in their tenure. Long workdays can also create conflict with ones personal life, and time constraints also may prevent a consultant from staying current with the literature. 

Another disadvantage to working as an internal consultant is their status as one of the crowd. This may compromise their reputation as an expert, and because they are integrated into the culture of the organization, they may lose their objectivity. Internal consultants must successfully navigate company culture while working to adapt it, goals which may seem conflicting at times. They are also more influenced by organizational politics, increasing their need to please many different people, which can be very challenging. Also, an internal consultant is typically involved in many different projects, so one has to multitask, be very organized, and manage time effectively. Finally, rapid fluctuations in the economy over the past few years have increased job instability and insecurity in all fields, even more so with consulting. 

In contrast, internal consultants report many advantages of their jobs. A major benefit is the ability to positively influence the working conditions of many people. They not only have the opportunity to design and implement organization-wide programs, but they also get to witness the effects of their interventions, which can be very gratifying. Internal consultants are also able to have a direct impact on the bottom line, even in large companies. The work is fun, challenging, and offers the ability to be creative. The nature of the work also varies, ranging from strategy and decision making to administration and project planning. Many internal consultants enjoy the opportunity to work with a diverse group of people. They also claim to have relatively low stress and are not usually required to travel much, depending on the job.

Developing the Student

Our panel offered advice about specific courses to take that would enhance consulting skills. To grasp the daily operations of an organization, basic business classes such as marketing, finance, accounting, strategy, and management fundamentals were recommended. The respondents further encouraged taking as many classes as possible in the business school as a supplement to your psychology curriculum, including courses like organizational design, program evaluation, and ethics. Organizations experience different challenges, thus learning about multiple organizational systems (e.g., selection, performance appraisal, talent planning, organization design, union-management relations) will make you exceptionally attractive to a variety of companies. The statistics and research methods that you obtain through program requirements will also prove essential. Other recommendations include fine-tuning presentation skills by taking a public speaking or coaching class and/or joining a Toastmasters group.

Outside of the classroom you can continue your education by perusing a few books and magazines that will aid in your understanding of internal consulting. Business bestseller lists can provide a useful starting point; these are the books that management usually reads. Keeping abreast of the literature and the popular terms of the average business employee will improve your communication and interaction in an organizational setting. An absolutely critical read is Flawless Consulting by Peter Block (1999). In addition to excellent consulting tips, this book also utilizes case studies to perfect your consulting skills and expertise. Texts on productivity and efficiency, such as Execution (Bossidy, Charan, & Burck, 2002) and Getting Things Done When You are Not in Charge (Bellman, 2001) can provide tips on how to deliver satisfactory results in todays demanding workplace. Additional bestsellers, such as Influence (Cialdini, 1993), Thinking such as the Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1994), and Good to Great (Collins, 2001), were noted as beneficial to an internal consultant. Newspapers and/or magazines, such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and trade journals, will also acquaint you with the lingo of the business world.

Developing the Researcher

If your desired career is internal consulting, there are certain ways to streamline your research to complement that path. The issues that you research should be directed toward applied topics that simultaneously advance I-O psychology while having practicality for multiple organizations. Apply theory to practical scenarios. Interacting with practitioners may help you find out how your theory might be applied. Once your data has been collected and analyzed, spend additional time on the discussion of your results to highlight how organizations can implement your findings into programs that would have an impact on their company.

Research directed at an organizational setting would benefit from the use of organizational data and real-world employees rather than undergraduate samples. You can obtain this data by helping local businesses, government agencies, or external consulting firms. Being proactive by networking with alumni can provide you with the necessary connections to acquire an internship, which can also provide an opportunity to collect organizational data.

It is extremely important to know how to balance your theory and ethics with the organizations needs. When conducting research for an organization, statistical rules and research methods are often relaxed, resulting in quick and dirty research due to time and economic constraints. Management in the private sector is frequently interested in financial figures, so extending your research to reflect the bottom line will increase your credibility.

Students interested in internal consulting should attend conferences to gain insight into current hot topics, network with other consultants in the field, and formulate and develop research ideas. Presenting at conferences or at local I-O meetings is important and helps develop the skills needed to pitch proposals and present findings to management. The Society for Human Resource Management has a particularly good conference for beginners in the field. And, as one of our respondents put it, to succeed in I-O you must be a player at SIOP. 

Developing the Practitioner

Not surprisingly, many of our experts recommended an internship as one of the best ways to gain applied, practitioner-related experience. Most of our experts explained that internships provide invaluable learning experiences to gain necessary skills that lead to success as an internal consultant. Our panel of experts strongly suggested seeking internships that offer experience dealing with clients in order to achieve interpersonal education that may be lacking in your graduate training. These internship opportunities are definitely preferable to those that focus on data entry and analysis. Furthermore, presentation skills and the ability to communicate technical information in everyday terms are especially crucial for internal consultants. In an organizational environment, there may be only one I-O psychologist employed in the company, and she/he may be surrounded by individuals with differing educational backgrounds. Therefore, the ability to translate I-O jargon into layperson language becomes very important. 

