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The SIOP Consultant Locator System

Dale Smalley
Philip Morris, USA

Wanda Campbell
Edison Electric Institute

The Consultant Locator System was introduced at the recent Conference in San Diego, and it was clear the system caught many by surprise. This article provides some background on where it came from and why it is here. Contrary to a popular song, it started with the recognition that people who need people can sometimes be the most frustrated people in the world, and this is a bad thing.

In this age of rapid information expansion it seems clear consumers expect, demand, and perhaps, take for granted, that anything they want to know, and increasingly, anything they want to do (virtually), can be found online. For example, advances in information technologies are now permitting diners to not only consider a restaurants menu and customer ratings but to also sample its ambiance by scanning a 360-degree digital image of its interior. In the foreseeable future, diners will be able to see images of restaurant feature dishes with accompanying scents produced by peripheral aroma-producing devices. The bar on information consumer expectations is being raised rapidly.

Against this context, it should not be surprising to find many consumers expecting the search for information about helping professionals to follow suit. And yet, prominent Web sites designed to provide information to allow visitors to find doctors, dentists, optometrists, and the like usually do little more than provide a means for users to sort a large list of providers by specialty, location, and name. Not bad, compared with what we all had to do to find a specialist a few short years ago, but consumers must still do more investigating to find the rest, and sometimes the real information of interest. Trouble is, people have little time for investigations these days and their expectations predispose them to demand more.

Initial System Development

As consumer expectations were becoming acute, businesses and scientists were struggling, as always, with people problems and questions, while SIOP possessed a Web site and several thousand professional members with KSAs to solve people problems. Some SIOP members saw the gap and wanted to do something. The predictable response to these kinds of situations is to convene a committee, and indeed, thats exactly what the SIOP leadership did in 1998. Jeff Schippmann, the current chair of the Professional Practice Committee, co-opted an existing task force and convened another and challenged them both to find better ways to match people with problem solvers. The pre-existing task force, comprised of Rodger Ballentine, Gary Carter, and headed by Wanda Campbell was charged with developing an online equivalent to a networking systema communications device to permit psychologists to identify peers with significant experience and know-how capital in specific areas of interest. Certainly, teachers, researchers, and practitioners occasionally need or want to confer with someone about a topic or issue, and it was believed a directory hosted on the SIOP Web site would aid knowledge sharing within SIOP. Dale Smalley (chair), Allan Church, and Earl Nason were asked to work on a second task force because it was recognized that many of the hits to the SIOP Web site and an increasing number of calls to the SIOP Administrative Office were coming from outside of the Society, particularly from nonprofessionals seeking advice and assistance from I-O psychologists. We needed an online system to enable visitors to find help.

Each task force conducted a series of telephone conferences over preliminary plans and designs, and eventually they collectively came to the realization that one fundamental process for matching clients to service providers could be designed to fit the missions of both groups. The task forces were combined at that point, and then other issues came into view, such as the question of how to represent individual consultants, sole proprietorships, small consulting firms, and large consulting firms collectively in a single system, and the issue of how to characterize individuals with predominant research interests along with those who focus more on consulting.

Still another issue that evolved was the question of whether the initial focus should be on providing a service to the public or whether the group should initially concentrate on the networking needs of the members. In the end it was decided to do both, but it was clear that the needs of the public could not be ignored or delayed. First of all, addressing public needs provided a rationale to charge fees to consultants hoping to be contacted by system users. As noted above, the SIOP Administrative Office has been and is still receiving calls on a regular basis from individuals and organizations inquiring about I-O psychology products and services, and therefore, there was good reason to suspect the system would be a boon to providers. Plus, those fees enabled SIOP to underwrite the development and administration costs of the system. Second, it was believed the system would advance the visibility of the profession by expanding the points of contact with our membership.

A Taxonomy of Expertise

The combined task force sought to address these opportunities by developing a taxonomy of possible areas of expertise within I-O psychology as a whole. The intent was to provide a coherent representation of the research and practice foci of one division of psychology, and as a result, to provide a means by which possible clients could declare their needs and a corresponding means by which service providers could declare their special capabilities. This shared structure provided the basis for matching consultants to users in a more precise manner.

After several iterations, the members of the task force agreed on a taxonomy, and then they worked on language to communicate it to others. This proved to be a challenging problem because the resulting process needed to be useful to both I-O psychologists and individuals who are not familiar with psychological terminology. The task force opted to create two different descriptions of their classification structure. It was envisioned that the Web site should enable a user to indicate whether professional/technical terms or business language would be preferred and the system would then present the corresponding matching vernacular for the ensuing matching process. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of this evolving scheme was that the system would actually enable both types of users essentially to self-diagnose their presenting needs. The process for both groups is to move from general to more specific questions and probes to arrive at a specific topic of interest as presented by the underlying taxonomy.

