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From Knowledge Warehouses to Knowledge Networks

David Ulrich
University of Michigan/The RBL Group

Anniversaries are wonderful events. They allow us to celebrate our past, calibrate our present, and create our future. They are opportunities to share gifts that renew vows. On our 25th anniversary, I decided to write my wife an epic poem. I spent months writing a page for each year of our marriage. I wrote it in iambic pentameter, printed it on pink paper, bound it in a nice leather cover, and entitled it with a French love mantra, “plus que hier, moins que demain.” I anticipated her positive response but returned to reality when she read it and started to laugh saying, “this is fun, and funny.” Funny was not my intent. But, it reminded me that while anniversaries are wonderful times to reflect on the past (25 years in this case), they are also times to face stark realities in the present (I am not a poet) and to prepare for a future (which will probably not include another poem for my wife).

SIOP has now reached its 25th year anniversary milestone. This is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the founders, leaders, and members who have invested their time and talents to help this Society move forward. I was honored to present at the 25th anniversary conference, where I wanted to reflect on the gift that SIOP has given its members and others over these 25 years by (1) celebrating the past, (2) calibrating the present, and (3) creating the future.

(1) Celebrate the Past

Simply stated, I believe SIOP’s gift is a knowledge warehouse. Since its conception, the Society has been the forum for remarkable insights about industrial (context of organization), organizational (capabilities, policies, and practices within an organization), and psychology (individuals in organizations). We each have our favorite list of insights that are housed in this knowledge warehouse. Some of mine include:i

iThe following books have references for these findings:
     Eichinger, B., Lombardo, M., and Ulrich, D. 2004. 100 things you need to know: Best practices for managers and HR. Minneapolis: Lominger.
     Eichinger, B., Ulrich, D., Kulas, J., and De Meuse, K. 2006. 50 more things you need to know: Best people practices for managers and HR. Minneapolis: Lominger.


  • The influence of nature/nurture (born/breed) on adult personality is about 50/50
  • Learning agility is perhaps the single biggest predictor of future leadership success
  • Employee engagement comes from perceived care and a sense of meaning
  • There tend to be 5 core dimensions or factors of personal predispositions or personality traits


  • Organizations may be characterized by their capabilities
  • There are a core set of common competencies that effective leaders demonstrate
  • Innovative, aligned, and integrated HR practices will affect an organization’s financial results
  • The best talent development comes from experiences that are challenging and require new and different skills


  • Employee attitude inside a company affects customer attitude outside
  • Intangibles represent a sizeable part of total shareholder value
  • An organization’s identity or external brand may be shaped by internal management actions
  • Organizations that align their internal practices to external expectations will have more sustainability

Based on our research and interests, we each have our personal favorite insights. Collectively, the SIOP knowledge warehouse is filled with stock-keeping units, or insights, culled from decades of thoughtful theory, research, and practice.

(2) Calibrate Our Present

To comment on the types of knowledge stored in today’s SIOP knowledge warehouse, I created a simple typology based on both content and process. Content refers to the domains SIOP members seek to understand consistent with the name of the Society: industrial, organizational, and psychology. Process refers to how SIOP members go about doing their work: theory, research, and practice. This leads to a nine-box grid that organizes the types of knowledge we store (Figure 1). Clearly, these categories are arbitrary and knowledge is often not constrained to such artificial boundaries.

Figure 1:
Typology of SIOP Knowledge Warehouse
    Content Setting for the Work
How we go about our work

To determine how the present reflects the past, I wanted to see the evolution of the Society by categorizing the papers and symposia in five of the annual conferences into these nine boxes (see Figure 1).

These classifications are clearly limited because the abstracts are not complete reports of the presentations, because it is often difficult to pigeonhole a presentation into only one of the cells, and because of my personal biases. With this caveats, it is still interesting to compare the first year (1986) and most recent year (2009) to see the evolution of the knowledge generated by SIOP members. In our personal anniversaries, this is like comparing how far we have come from our early years to the present time.

