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Practice Perspectives: The Future of I-O Psychology Practice, Part I:Future Directions for I-O Practice
Identified by Leading Practitioners

Rob Silzer
HR Assessment & Development Inc./Baruch-CUNY

Rich Cober
Marriott International

The current and future state of industrial-organizational psychology has been widely discussed in recent years (see references). I-O psychology seems to be in the middle of a transition or perhaps a rebalancing among the various groups and interests in the field. Most professions evolve over time. At times, the evolution is due to technological innovations that change the nature of the work. Other evolutions are in response to shifts in macro environments (such as cycles of economic prosperity and recession), which often require innovative adaptations in professional practices and standards.
In order to better understand the evolution and future direction of I-O psychology practice, a brief survey on the “Future of I-O Psychology Practice” was sent to a small but diverse sample of 80 I-O practitioners (1Qtr, 2010) Completed surveys were received from 50 leading I-O practitioners, including 20 SIOP Fellows. This survey was a follow up to the SIOP Practitioner Needs Survey (Silzer, Cober, Erickson, & Robinson, 2008).

Our survey team was interested in finding out how I-O psychologists saw the future of I-O psychology practice. In addition, we wanted to draw on their extensive experience to gather suggestions on what I-O practitioners and SIOP can do to further facilitate I-O practice. The survey contained three open-ended questions:

Based on your own experience and insight, and thinking ahead to the next 10–20 years of I-O psychology practice:

1.  What are the three most likely future directions for I-O psychology practice?

2.  What are the three most important activities that I-O practitioners can do in the future to contribute to organizational and individual effectiveness?

3.  What are three steps that SIOP could take to facilitate I-O psychology practice in the future?

In a series of TIP articles we will provide a summary of the responses to each of these questions. A full listing of all the responses to the survey will be made available on the SIOP Web site.

Future Directions for I-O Psychology Practice

In this article we focus on the responses to the first question: What are the three most likely future directions for I-O psychology practice? We received 138 responses (on average 2.76 comments per respondent) and sorted them into 16 categories that emerged from the data (see Table 1). The top four categories for this question account for 51% of the responses (n = 71).

Many respondents found the first survey question to be the most challenging. Below we provide a representative sample of the responses we received in each category.

