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Global Forum:  
Going Global:  Opportunities and Threats for I-O Psychology

Michael M. Harris
University of MissouriSt. Louis

Globalization of the workplace is no longer a trend; it is a clich. I propose that globalization will offer new opportunities for, as well as threats to, I-O psychology. Furthermore, I contend that I-O psychology remains largely a North American field, despite the fact that there are good scholars and practitioners around the world and growing interest in international research in I-O journals.

In the remainder of this column, I address new opportunities for I-O psychology, such as helping facilitate global alliances between different organizations. I also address new challenges, such as the possible effects of offshoring on I-O psychology. I conclude with several recommendations for I-O psychologists. 

New Opportunities

The globalization of the workplace will place new demands on employees to develop their global competencies. In the past, employees were sometimes sent as expatriates, or expats, to acquire new competencies. I-O psychologists have the opportunity to become more involved in deciding whom to choose as an expat and in preparing expats for their assignments. My impression, however, is that to date, I-O psychologists have not played a major role in these activities, despite the fact that we are experts in selection, training, and related areas. This is disappointing, particularly because surveys suggest that although there are fewer traditional expats (i.e., people who move to another country for a period of several years), there are new models for expat assignments, including virtual expat assignments, where employees continue to live in their home country and interact through technology and brief visits with facilities in another country. My hope would be that as the expat role becomes increasingly complex there will be greater need for I-O psychologists to assist in selecting and preparing expats for their assignments. 

Not all employees will have expat assignments, of course. However, as more organizations develop overseas alliances and partnerships, employees will increasingly interact with individuals from different cultures. Selection and training for these interactions will become more important, providing opportunities for I-O psychologists to become involved. 

Finally, as more organizations develop and participate in global alliances, partnerships, and even mergers, I-O psychologists will be needed to facilitate organizational change. Given the many cultural differences that may exist between companies from different countries, I-O psychologists should be able to play a significant role in facilitating such relationships. 

Now that I have outlined some global issues that might require greater involvement by I-O psychologists, I offer some interesting practical questions that are raised by these issues.

1. What competencies are needed to be successful in a cross-cultural environment? I have seen various different lists of competencies that are related to cross-cultural competency, but one set that especially appeals to me includes such dimensions as rapport building and listening orientation. Determining the relevant competencies will be important in selecting and training managers to be effective in cross-cultural interactions. Beyond work-related competencies, there is a large body of research on other factors, such as family adjustment, that affect success of expats. This literature may also be helpful in identifying relevant factors for selection and training.

2. What kinds of learning experiences are best suited for developing managers cross-cultural skills? With a little bit of thought, one can generate a range of potential activities, including mentoring someone from another culture to assisting in opening a facility in another country (e.g., choosing employees, designing compensation programs). I-O psychologists can make a valuable contribution by developing a comprehensive list of developmental activities. 

3. How generalizable are I-O psychology tools and methods? An important question is whether our practices (e.g., tests) are generalizable to all cultures or whether there are important differences. Although there is a slowly emerging literature as to whether tests that are valid in North America are likely to be valid in other cultures, much more work needs to be done for these and other practices. There will be, I expect, a variety of differences in how I-O psychological practices generalize. There are certainly cultural differences in personnel practices. At the simplest level, basic practices differ from country to country. Graphology is apparently still popular in parts of Europe, for example, but in the U.S., most people would be extremely reluctant to use this tool for hiring. 

4. How can organizational culture be changed to support cross-cultural skills? A relatively recent finding is that repatriation of expats (i.e., when employees sent on an overseas assignment return to the home country) is problematic and repatriates often leave the organization shortly afterwards (one source reported that 2050% of expats resign within a year of returning). Although there are several reasons for the problems encountered by repatriates, one problem appears to be a general lack of organizational support for cross-cultural skills and experiences. I-O psychologists may be able to help organizations change, such that repatriates are more successfully transitioned back to their home offices. 

In sum, I-O psychologists have much that they can contribute to a global workplace. Indeed, I would predict that if organizations were more familiar with our capabilities, there would be much global demand for our expertise. I suspect that although many U.S. organizations are unfamiliar with I-O psychology, companies in other countries are even less familiar with what we have to offer!