In 1986, there were 33 presentations; in 2009, there were over 500, which shows that the knowledge warehouse has grown exponentially. Figure 2 reports how the 1986 33 sessions fit into the nine-cell typology. The sessions were weighted to organization-level content with a balance of research and practice.

Figure 2:
SIOP 1986 Annual Conference
1986   Content 
Setting for the work
Process Theory  8%    8%   0%  15% 
  Research 0% 35% 8% 42%
  Practice 8% 27% 8% 42%
  TOTAL 15% 69% 15% 100%

To capture the sense of these early programs, let me report the 1987 workshops that were offered:

Section 1:  Implementing performance appraisal systems in organizations (John Bernardin and Richard Beatty)

Section 2:  Downsizing organizations: Alternatives to layoffs for reducing the workforce (Leonard Greenhalgh)

Section 3:  Microcomputer applications for industrial-organizational psychologists (Raymond Johnson and C. David Vale)

Section 4:  Career planning and development policies and programs (Manuel London)

Section 5:  Controversial testing techniques and issues (Paul Sackett and Julian Olian)

Section 6:  Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures (Neal Schmitt and Marilyn Quaintance)

Section 7:  The internal consultant as a visible contributor (Melvin Sorcher and Joseph Bevan)

Section 8:  Large-scale behavior simulations for management development (Steven Stumpf and Stephen Wall)

Notice that the flavor of these workshops in 1987 reflects the 1986 data in Figure 2, with a balance of research and practice and a bias toward organization as the unit of analysis.

Jump way ahead to 2009 in Figure 3.ii As noted, there were over 500 sessions at the annual conference. The shift has moved rather dramatically to a greater focus on both research and organization issues.

ii With Michael Ulrich, we have done the content analysis for 1986, 1987, 1990, 1998, 2003, and 2009. For each of these years, we have categorized the presentations in the nine cells and summarized the key themes. These tables are available from the author.

Figure 3:
SIOP 2009 Annual Conference
2009   Content 
Setting for the work
Process Theory    1%      4%   1%      6% 
  Research 4% 62% 20%  86%
  Practice 1%  8%  0%    8%
  TOTAL 5% 74% 21% 100%

Comparing Figure 2 and 3 shows that SIOP’s knowledge warehouses are increasingly filled with organization-centric, research-driven insights. There may be many causes and interpretations of these data. For example, many SIOP members have their professional homes in universities where tenure is based on publications in respected journals. Top journals using peer review offer more favorable reviews to submissions that test ideas rather than just posit them. Over time, some relationships drift apart, and perhaps there has been some drifting in the knowledge SIOP members have created. It is also interesting that the 2009 program chair John Scott asked those who submitted papers to indicate primary audience of the presentations. For accepted papers, the results were:

Mixed (academics and practitioners):  52%

Practitioners:     13%

Academics:     35%

These findings may reaffirm the more research (academic) focus of accepted papers, but it also may indicate that practitioner papers have increasingly academic grounding.

(3) Create the Future

A benefit of celebrating the past and calibrating the present is that we can create an informed future. Interpersonal relationships renew when they face reality and then invest to shape or reshape their future. Given the data in Figures 2 and 3, it might be easy criticize the Society as becoming increasingly narrow and myopic. Let me offer an alternative logic that may lead to renewal in the future.

Our gift should shift from a knowledge warehouse to a knowledge network. A knowledge network turns the knowledge on shelves into something that is used not just stored. It is about ideas with impact not just ideas. It means connecting the creators of the ideas to the users. It means building warehouses that are open to the public not closed. To have increased impact without reducing rigor, let me suggest a three-step process: (a) recognize the context of the work we do, (b) target key stakeholders who will use the ideas we create, and (c) establish a work process that encourages collaboration.

(a) Recognize the context of the work we do.