1. Changes in the field of I-O psychology

  • Consolidation of the field
    • More consolidation in the field, which is filled with individual practitioners; this is really a fragmented market right now, but the larger firms, including search firms and broader HR firms, are buying I-O expertise. I fear that it will make us subservient to HR or other interests. If the larger firms were to provide more dollars for applied research, that would be a positive.
  • Better integration between I-O research and I-O practice
    • Potential for greater connectivity between I-O research and I-O practice (how to create a continuous loop of practical research that informs application in a shorter lifecycle).
  • Splintering of the field
    • A bifurcation into “individually focused” (e.g., assessments, coaching) and “systems focused” (e.g., human capital strategy, program design/implementation) styles of practice. Bifurcation is a negative.
    • Dying in SIOP and reemerging in other flourishing, growing, and thriving areas of professional psychology practice (e.g., business of [psychology] practice; consulting psychology; organization development; executive development; healthy workplace environment roles; etc.).
    • It will splinter and be absorbed into other areas such as coaching, HR consulting, strategy consulting, and so on. We will not have been able to carve out a niche as a field of “psychological” practice. Research will become even more specialized and esoteric. Because it is narrow and reductionist, outside of the small circle of academics I-O research is not viewed as useful nor giving us credibility to be at the table with senior decision makers.
    • It will break into two parts: a commodity portion in which online tools (both good and terrible) will be distributed over the Web at very low cost and elite consulting practice where practitioners do highly customized work with senior executives.
    • A split between I-O practice and the researchers, perhaps into different professional societies.
    • High-volume selection work will be increasingly commoditized as turn-key solutions. Organizations will be able to select from menus of available selection procedures, online test administration systems, and standardized job “analysis” tools to be able to plug in reasonably effective selection systems.
    • I-O psychology practice and research will continue to drift apart, and it will lead to less professional engagement and cross-fertilization (40% chance).
    • Split of content specialists (practitioners) versus methodological (academic) specialists. Practicing I-O psychologists will further split into primarily psychology-based content experts/practitioners versus organization development types.
    • Special interests within our society will cause us to fractionate like APA.
  • Potential obsolescence and irrelevance
    • Potential for obsolescence if the practical components are not promoted and better PR is not provided to help others’ understand the value and impact.
    • I-O moves more toward academic/less business relevant initiatives and loses its traction in a business setting.
    • Unless we stop producing technocrats who have no insights about business, we will become more irrelevant.
    • Death of I-O…work in practice is subsumed by clinicians/counseling psychologists and lawyers
    • The field is becoming irrelevant; other professions are savvier in their ability to influence business leaders and make themselves indispensable to the business world.
    • I-O professionals marginalized despite best intentions; profession grows incrementally but is widely outpaced by growth of adjacent professions (APA, SRHM, ASTD, HRPS) and other more interdisciplinary associations. As a result the theoretical- and experience- based contributions of SIOP practitioners are largely ignored unless channeled through other vehicles (HBR, online forums not yet developed). Those with a background in I-O psychology who ascend to senior organizational roles cease to look to SIOP for best practices, instead looking at the broader field of management consulting (as in “it was a good training ground, but now I have really big issues to work on”). Having I-O psychology background/degree offers little market differentiation among executive coaches, talent management practitioners, and organization development consultants.
  • Integration with related fields
    • It will become more integrative with other parts of psychology, incorporating input from clinical, counseling, social psychology, and with other disciplines. We will do more work as integrated teams of professionals such as pairing with MBAs, and so forth. Our models will become more attentive to real-life problems of organizations. Methods will involve more qualitative as well as quantitative approaches.
    • Elevation of the importance and visibility of I-O psychology by virtue of strengthened connections with other disciplines that contribute to organizations and management.
    • Those with I-O backgrounds will absorb knowledge and learn strategies and techniques from other fields—may even align themselves in multibackground groups (to take advantage of the many fields that have something useful to contribute to leadership development). Some may stay connected to I-O as a professional group, and others won’t.
  • Incorporation into HR
    • There will be increasing demand from HR generalists (e.g., HR business partners) who support line leaders and field operations to learn and “own” some of the up-front work that I-O psychologists are trained to do (i.e. organizational diagnosis, job analysis, etc.). I can easily envision other functions or professionals either wanting to be empowered to do I-O work or simply coming into the organization claiming they can do high-quality I-O work without the proper training (e.g., clinical psychologists, counselors, therapists, etc.).
    • Continued integration and subordination to HR. In organizations, I-O psychologists will continue to work for HR professionals more often than any other arrangement. Gradually SHRM will provide more practice-oriented resources appropriate to I-Os and will gradually become the practice-oriented professional resource of choice for I-Os.
  • Migration to business schools
    • The migration of I-O psychology into business departments will impact I-O practice in the future. There are some benefits in terms of the profession integrating more into the education and training of future business leaders. Future business leaders are likely to be more aware of I-O psychology and the perspective, solutions, and benefits it brings to an organization. On the other hand, this migration may “morph” I-O psychology into something different and may, by necessity, become more focused on and more associated with organization development and large-scale organizational change efforts. Some parts of our profession that provide unique value to others, such as research/practice related to individual differences, measurement, and so forth, could take a back seat in terms of focus, be seen as less relevant, or possibly disappear all together.
    • “Human capital management” becomes a separate discipline, MBA focused.
    • Decline: Graduate programs erode in favor of B-school OB-type programs.

