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Trends and Issues in I-O Psychology: 
A Glimpse into the Crystal Ball 

Michael M. Harris
University of MissouriSt. Louis

As the editorial board of TIP changes, and I rush to figure out what to write about next, it seems fitting to think about changes affecting our field. After all, in many ways, the world moves faster than ever before. Just less than 1 year ago, we were all amazed about how much the economy continued to grow, how tight the labor market was, and many were wondering whether there was a new business paradigm. In what seemed to be an incredibly brief amount of the time, the Net bubble burst, the stock market slumped, and the economy slipped. At the same time, who would have guessed that it would take so long for our next president to have been decided?

A further reason for writing about coming changes in our field is that it may serve as an impetus for conducting HRM planning processes. Although I suspect that relatively few organizations conduct much in the way of serious HRM planning (Readers: Do you have a different experience in this regard?), I believe that HRM planning activities deserve greater emphasis (In fact, I read recently about a religious organization using scenario planning to help plan for the future; to learn more about this technique go to www.marin.cc.ca.us/scenario/what_is.htm) and hope that I-O psychologists become more involved in this important activity.

With this in mind, I turned to some practitioners and asked the following questions:

  • What will be the key new and emerging topics that I-O will address in the next 5 years?
  • How has I-O changed over the years since you have been a practicing professional?
  • What are the key challenges to I-O practitioners over the next 5 years?
  • What suggestions do you have for I-O psychologists who are just beginning their careers?

You should note that, quite accidentally, I picked I-O practitioners who had received their PhD in 4 different time periods, namely, the 1970s, the 1980s, the early 1990s, and the late 1990s. Their responses are summarized next. 

What will be the key new and emerging topics that I-O will address in the next 5 years?

In terms of this question, three of my four respondents explicitly mentioned the use of technology in I-O psychology, particularly in connection with traditional I-O tasks, such as job analysis, testing, performance management, and learning. Despite the burst Net bubble, the use of Web-based assessments may be growing in our field, rather than shrinking. At the same time, there was some acknowledgment by two of my respondents that privacy issues may become a greater concern to I-O psychologists. It has been pointed out in other places that all it might take is one or two well-publicized incidents involving the accidental release of unauthorized information over the Internet for employees to become highly suspicious of Web-based I-O tools.

A second theme that was mentioned in one way or another by all four of my respondents was recruitment/retention issues, or to use a term that is becoming increasingly popular in the HR world, talent management. Talent management implies an entire cycle of activities, beginning with recruitment and continuing with retention, to attract, develop, and retain valued employees. One of my respondents, for example, noted that performance management systems are increasingly being used for developmental purposes, as a means of retaining key [employees]. When you think about this for a minute, it is noteworthy that I-O psychologists have a very different perspective on this topic. First, we tend to focus on selection, with the implicit assumption that there is a large pool of applicants to choose from. Second, I-O psychology has traditionally focused on turnover. While a huge literature has developed, it may behoove us to also study why some people stay when they have the option of leaving; perhaps there will be a different set of predictors for those top performers in widely sought fields. Third, and I believe it is endemic to the field, I-O psychology tends to perceive these as independent and distinct issues, when in fact, I believe they may be closely related processes.

In addition to these two themes, respondents mentioned several others, including emotional intelligence, worklife balance issues, licensure, and overlap between disciplines in psychology (e.g., clinical and counseling areas moving into traditional I-O areas). 

How has I-O changed over the years since you have been a practicing professional? This question produced some rather interesting comments. Recall that each of my respondents received their PhD at a different point in time, and their responses may reflect some of those differences. Indeed, the answers I received reflect a mix of positive, neutral, and even somewhat negative reflections on the changing practice of I-O psychology. Ill start with what I consider positive changes, then move to the neutral changes, and conclude with what I perceive as the negative changes (well, they say that the carnivores meat is the vegetarians poison, so I am a little cautious in judging the relative goodness or badness of them!). With that legality out of the way, there were probably three changes that I would characterize as quite positive:

  • A greater awareness among organizations of the contribution that I-O psychology can make
  • Less of a barrier between the I and the O of I-O psychology
  • Reduced estrangement between business faculty and I-O departments

You will probably agree (though some might not, I suppose) that all three of these are positive trends. There were, not surprisingly, a number of what I would call neutral trends, though one could easily make an argument that some of these are quite positive or even negative trends, depending on your perspective! These trends included:

  • Greater government regulation in terms of personnel selection (e.g., more laws)
  • The growing presence of I-O consulting firms on a worldwide basis
  • The potential for I-O psychologists to become more involved in organizational mergers and buyouts

Two rather negative changes were noted as well. One was a perception that there was a decreasing rigor in I-O psychology and greater emphasis on marketability of I-O psychology programs. Another respondent echoed a similar concern when answering the question of future challenges, by stating the need to uphold basic principles despite pressures to cut costs. So this may be a more widespread problem for I-O psychologists than I would have expected. What do you, the reader, think? Is there more pressure on I-O psychologists to sacrifice quality for the sake of selling products/services? I would be eager to hear your thoughts.

Second, it was observed that I-O psychologists are more transient in their jobs and roles. While this respondent also pointed out that this reflects general work trends, it would seem that because our work is a support function, rather than a key function, we may not always be considered central to the organization. That being the case, I would expect that in this highly competitive world, I-O psychologists should always be prepared for major role changes. This provides a nice lead-in to my next question: 

What are the key challenges to I-O practitioners over the next 5 years? The major theme in response to this question was, briefly stated, staying relevant. As one respondent summed it up, I-O psychologists need to be able to speak to managers in their language and must be able to address the bottom line. Stated in somewhat more familiar terms, this respondent observed that it was critical to completely bridge the scientist-practitioner gap. Another respondent observed that even the title of I-O psychologist was rarely used in industry today and that new job titles, such as process engineer and consultant, reflected the new reality. Yet at the same time, I wondered why so much emphasis seemed to be placed on proving our worth and value. Would accounting, finance, marketing, or management information systems staff, for example, ever question the importance of their function to an organization? Somehow I doubt it! What does that say about our field? I would appreciate any replies to this issue. 

What suggestions do you have for I-O psychologists who are just beginning their careers? I couldnt resist asking this question. It is so interesting, insightful, and darn right useful that I couldnt wait to see what I got. Lots of different thoughts, of course, were provided. One interesting suggestion was to talk with everyone, including lower level staff, in ones organization. I think this is an excellent suggestion! A second, rather novel, suggestion was that students should decide early on whether they want to be practitioners or academics. According to this respondent, the PhD may not even be the best degree, particularly if one is working as an inhouse consultant. Playing devils advocate, I wonder how many graduate students start with one goal (e.g., to become a practitioner) and then change along the way (I certainly did). Various other valuable suggestions were offered, including learn how to write well (writing is a key KSA); get lots of feedback; develop a sense of urgency; develop technical skills (e.g., programming in HTML); be entrepreneurial; and network with people. I find it difficult to disagree with any of these suggestions!

To summarize this section, I feel compelled to add that new I-O psychologists must be flexible and capable of adapting to change. Also, life-long learning seems to be todays motto. As a student recently wrote in a paper on e-Learning, yesterdays degree was a 4-year degree; todays degree is a 40-year degree. Today more than ever, I-O psychologists cannot afford to stop learning. 

*** 

Id like to close this column with a joke: How many I-O psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is: It depends on the functions involvedare they essential or not? And what competencies are required? Can they be learned in the course of changing light bulbs or should we select people on that basis? What selection tools should we use to assess those competencies? Well, you get the idea!

As usual, please let me know what you think! E-mail me at mharris@umsl.edu, call (314) 516-6280, fax (314) 516-6420), or snail-mail me, Michael Harris, College of Business Administration, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63121. 

I thank the following individuals for their help in preparing this column: Amy Bladen, Merrill Lynch; Elliot Lasson, State of Maryland; John Scott, Applied Psychological Techniques; and Joel Wiesen, Applied Personnel Research. 


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