Society needs the insights that SIOP can offer. Rather than contribute useful knowledge, sometimes members may play academic Jeopardy. In the Jeopardy game, we start with the answer, then try to find the question that produces this answer. Some academics may start with their answer based on theory or research. Their knowledge begins by positing a theory or justifying a research method. A thoughtful doctoral student at a top university was recently encouraged to test institutionalization theory without much care or attention paid to the context of the testing. The outcome of this dissertation would be that institutionalization theory would be supported, and the student’s challenge was to find a setting to demonstrate this preconceived outcome.

Rather than start with the answer, we might begin with the question. There are significant societal trends that raise questions that SIOP’s knowledge can inform and guide. Let me suggest a simple typology (STEPED) of contextual challenges and trends where SIOP knowledge warehouses could be of great value:

  • Social: What are the social changes in globalization, social justice, healthcare, and haves versus have nots?
  • Technological: What are the trends and implications of technological change and social media?
  • Economic: How do organizations and individuals respond to economic cycles of recession and prosperity?
  • Political: What are the emerging trends in regulations, political shifts, and legislation?
  • Environmental: How will social responsibility and carbon footprint trends affect individuals and organizations?
  • Demographic: What are age, gender, and education trends that shape the workforce?

Each of these contextual trends occurs in an increasing global world. These contextual settings may guide theory, research, and practice to ensure that the knowledge we create applies to questions of interest.

(b) Target key stakeholders who will use the knowledge we create.

As changes in STEPED contexts continue, it is helpful to identity targets who are affected by those changes. These target stakeholders represent the content of the work that is done. There are many wonderful questions that industrial, organizational, and individual stakeholders will find of interest in the changing context. Some of my personal favorite questions include:


  • How do organization practices inside a company affect customer responses?
  • How can investors determine and measure the quality of internal organization practices, and what is the impact of the organization on shareholder value?
  • How do organizations and individuals effectively respond to changing political regulation and legislation?


  • How do organizations build leadership as a capability not just individuals as leaders?
  • How do HR practices (staffing, training, compensation, communication) integrate around a common culture or capability?
  • How do organizations manage both turnaround (cutting costs) and transformation (building revenue) at the same time?


  • How do people find meaning from their work setting?
  • How to do people expand their skills?
  • How do organizations shift from an emphasis on a war for talent (with winners and losers) to a marshal plan for talent (win/win)?

These questions (and many, many others) are increasingly relevant given the context reviewed above. They are also skewed by my personal biases. But they reflect questions that are grounded in turning knowledge into productivity, or building knowledge networks.

(c) Establish work processes that encourage collaboration.

To answer these questions, we need to create a future where we avoid labels and categorizations. We like to pigeonhole people and processes. I have often been asked if I am macro or micro; theory, research, or practice based; or an academic or consultant? The answer to most of these questions is “yes.” Labels are divisive and limit opportunity while most of the creative work comes at the tension of resolving paradoxes. To respond to the types of questions that flow from the context, let me offer a simple assumption, that we have rigor with relevance and relevance with rigor, which requires collaboration.

Collaborative work processes begin with an individual having a primary home (theory, research, or practice) but being willing and able to work with others. Collaborative work requires civility and cooperation more than hostility and isolation. Rather than belittle someone who does not approach work the same way, it is useful to collaborate with them and find common ground. Collaboration goes against political, social, and ethnocentric pressures for isolation and divisiveness. Collaboration requires respect and the ability to work outside of our comfort zone so that we can learn together. In SIOP, such collaboration is possible because the Society has a tradition of representation of both academics and practitioners who “really like each other” (in the words of a former president). It is good in a relationship that after 25 years, the two parties like each other; it is also good in the Society to continue to ensure respect among theorists, researchers, and practitioners.

Theorists answer the “why” question and help frame problems so that findings can be replicated over time and settings. Theory without research is daydreaming; theory without practice is irrelevant. To offer sustainable explanations, theorists need to be grounded in research to test ideas and in practice to ground ideas. We need rigorous and action-oriented theory.