New Challenges

I foresee two challenges to my otherwise optimistic description of opportunities for I-O psychologists in a global workplace. One major challenge is that I-O psychologists may not be prepared to deal with a global workplace. As noted above, I believe that our field is largely based on North American research and practice, and I-O psychologists may be ill prepared to address cultural differences. Furthermore, I-O psychologists may be perceived as not having the relevant experience and skills for working in culturally diverse settings. Of course, this means that I-O psychologists should develop the necessary skills and experiences and must be able to prove their worth in this regard. 

The second challenge is the offshoring of I-O psychology. Offshoring in general has been the focus of a great deal of attention in the popular media and has sparked a good amount of controversy in some circles. The range of occupations that is being offshored seems to have expanded beyond customer services, computer programming, and manufacturing. Tax work, medical-related services (e.g., interpreting laboratory test results), and legal work are among the tasks that are now being offshored, at least on a trial basis. It would seem to me that many I-O activities could be easily offshored, including literature searches, data collection, data analysis, software development, and report writing.

You might ask, whats wrong with I-O psychologists from other countries doing the work of I-O psychologists from North America or other countries? Nothing, really, unless you are an I-O psychologist losing your job to someone else. I suspect, however, that the actual threat is that a good deal of this work (e.g., data analysis, literature search, report writing) may be given to non-I-O psychologists. Of course, I am not suggesting that I-O psychologists in the U.S. will be completely supplanted by others from the rest of the world. A successful I-O psychologist must have good interpersonal skills and customer contact is very important. Face-to-face interaction is likely to remain important, at least in initial contacts with customers, and is particularly important for building trust. Ultimately, the ability to offshore some of our work may simply mean that our roles as I-O psychologists will change, enabling us to play a more strategic role than in the past. 

In sum, although I believe that globalization offers many new opportunities for I-O psychology, there are some important challenges that must be met as well. 

Implications for I-O Psychologists

Based on the opportunities and challenges described above, here are some likely implications for I-O psychologists.

1. Greater cross-cultural training will be valuable. I have not conducted a survey, but I would bet that few I-O psychology PhD or masters programs offer a course in cross-cultural issues. Students will probably need to go to other departments (e.g., anthropology or business) to take such courses. I-O psychologists who have completed their formal education may be able to locate a seminar (e.g., SIOP preconference workshop) or take a course at a local university on cross-cultural issues. There are various books available; my favorite is the Handbook of Intercultural Training (by Sage Publications), which provides a good theoretical and conceptual background to cross-cultural training. 

2. Overseas experience is recommended. I recommend that I-O psychologists find opportunities to travel overseas and experience life in other countries. This might be part of a company-sponsored opportunity or even a vacation. There may be brief volunteer opportunities in other countries, where not only will you have the chance to help other people, but you may gain valuable cross-cultural experience, as well as new personal networks. As noted above, there are many different developmental experiences that can provide cross-cultural experience; I-O psychologists should consider these opportunities to advance their own careers.

3. Study the political/legal environment of different countries. Especially when it comes to laws, I think people tend to have a difficult time thinking from the perspective of a different country. Employment laws, for example, can differ widely from country to country. In the testing area, the European Union (EU) has a major law that affects the storage and privacy of information gathered from job applicants. I-O psychologists operating with EU countries need to become familiar with these and similar laws to avoid violations. 

Interestingly, at the 2005 SIOP conference, I participated in a panel that addressed test security and copyright issues. Among the things I learned was that I-O psychologists need to be careful about violating copyright laws when it comes to test usage. One panelist gave an example of a company in another country that had merely translated an existing test into their native language, thinking that this was a new test that they could use. According to the panelist, translating an existing test into another language does not nullify the original copyright. I-O psychologists need to be extremely careful, then, in how they use existing materials. This is just one example of the many issues that may arise when acting in a global capacity.

On a personal note, I have become far more involved in international I-O psychology research and collaboration in the last few years and have come to particularly enjoy the global contacts I have developed. Not only is the related travel a good learning experience, but I have found that it has expanded my understanding of world politics and issues. I have also had the opportunity to develop lasting friendships with people in our field that I greatly value. 


In conclusion, I believe that in order for our field to remain relevant, we must collectively become far more international in our outlook and exposure. There are many ways to do this, both on an individual and collective basis. Ultimately, when our annual SIOP conference is held in a country other than the U.S. or Canada, we will know that our field has become far more global. I think that event will reflect a significant change in I-O psychology. 

Please send me comments and reactions to this column (mharris@umsl.edu). If there are enough responses, I will publish your comments (specify if you wish your comment to be anonymous or not) with my reactions. I look forward to hearing from you!

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