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Changing Places in a Small World

Natalie Allen
The University of Western Ontario

Kathlyn Wilson is the Changing Places columnist in this issue of TIP. As you will see, Kathlyns route to Delaware State University was not a direct one and involved life on three continents, a few moves back and forth across the Atlantic, and considerable multinational consultancy experience. In what follows, Kathlyn describes her work experiences on both sides of the ocean highlighting both similarities and differences. 

Complementary International Work Experiences

Kathlyn Wilson
Delaware State University

Where and when was your IWE?
My experience is a little different from those that have been shared so far, in that I am from England, was trained in the U.S., and have worked for several years in the UK. I am not sure which perspective to use in describing my experience: a SIOP member in the U.S. who has worked in the UK or a SIOP member from England who was trained in the U.S. To make a long (and possibly long-winded) story short, I am from England and did my graduate studies (up to ABD) at The Ohio State University. I returned to England from 1987 to 1999 where I worked as a consultant and recently returned to the U.S. to finish the PhD and embark upon an academic career on this side of the Atlantic. 

What motivated you to choose those places?
Well, I had no say in my place of birth, which was England! I came to the U.S. for my studies because my parents were transferred here. It was one of several significant moves in my life. I also lived in Nigeria and Uganda for several years while growing up. This international background has given me practical experience of operating in different cultures. It is actually what sparked my interest in psychology. I am back in the U.S. because although I would not trade my consulting experience, I had to finish my PhD which, despite all my good intentions, was impossible for me to do while consulting in England.

Tell us something about what you worked on.
Here in the States I completed undergraduate and graduate degrees with their concomitant challenges. I had extremely valuable internship experiences while in graduate school. Particularly noteworthy are one with the Civil Service Commission in Columbus, Ohio and another as a personnel research intern at IBM in Armonk, New York. My internships constituted my relevant U.S. work experience. In England, I worked with the Hay Group in London and later with Psychology at Work, which was the consulting arm of the University of Londons Institute of Psychiatry. My work experience in the UK was in the areas of competency definition, designing and implementing assessment centers (and the occasional development center), and organization research such as values and culture as inputs to organization change projects. A significant number of the assessment center projects were part of organizational restructuring. 

I was also part of a team that developed a multisource feedback system for an international investment bank. It was interesting, to say the least, to see how staff in different parts of Europe and Asia reacted to implementation of the system. We found that some Asian countries were reluctant to give upward feedback and the system had to be adapted in those countries. Upward feedback had to be excluded. Clients were primarily large British multinationals, although I also worked with a couple of U.S. clientsFord Motor Company and Esso (Exxon). 

Another key project was my appointment as expert consultant to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in a formal investigation of selection in a government organization. I also did some commissioned research for the CRE (the first of its kind) that looked at the impact of appraisal systems on ethnic minorities in three large government departments. The CRE was in the process of developing guidelines for employers. One challenge was the travel involved. I worked with clients in countries that included Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary, Switzerland (Geneva, Zurich, Lucerne), Holland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. At least those are the ones that come to mind at the moment. I remember I once found that I had traveled to three countries in 2 days. It was pretty exhausting at times. 

Speaking as an I-O psychologist, what did you get out of the experience?
On a personal level, certainly the fact that I have lived on three continents has shaped my personal development. I became aware of not just differences but similarities across cultures at an early age. I have become more flexible in my interactions with different groups and perhaps more accepting of differences and the right to be different. 

On the whole, training in the U.S. and practicing in the UK were complementary experiences and resulted in a broader perspective of our practice. There were, undeniably, frustrations as a student with the apparent belief that if it works here, it works elsewhere. Although this is changing since my early days in graduate school, a lot of our theory really does not take into account cultural differences. Where it does, still there is a focus on economies of interest rather than truly universal theory. In the 1980s it was Japan, more recently, China. In an attempt to broaden my training, I added an international element by doing a minor in international business. 

