the Horizon: Is There Really
Anything New Under the I-O Sun?
Eastern Connecticut State University
The intent of this column in TIP is to cover whats hot in I-O and although I could go on and on about what I think is hot, I decided to ask some friends. I did an entirely unscientific survey of friends and colleagues in the I-O profession. Some are in academic positions, others work for large corporations, while others work in smaller consulting settings. The idea was to get a broad range of perspectives to shed some light on the question: What do you think is the most important new development in the field of I-O psychology?
Although journal editors might have trouble with the representativeness of my sample, Im happy to report that the responses really do seem to mirror what folks in our little world are thinking about. I will freely admit that some key areas of innovation will inevitably be left out of this discussion, but Ive chosen responses that are indicative of the direction in which I-O psychology is headed. Some respondents were honest enough to say that they really had no idea what was new in the field of I-O, so I guess a column like this one that discusses new developments in the field is really needed. Anyway, heres what folks had to say.
The first telling insight I gathered from the responses is that as much as we relish our geek-hood, we hold some deep-seated guilt about it as well. When respondents commented on technological or statistically based innovations, they often prefaced their comments with statements like I hate to say it, but or a self-effacing consider the source. I like to think that Im comfortable with my geek-hood, but I also know when to revel in it
(SIOP events) and when to turn it off (nearly any other social situation). Still, we cant deny that technological and statistical innovations are driving some of the new directions in our field.
Lets first consider some of the recent technological advances. One respondent commented: Sure, Web-enabled stuff (surveys, selection tests, etc.) are new technological developments, but they arent new forms of I-O practice. This statement does beg the question, then, of whether or not the technology has changed inherently what we do or has just provided a new envelope in which to deliver it. Another respondent mentioned that e-learning, or how you can take everything we do as I-O folk and put it on the Webhas added importance today. This second respondent added that as an international company, the Web-based opportunities for them have been particularly important. Both respondents make important points. For some in our field, the Internet has opened new avenues for doing business. Collecting survey data via the Web typically expedites the process and makes data entry often a thing of the past. The Web-based selection systems that are now available have also opened up the recruiting process and facilitated the screening process. The opportunities to use Web-based feedback systems have also changed the performance appraisal process for many companies. Unfortunately, some practitioners have latched onto the Web-based revolution to simply repackage their existing tools without taking full advantage of the reach that the Internet truly provides.
The wider availability (or at least the more regular use) of statistical tools among I-O psychologists has had similar effects. One respondent specifically mentioned hierarchical linear modeling and/or structural equation modeling stating, Im a big believer in the statistical tools available being really instrumental in our ability to better model the actual complexity of phenomena that we study. She continued with a comment that was consistent with the previous discussion of technological innovations. Of course, you could take that [advanced statistical tools] a step further and say that increased personal computing power is what makes the advances in statistical tools possible or practical in application. The wider use of various statistical modeling procedures has clearly opened doors for I-O psychologists to explore more complex topics and to describe more accurately a wide variety of phenomena.
Another set of respondents took a very different angle in responding to my question. In different ways they all addressed the rediscovery by the field of I-O that we actually deal with people at work! At times we tend to get wrapped up in data, statistics, and references and lose sight of the fact that those data points came from individuals trying to make their way through the work-a-day world. Its a pendulum that has been swinging back and forth throughout the history of our field. One respondent summed it up nicely by stating that the most important new development in I-O is the re-discovery of worker well-being. We are paying attention to quality of work life issues again, rather than simply being the servants of power. The optimist in me says it is because we are recognizing that I-O psychology is the psychology of work (generally defined), but the realist says it is because management wants new ways to recruit and retain talent.
Others viewed new ways to recruit and retain talent as an element in another important trend. Specifically, one respondent felt the most important recent development in I-O is the way attention has been turned toward applicant attraction (i.e., applicant judgments of organizational attractiveness) and applicant reactions to selection procedures. Very little research before 1990 had anything to say about these issues, whereas researchers now seem to recognize that applicants are as much customers of recruitment/selection processes as they are anything else. Another respondent noted the renewed interest in employer branding (i.e., the need to sell your company to current and future employees) as another outgrowth of the growing interest in the individuals who are on the other end of HR processes and policies. Although I dont see a full-blown Workplace Humanism movement at work, I tend to agree with the more optimistic perspective that companies have begun to acknowledge more directly the human side of their human resources.
A few other respondents commented on a related trend, the attention being drawn recently to emotional intelligence, emotions in the workplace, and affective events theory. As one of them commented, There have been several books and special issues devoted to the regulation and display of emotions and emotional labor, as well as a general emphasis on what emotions and affective states are. I dont know if I think this emphasis is getting us very far currently (primarily because of poor measurement issues and construct confusion, in my opinion), but I do like the focus back on the employee as a person who experiences and alters ones environment. Im sure that greater attention will spur on more measurement work, which will in turn engage additional research on the topic.
The final two respondents that I would like to quote each mentioned issues that bear directly on the ability of our field to enhance its relevance to the companies that we work with and for. One of my more clinically inclined friends (and I mean that as a compliment) felt that the recent work on situational judgment is welcome and overdue. He mentioned that
During my 9 years of managerial assessment work in a wide variety of organizations, it has been my repeated experience that judgment is a primary factor in differentiating high performing managers from average and low performing managers. Yet specific and innovative ways to measure judgment related to the business world seem scarce. Judgments importance is especially salient at executive levels of an organization. Drive, aggressiveness, and social skills get most executives into their jobs. Judgment leads executives to success once they are in their jobs. I believe judgment is substantially distinct from other cognitive skills and more important. From my current vantage point, we need to continue to hone the operational definition of judgment and continue differentiating different types of judgment. We need to deepen our understanding of the processes and traits associated with successful judgment, especially in business contexts. In this way, we can do a better job of integrating psychology into what really goes on in most organizations.
The second person felt that
The most important new development is linkage research (i.e., linking soft social science data from surveys and other methods to hard business performance metrics like productivity, turnover, profitability, etc.). I think this is the most important because it is the crux of what will determine the relevance of I-O in organizations. Specifically, if we as practitioners cannot demonstrate impact on measures that organization leadership perceives to be the most important, we will have diminished impact and a diminished role in organizations going forward.
I honestly feel that these last two points get to the heart of the matter. If we as a field of psychology do not stay current and active in creating the new developments that impact the world of business, we wont be around much longer. From the responses above it seems apparent that we are making changes, using new tools, and exploring new areas for that express purpose: to contribute to the world of business and perhaps more importantly to the individuals that inhabit that world. Even though we are a little guilty about our geek-hood, I have to believe that weve been using the tools of our trade to make theoretical and practical advances that truly have improved the world you and I inhabit as employees.
Im happy to play my part in maintaining the dialogue of whats new in the field of I-O psychology. If you have ideas for future columns or would like to comment about this column, please feel free to contact me at
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