Researchers answer the “how” question and help discover what is reality versus myth, to separate valid insights from popular opinion. Research without theory is unguided empiricism; research without practice is convenience studies without sustainability. Researchers need to know why they find what they find (theory) and how to make their findings useful to others (practice). We need replicable and problem-based research.

Practitioners answer the “what” question by experiencing and solving real problems. Practices without theory are isolated and discrete events; practices without research are false hopes. Practitioners need to be rigorous in their thinking and doing so that they are not carried away on the latest winds of popular management fads. We need evidence-based management.

The connection of theory, research, and practice are summarized in Figure 4. By combining and cooperating rather than labeling and isolating, knowledge warehouses become knowledge networks. The information generated becomes generalized and used by others.

What does this approach mean to new SIOP members (or older ones) wanting to shape the next 25 years?

Let me share advice I offer both graduate students and myself as I try to find ways to turn knowledge into productivity.

  • Start with a phenomenon. Good theory, research, and practice requires a grounding in a phenomenon. Phenomenologists encourage thinkers to experience, think about, and write about what is happening that is of interest to them. The phenomenon may come from observation of an individual, leadership, or organization challenge and often is something that is a bit quirky or unusual. For example, we noticed that two firms in the same industry with similar earnings had different stock prices. This lead to exploration of the intangibles in market value, which led to better understanding of how investors derive confidence in future earnings from the quality of leadership, talent, and culture within a company. To get clarity about a phenomenon, I often write (or suggest to others) one to two pages about what I am interested in and why.
  • Create a point of view. With clear descriptors, it helps to try to explain why the phenomenon is happening. As noted above, figuring out why two firms in the same industry with the same earnings have different market values led to a theory of intangibles. I find it helpful to write a page or two about why is this happening. This exercise drives a perception about the potential causes and conceptual rational for the phenomenon.
  • Discover other relevant perspectives. Once the phenomenon and explanations are proposed, it is very helpful to systematically review what others have said. There are many theoretical perspectives, which may inform and predict why things happen as they do. To unravel intangibles, I ended up reviewing economic, investor, and organization literatures. At this nexus we were able to synthesize how others had tried to make sense of this market quirk. By drawing on theoretical underpinning from others, we help position our work in the knowledge network of what others have said. We can also identify specific questions we want to explore, which will expand the existing knowledge network.
  • Be rigorous in your methods. Research methods and statistical approaches flow from the questions we want to answer. The methods should match the research questions. In our intangibles research, since many of the ideas were exploratory, we did extensive interviews to figure out how investors thought about the problem. This led to other research that helped address the questions we are asking. The research design and methods help offer valid answers to the questions we raise.
  • Tie findings back to the problem. Once the studies have been done, it is good to close the loop and return to the original phenomenon. Have we added to the understanding of what is happening and why it is happening? Has our theory and research been able to offer new ways to think about and act on this phenomenon?
  • Learn. Learning is the ability to generate and generalize ideas with impact, so it is useful to envision how our work will offer insights to multiple stakeholders. What would those experiencing the phenomenon do differently? In our investor case, what would we say to investors? If we are studying leadership, what would we say to a group of leaders about the topic we covered? What would other scholars in the academic area say? Would our theories and research methods communicate to scholars how theories need to evolve or how theories might affect practice? What is missing in our work? What questions emerge or remain after answering our questions?

These steps are not always linear or explicit and can be adapted to situations. But, they show how the connections across theory, research, and practice can be made. They may result in a future SIOP conference that might look more like Figure 5.

Figure 5:
SIOP 2025 Annual Conference
2025   Content
Setting for the work
Process Theory        10% 
  Research       60%
  Practice       30%
  TOTAL 20% 50% 30% 100%

Most of us have professional predispositions in content (industrial, organizational, or psychological) and process (theory, research, or methods), but as we seek to build knowledge networks not just warehouses, we should face and overcome those predispositions. When we do so, the knowledge we create for the next 25 years is likely to have even more impact.