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Learning About Learning

Trends in Workplace Training 2: Trend Harder 

Tom Whelan 

Amy Duvernet

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In the last installment of Learning About Learning, we talked about the trends in corporate L&D and how I-Os can help investigate whether or not these trends live up to their hype. Now, we’re looking at the other side of the coin: the trends in I-O concerning training. As we’ve stated before, sometimes the “hottest new thing” in L&D is an approach to learning that I-Os have been researching for a decade or more. Other times, the latest and greatest fashions in L&D don’t even make a blip on the I-O radar. So, let’s explore what training has looked like recently from the I-O side of the fence.

Prevalence of Training Across Our Field

Training is clearly core to the I-O capability set and part of what we present to the world as our domain of expertise. The description of what we’re all about on the SIOP media page states that our field:

tries to understand and measure human behavior to improve employees' satisfaction in their work, employers' ability to select and promote the best people, and to generally make the workplace better for the men and women who work there. They do this by creating tests and by designing products such as training courses, selection procedures and surveys. (emphasis added, obviously)

So, it may surprise you that training has been mentioned infrequently in the lists of annual workplace trends released by SIOP’s Visibility Committee since late 2013 (SIOP Top Ten Workplace Trends, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). For example, this year’s list suggests that I-O psychologists can design and implement training programs that address the need for increased focus on employee health and wellness (trend #10), as well as the growing importance of diversity and inclusion (trend #8). Similarly, the 2016 lists relates trends #2 and #9 (building healthy, diverse workforces and trends in technology changing the way work is done) to training. Although accommodating workforce changes represents a theme in the list of training trends that we identified from the applied L&D side in our last column, the only other major overlap from SIOP trends list were mobile assessment (2015, trend #1) and gamification (2014, trend #5). It’s worth noting that training is simply mentioned in all the above trends—it’s never the main theme.

This is not to suggest that the lists of SIOP annual trends has been neglectful of training, but our field could be assuming that, “yeah, we do that,” without pursuing it in actuality. Because when it comes to designing training courses, as mentioned in the SIOP media page, the world of L&D tends to hire for instructional designers and program coordinators with an adult education background, not necessarily I-Os. So, is what we’re doing with training the equivalent of having some great pie we’re able to make from scratch that we seldom tell anyone else about and never bring to any dinner parties?

To support the argument that we don’t advertise our expertise in training, let’s take a look at what’s trending in I-O by looking at the patterns of what our field has been bringing to recent SIOP conferences. We know, thanks to a recent TIP article, that SIOP conference sessions and the SIOP trends tend not to overlap each other (Thornton, Poeppelman, Sinar, Armstrong, & Blacksmith, 2016). Because we established above that training does not feature in the SIOP trends, the litmus test here will be past SIOP sessions listing training as a content area from 10 years of programs from the annual SIOP conference (SIOP Program Explorer 2008-2016; Horn, 2017). These data showed that:

  • 168 sessions identified “training” as the primary content area
    • 130 were posters
    • 24 were symposia/forums
    • 11 were panel discussions
    • 3 were roundtables
    • The most popular secondary content areas were motivation/rewards/compensation (18), groups/teams (12), testing/assessment (7), human factors/ergonomics (7), and personality (6).
  • 133 sessions identified “training” as the secondary content area
    • 100 were posters
    • 17 were symposia/forums
    • 9 were panel discussions
    •  5 were roundtables
    • 2 debates/alternative sessions
    • The most popular primary content areas were groups/teams (23), inclusion/diversity (16), coaching/leadership development (11), careers/mentoring/socialization/onboarding/
    • retirement (10), teaching I-O psychology/professional development (8), and technology (8).

You might be thinking, “well, 168 sessions seems like a good number, what’s the big deal?” For context, the top three most popular primary content areas for SIOP sessions over the same span of time were leadership (629 sessions), testing/assessment (620 sessions), and inclusion/diversity (448 sessions). Basically, training is not a frequent topic at our conference—except for the 2011 conference in Chicago, there haven’t been more than 25 training-related sessions at any given SIOP conference since 2008. Moreover, the 2017 conference continued this trend. With just 16 accepted sessions listing training as a primary content area*, the following depicts the breakdown for each session type for SIOP 2017:

  • 12 posters out of 23 submissions,
  • 2 symposia/forums out of 7 submissions,
  • 1 community of interest out of 1 submission; and,
  • 1 panel discussion out of 4 submissions.