Addressing the Needs of Multiple Users

The task force expanded the system still further by enabling both types of users to go beyond a classification of their needs to identify their preferences, even though these requirements might have little to do with their actual presenting problems. Nevertheless, the system was adapted to enable users to express these desires, and as a result, it permits everyone to get a fix on both their needs and wants at the same time. For example, it should be possible for a business person to enter the system with general concerns about the performance of some managers in a remote division office of her company to obtain a list of providers with offices in China that have consultants with experience in say, administering and supporting multirater assessments of middle managers in chemical companies. The resulting list generated by the system contains all the contact information a user might desire, including office and e-mail addresses and links to Web sites.

Developing a complicated process is always challenging, and this system was no exception. One challenge was the question of how to enlist members of SIOP. To make the system work optimally, it needed to be capable of identifying a range of research and practice consultants to ensure their combined areas of expertise would cover the entire underlying taxonomy of the system and the profession. At the same time, it needed to embrace the possible preference areas that clients might choose. It would simply not do to have a user diagnose his or her needs and declare preferences and then discover no professionals available to help. The system needed to include a large and diverse sample of Members of the Society to work properly, and it needed to capture a lot of details about the capabilities of each enrollee. Milt Hakel, who had begun to work with the task force earlier, was now compelled to devote far more time and effort to the project. Jim Miller and his staff at Questar also provided support. The combined team, with Milts capable guidance, worked out an enrollment questionnaire based on the original taxonomy and then solved the myriad of problems associated with distributing it by e-mail to all members of the Society and collecting the ensuing responses and fees.

The information from the enrollment questionnaire provided the truly key ingredient to make the system work because it collected information about each members areas of expertise and other characteristics that might match user needs and preferences. Once the code was written to enable the user-query process to access the member enrollment data, the Consultant Locator System was born.

Choosing a Name

The choice of the name for the system is indicative of other questions and issues the task force faced. In earlier stages of development, the Consultant Locator System was usually described or known as a Referral System. However, some individuals on the Executive Committee believed it was inappropriate, and perhaps illegitimate, for the Society to recommend providers to others, or to host such a system on an APA division Web site. Some thought we might face liability challenges and charges from clients who felt wronged after engaging a consultant identified with the system. Still other concerns were raised about the possibility that the system would inevitably put too much emphasis on practice versus research and unavoidably favor one category of consultants over another (i.e., the larger consulting organizations with offices in more than one city over small firms and sole practitioners).

There are at least two arguments for using the Consultant Locator System: First, our profession, like any true profession, has a covenant a duty of care with society. Our education and training has provided us with gifts we are obliged to share with others in the form of service. The Consultant Locator System simply enables and facilitates the connections that should occur between those who need our products and services and those who have the specific types of expertise to provide exactly what is needed. The Consultant Locator System gives us a contemporarily relevant means to honor the covenant, and it gives ordinary people an effective way to get the service from us they deserve. Plus, if it is indeed true that consumers have higher expectations about the quality and amount of information available on the Web, we may be obliged to provide this kind of system.

Second, the system by its very nature mirrors the natural types of transactions clients seek to conduct with members of our profession. For instance, if system users choose more frequently over time to engage large consulting organizations rather than smaller firms, it will not be because the system is biased. It will be because the users are biased and we should, therefore, expect them to show the same tendencies in the marketplace. It is our hope, however, that the Consultant Locator System will enable users to be more effective consumers by enabling them to more precisely and clearly identify what they like, want, and need.

Future Developments

What happens next? Where do we go from here? Most of us are probably using a 5.0 or later version of a word processing program on our computers, and so it follows we should expect multiple versions of the Consultant Locator System over time. Certainly the CLS must be made more relevant to, and prominent with, our more research-oriented members. Individuals in a group that purports to be a Society should have effective ways of connecting and sharing with one another. A group of individuals representing the interests of SIOP will likely be charged with discovering ways to enhance the functionality and features of the System to make it more effective in the eyes of both users and professionals enrolled in it. A number of suggestions made by Members are already under consideration. The Consultant Locator System is a good thing, and we can expect its benefits to increase in number and become more significant over time. At the same time, we should also recognize the bar will continue to rise and we likely will be struggling, as always, to find ways to clear it. Any Member or Fellow of the Society can help simply by enrolling in the system.

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