Searching for a job as an internal I-O consultant follows many of the strategies that we have mentioned in previous TIP-TOPics columns (see Muoz, Brinley, & Durley, 2004). For instance, our survey respondents mentioned that networking is vital for landing your dream job. This can be accomplished through professional conventions such as SIOP, alumni gatherings, and consulting projects that you may work on during graduate school. Another strategy mentioned was to really get involved with your local I-O professional society. Chances are if you live anywhere near a metropolitan area or if you have a general idea of the city or part of the country in which you would like to live after graduate school, there will be local professional societies for I-O psychologists. These groups usually have regular meetings, newsletters, and listings of local job openings. In addition, the job placement services that SIOP provides are beneficial in finding internships and job postings. More information regarding these services can be found at the SIOP Web site (www.siop.org). 

Another important issue to consider is whether to become a specialist or a generalist. While there was not consensus on this topic, these practitioners did highlight the benefits of each approach for their given professional situation. For example, some mentioned that becoming a specialist would be more advantageous because you would be able to hone your skills for a specific area and really become a champion or expert in that area (e.g., employee surveys, assessment, etc.). On the other hand, others mentioned that becoming a generalist was more important for an internal consultant because within an organization, you come across a variety of situations and handle many different problems. Furthermore, you can make a broader impact and potentially go much higher within your company by branching out and applying your I-O skills to multiple departments. There are benefits to both approaches and the circumstances of your job, responsibilities, and given organization will probably dictate which approach is most suitable for you. 

Career Connections

Many of you reading this know that you want a career in an applied setting, but you have no idea whether internal or external consulting would fit you the best. We asked our panel of experts in the field what made them choose the career path of internal consulting. An overwhelming answer was that the number one advantage to being an internal consultant was being able to recommend and implement new strategies and getting to stick around to see the results. Most of these psychologists had worked as external consultants before and enjoyed the increased freedom to dictate the details of the project. However, they were never around to see the lasting impact of their efforts. The ability for these psychologists to actually see their recommendations and programs become part of their organizational culture and impact the bottom line was a tremendous advantage of internal consulting. 

Another interesting point made by our experts was that it is fairly easy to move from an external consulting position to an internal one, and vice versa. Many of the same qualifications, skills, and abilities are required for both types of consulting positions. Once again, the main difference between the two is with internal consulting you are able to see the impact of your efforts. The similarities of these paths can make the decision to take either an internal or an external consulting position very difficult. Perhaps the best way to make an educated decision is to work in both types of settings. Gaining experience in both internal and external consulting is an excellent strategy in order to make an informed decision about which one is best for you when it comes time to take a full-time position. In addition, many external consulting companies require employees to work internally in order for them to gain experience with the ins and outs of organizational life before they are hired. 

Another career connectionthe transition from internal consulting to academiacan be achieved by keeping up-to-date with the literature as well as continuing your research. If you are interested in making this career shift down the road, you should present your ideas at conferences as well as consider publishing as an internal consultant. Though it may be more difficult given time constraints and the needs of your organization, be persistent and keep submitting to a wide range of journals. 

Interestingly, none of the consultants we contactedeither internal or externalhave sought licensure. This may be due to the extremely small sample we obtained. However, it may be the case that licensure is most important and relevant for independent consultants who do not work for a consulting firm or other organization. If you are considering consulting, we highly recommend contacting consultants at the location in which you wish to work in order to determine whether licensure is necessary and/or appropriate. 

In closing, our experts identified tips that would assist in the development of your knowledge, skills, and abilities as an internal consultant. While courses and business bestsellers will provide you with the theory of industrial operations as well as popular business jargon, they do not hold a candle to real-world experiences. Our respondents stressed the importance of being proactive in your education. Furthermore, seek out professors who also consult or network with alumni and local I-O professionals to gain additional opportunities. Their expertise is invaluable!

Thanks again to our panel of experts for providing such valuable information: Eden Alvarez-Backus (Sony Electronics, Inc.), Marilyn Blackburn (Lockheed Martin), Jeffrey Boyd (Georgia-Pacific Corporation), Robin Cohen (Avon Products), Scott Mondore (UPS), Mark Morris (JCPenny), Darby Settles (General Motors), Cheryl Toth (IBM Corporation), and Megan Verret (Yum! Brands). If you would like more information on any of these topics, please feel free to contact us: Andi Brinley 
(amtbrinley@aol.com), Jaime Durley (jdurley@uga.edu), and Corey Muoz, (cmunoz@uga.edu).

References

          Block, P. (2001). Flawless consulting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
     Bossidy, L., Charan, R., & Burck, C. (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
     Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York, NY: Morrow, William, & Co.
     Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
     Muoz, C., Brinley, A., & Durley, J. (2004). TIP-TOPics. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 41(3), 7379.
     Senge, P. M. (1994). Thinking such as the fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

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