These 2017 numbers above represent a 46% acceptance rate for training related sessions, which doesn’t seem all that bad until you contrast with the overall acceptance rate of about 67% (Horn, 2017).

“But that’s just the SIOP conference,” you might think, “and that can’t be your only yardstick.” That’s completely fair, and we agree. So, consider this: among the recent collection of centennial reviews published in Journal of Applied Psychology, Bell, Tannenbaum, Ford, Noe and Kraiger (2017) identified and summarized 458 articles related to training and development published in the journal since its inception. We know from McNeal, Stoeger, and Kreun (2017) that there have been just north of 9,500 articles published in JAP in the last 100 years. So, that means training represents roughly 5% of everything published in JAP over the last century. For another JAP barometer, in the topic frequency analysis by Kozlowski, Chen, and Salas (2017), they noted a total of 794 articles with training, learning, or employee development as keywords. This represents 8% of everything published in JAP. Granted, when contrasted with other topics in JAP such as cross-cultural research (102 articles, 1%; Gelfand, Aycan, Erez, & Leung, 2017) and work design research (366 articles, 4%; Parker, Morgeson, & Johns, 2017), training compares favorably. For other topics such as discrimination research (508 articles, 5%; Colella, Hebl, & King, 2017), however, the comparison is not as sunny given the centrality of training to the definition of I-O. (We should mention that for the first 40 years of JAP, 21-40% of the articles in each decade were book reviews, per Kozlowski et al.)

Training Topic Trends

So, we’ve established that I-O could stand to increase our focus on training as a topic of interest. But for those of us who are already directing our attention that way, to what, specifically, are we attending? Over the past decade, SIOP conference training sessions have focused on a variety of topic areas including the impact of technology, evaluation techniques, design features (e.g., the effect of games or post-training feedback), the influence of instructors, specific training topics (e.g., ethics, diversity), the impact of context, antecedents of training transfer, and industry-specific training (e.g., healthcare). However, the impact of individual learner differences has been the focus of the greatest number of sessions, as well as sessions that modeled the interaction of individual differences and other training-related constructs.

The themes summarized in Bell et al.’s (2017) review of JAP training articles mirror many of these conference topic areas, with training themes including training criteria, trainee characteristics, training design, and context of training. However, the extent to which these peer-reviewed research studies reflect I-O practice within the training arena is unclear. Across past years’ SIOP conferences, the overwhelming majority of training-related sessions came from submitters who were affiliated with universities rather than consulting firms or other practitioner institutions. Likewise, none of the 2017 sessions were geared specifically to practitioners and instead listed the intended audience as either mixed or academic. Although a handful of sessions focused on providing practical recommendations for applied audiences, these types of sessions were few and far between. In other words, our scientist–practitioner model seemingly leans heavily to the scientist side when it comes to workplace training.

Yet, one SIOP 2017 session points to the importance of training to both applied and academic SIOP members. As we mentioned in our previous column, Tara Behrend and our own Amy DuVernet hosted a community of interest session at this year’s conference dedicated to trends in training. This open discussion allowed us to engage with all segments of SIOP membership on learning and development issues, and attendees were asked to suggest topics for discussion and then break into groups to discuss those topics as part of the session. Topics included: the intersection of learning and technology (e.g., microlearning, gamification, simulation, virtual/augmented reality), workplace changes and their impact on learning (e.g., shift towards informal learning), communicating the value of I-O in learning (e.g., overcoming apparent gaps in pedagogical perspectives), and evaluating training (e.g., identifying appropriate metrics, communicating the value of evaluation to stakeholders). The discussion groups came together to provide examples, share challenges, and offer suggestions. The popularity of the session was a stark contrast to the number of actual SIOP presentations listing training as a primary topic area.

 

Figure 1. SIOP 2017 Conference Session Focused on Trends in Learning and Development

Addressing the Gap Between I-O Focus and L&D Practice

So, where does that leave us? We don’t want to say that our field is willfully giving training short shrift, but it really does look like I-O is giving training the cold shoulder. But why could that be? Are we under the impression that there’s nothing new to be researched in the world of training that despite the pervasive influx of technology into the job tasks of most workers over the past 2 decades, we know pretty much all there is to know and the well has run dry? Is training simply passé? If it isn’t already obvious, we don’t think this is the case; in fact, we think there’s plenty of territory yet to be claimed. Part of why we’re seeing “training” trail off in our conference and in one of our flagship journals may have to do with the way most I-Os frame the topic in our heads.  In their introductory review of 100 years of research in JAP, Kozlowski et al. (2017) noted that:

 throughout the century, research on training and development has remained fairly high (around 100 articles per decade between 1967 and 2006) until the last decade, where research has dropped by about 50%. One possibility is that, in the past 10 years, more research has focused on informal and continuous learning, which have been picked up in research on newcomer socialization, mentoring, and work adjustment (research that has witnessed a steady increase over the past 30 years). (p. 244-246)