Back in England, as a consultant, my concerns about the potential differences in practice turned out to be well founded. I learned that I-O is not I-O by any other name. Despite the arguable language similarity between the UK and U.S. (extent of differences would vary across countries in the UK), there are cultural differences. There are differences in values, for example, that would impact how certain HR processes might be implemented. One basic difference is the value of leisure in both societies. Leisure is more important in the UK than in the U.S. Standard annual holiday (vacation) time is around 5 weeks whereas in the U.S. it is around 2 weeks. Add to that an ethos in the U.S. that truly motivated workers do not take their vacation time. In Britain, people who can afford to travel do so, taking one to two-week holidays abroad at a time. Somebody somewhere once said that in the UK people work to live whereas in the U.S. people live to work. This has been my experience. 

I also learned very quickly that knowing how to address a client problem in theory was the relatively easy part. The consulting process was a challenge, and this was more challenging in some cultures than others. One advantage of my U.S. training was being trained in a litigious environment where a great deal of HR policy and procedure is well defined and prescriptive in comparison to other countries. In my experience, UK clients who were concerned about representation of Britains different ethnic groups at all levels of the organization saw this U.S. experience as an advantage. I know that the CRE, for example, considered the ability to apply this U.S.-gained knowledge in a different context to be an advantage. Because of my work with the CRE, I got calls from organizations asking me to help with selection processes, particularly during restructuring or, dare I say, downsizing.

What were the best and worst aspects of the IWE?
The best part of my U.S. experience was the strong training at the graduate level and making friends and professional contacts. The difficult part was leaving extended family in England and, although I had done it before, leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar. Similarly, the best part of my UK work was the invaluable experience, particularly practicing across countries and cultures; whereas the worst aspect was leaving my parents who were now settled in the U.S., friends (although a few visited me in England), and starting a professional career in one country when all of my professional contacts were in another. Finishing my degree and starting an academic career in the U.S. has now meant leaving the professional network I have developed while consulting. I am working at maintaining contacts and getting involved in commissioned research of the nature I was involved in while in England.

What general (or specific) advice would you give to SIOP members interested in IWEs?
In terms of specific advice, look for opportunities for visiting positions abroad. If your university has a partnership with a foreign institution, arrange to go as a visiting scholar. There are also research institutions in other countries that would welcome contributions from American researchers. In the UK, the Runnymede Trust, for example, has established a network of freelance research associates. These individuals are contracted to do independent research on different aspects of race relations in employment and other areas. This could provide an opportunity for collaborative, short-term work with UK researchers. More generally, in choosing a country for your IWE, perhaps be a little daring. Select a country that is quite different from home. Be open to actually living in a different world. Experiencing different cultures, ethnic groups, and races raises questions not just about the generalizability of our theories but their application in different parts of the world. Go abroad with an open mind, which is actually a lot easier said than done.

Any other thoughts, observations?
It may seem daunting, but there is no substitute for experiencing the world at large. It is one thing to visit other countries and quite another to live in a different culture for an extended period of time. I was surprised when I initially came to the States at how little people knew of other parts of the world. How the terms chips rather than french fries or crisps rather than potato chips meant nothing to them; or that I was expected to be familiar with popular American television programs or personalities. I had to learn a new language, which one does in moving to a different country, but I was surprised at the general lack of exposure to other cultures and the little knowledge of world geography. Nigeria and Uganda may easily have been in another solar system and even now one rarely hears African countries mentioned by name. Even in our textbooks, there is usually a general reference to Africa rather than a recognition of the many countries on that continent and the fact that they are actually very different from one another. They cannot easily be lumped together any more than we can lump England and Austria together in discussing Europe. In a recent article by a well-known author, West Africa was listed under countries in which data had been collected. Exposure to a broad variety of cultures can only serve to broaden our perspective and ultimately improve our science and practice. Finally, in considering my experience as a whole, what stands out is the fact that the primary language in the four countries in which I have lived was English (albeit different variations). It would be beneficial to broaden my own international experience by working in a non-English speaking country.

Dr. Kathlyn Wilson received her PhD in 2003 from The Ohio State University. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Delaware State University and can be contacted at kwilson@desu.edu.

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