This suggests the meaning of training in I-O might be undergoing a shift as its manifestations evolve within organizations. Accordingly, I-O is simultaneously experiencing an alignment problem with L&D. Why would we think so? Most of the training outsourcing market deals with training content, not training evaluation. Yes, I-Os are the undisputed heavyweights of organizational assessment but comparatively few of us ever deal with instructional design and managing corporate learning curricula. As a result, those on the corporate side might have no idea who we are, because they think we don’t have the skill sets they need to solve their training problems. Further, a generic instance of organizational training can be relatively low stakes compared to most selection efforts. To the extent that our services can be pricey, some organizations may balk at leveraging I-O expertise in training in favor of tasking us with higher stakes selection responsibilities. All of this gets compounded by the fact that, as noted above, I-O seems to be experiencing definitional problems with our training research.

Shrinking the current gap between I-O and L&D will not be an instant or easy process, but we feel it is a process that starts from I-O reestablishing itself in the practical training research domain (even if we need to start using a different word than “training”). From our last column, we identified that L&D practitioners appear to be most interested in meeting learners’ needs, managing their expectations, introducing them to new technologies, and offering several modalities for learning. I-O already has much to say about these topics, but if we’re not focusing on the changing role of training inside I-O and continuing to conduct and publicize our work, how will those outside in the L&D world ever hear anything we’re saying about employee learning? As such, we feel our field needs to reignite an internal dialogue that brings together our best and brightest I-Os working in L&D to share our expertise, drive innovation in our research, and shake the tree of the organizations and employees we’re ultimately trying to help.

To help kick start that conversation, we’ve created a LinkedIn group targeted specifically toward I-Os working or interested in L&D. Our hope is that this group results in collaborative relationships, improves communication about what I-O can bring to L&D, and connects future SIOP presenters who can collaborate on session submissions for the upcoming 2018 conference in Chicago. So, we’ll leave you with this challenge—take a moment to join the group here, introduce yourself, and share some information about how your job role or research interests intersect with L&D.

* Special thanks to Larry Nader, Zack Horn, and Tracy Kantrowitz for providing SIOP 2017 submission data

 References

Bell, B. S., Tannenbaum, S. I., Ford, J. K., Noe, R. A., & Kraiger, K. (2017). 100 years of training and development research: What we know and where we should go. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 305-323.

Colella, A., Hebl, M., & King, E. (2017). One hundred years of discrimination research in the Journal of Applied Psychology: A sobering synopsis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 500-513.

Gelfand, M. J., Aycan, Z., Erez, M., & Leung, K. (2017). Cross-cultural industrial organizational psychology and organizational behavior: A hundred-year journey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 514-529.

Horn, Z. (2017, January). 2017 conference program. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 54(3). Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/jan17/prog.aspx

Kozlowski, S. W. J., Chen, G., & Salas, E. (2017). One hundred years of the Journal of Applied Psychology: Background, evolution, and scientific trends. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 237-253.

McNeal, K. D., Stoeger, J. N., & Kreun, A. L. (2017, January). 100 years of titles in the Journal of Applied PsychologyThe Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 54(3). Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/jan17/jap.aspx

Parker, S. K., Morgeson, F. P., & Johns, G. (2017). One hundred years of work design research: Looking back and looking forward. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 403-420.

SIOP Program Explorer 2008-2016. Retrieved from http://keshif.me/gist/?e762f88916a1c371513706d12aada92b

SIOP Media Page. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/media/What.aspx

SIOP Top Ten Workplace Trends for 2014. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/article_view.aspx?article=1203

SIOP Top Ten Workplace Trends for 2015. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/article_view.aspx?article=1343

SIOP Top Ten Workplace Trends for 2016. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/article_view.aspx?article=1467

SIOP Top Ten Workplace Trends for 2017. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/article_view.aspx?article=1610

Thornton, J., Poeppelman, T., Sinar, E., Armstrong, M., & Blacksmith, N. (2016). How do our conference sessions track with SIOP’s top workplace trends? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 54(3). Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/jan17/sci.aspx