2. Changes in I-O practice

  • Shift to focus on individuals and talent management
    • Change direction in terms of the “science” influence on practice; that is, practice becomes more defined in terms of coaching, organizational behavior, and “softer” services, and the “I” side is treated as having less importance overall.
    • More focus on leadership development and the integration/alignment of talent management with organizational strategies.
    • More focus on practice related to the individual; for example, coaching, individual assessment and feedback, career development, and counseling.
    • Migration toward areas where there is a smaller I-O research base compared to historical I-O practice (e.g., migrate from job analysis, selection, performance management to leadership development/leadership talent management, organization development, workforce planning, etc.).
    • Increased focus on talent management (including assessment, development, succession planning); this is only going to get worse as the boomers finally retire fully and the shortage of Gen Xers ascend to the senior most roles.
    • Expand understanding of interfaces among individual differences and context, be it organizational and national culture, strategy, stage of development, structure, and so on.
  • Shift to other practice areas
    • Increased focus on sustainability, “green” jobs, and so forth.
    • Taking a leadership role in helping organizations become corporate citizens in the world economy: facilitating cultural integration and sustainability initiatives and helping organizations advance in ways that benefit economies and societies.
    • Movement into more heavily org-design kinds of work as ability to understand data patterns, compensation theory, and job structures are leveraged to help organizations adapt to changing economic conditions. This would afford opportunity to broadly leverage assessment and performance development expertise.
    • Becoming more engaged in the reality of organization development as it is practiced in the real world by those who are sophisticated but not psychologists.
    • The demographics of the work place will continue to change. In addition to growing diversity, people are living longer. I-O practices need to focus on ensuring the work effectiveness of this population in particular, perhaps in partnership with human factors psychologists.
    • In 10–20 years, I think that most businesses will only employ 20% of their workforce directly and the other 80% will be vendors and contingent labor. I predict that this will have huge implications in motivation issues, compensation, employee adaptability, leadership issues, and so on.
  • Streamlining of our practices and procedures
    • We need to come up with ways to develop legally defensible selection procedures in a shorter period of time. Maybe we can work together with our colleagues to come up with ways to streamline the process.

3. Impact of globalization

  • It’s trite to say, but the globalization of I-O practice will continue to be a dominant trend, if not the dominant trend. Cultural differences in I-O practice will not necessarily be reduced, but such practice differences will increasingly be represented as options within the “family” of practice tools.
  • Increased globalization. The days of “U.S” I-O and “niche” international I-O are quickly disappearing. I-O practitioners need to practice globally.
  • Globalization has got to still be a major trend. How do I-O psychologists better support global leaders, employees, and organizations?
  • Global activities (e.g., assessing/training people all around the world for one company).
  • Loss of relevance due to lag of research to help understand impact and use of assessment cross-culturally in a truly global economy. Our vendors today that claim to be global very much struggle with providing truly global insight.
  • Globalization: Need to leverage practices globally while at the same time being sensitive to cultural differences.
  • China will become the world’s largest economy in the next 10–20 years. I-O practices will have to adapt and evolve as a result of changes in organizational and work practices due to the dominance of the Chinese.
  • Increasing focus on cross-cultural issues. We’re still at the beginning of the effective use of global, virtual teams and the full use of global talent. Need to make more progress in personality assessment globally (tackling the issues of norms), behavioral assessment and cultural integration, and the effective management of cross-cultural and virtual teams.
  • Continue to build interfaces with business and government globally as well as increased collaboration among practitioners globally.
  • Globalization of the workforce.

4. Impact of technology

  • Technology will continue to impact I-O practice: Internet testing, virtual assessment, social networking, and new software and products.
  • The integration of technology into the practice of organizational psychology will continue to increase. This trend is already in motion; many areas of practice have become entwined with the development and delivery of software to support related organizational systems (recruitment, selection, training, performance management, succession management, etc.).
  • Technology: Not only will this impact how we do research and practice I-O psychology, but our clients will be facing extreme changes with advancements in technology, so we need to be prepared to help them transition, take advantage, manage the change, and so on, well. Technology is also impacting how I-O psychologists are trained (e.g., online courses).
  • More Web-based instruments: tests, assessment centers, training, 360.
  • Recognizing and leveraging the new world of connectivity and transparency to find new ways and methods of delivering individual, team, and organization interventions.
  • More efficient, streamlined and automated processes, less personal touch.

5. Greater business/client orientation and understanding

  • Closer tie to “MBA” competencies leading to more effective practitioners and possibly leaving “pure” I-O to academicians and increasing obsolescence.
  • Even stronger ties with business schools, a positive in terms of demonstrating a link to business results but a negative in terms of the field maintaining its identity.
  • Being able to provide new, creative, and innovative solutions to our clients is important for the future. We also need to do a better job of anticipating client needs (rather than following their lead). Our graduate training and SIOP could do more to encourage more creative or innovative thinking and focus more on the future of the profession and those we serve. If practitioners and SIOP do not shift their thinking, we will become obsolete because others will perceive us as not adding value.
  • A greater emphasis on demonstrating effectiveness and results and connecting to business strategy.
  • So I guess I wonder how useful the concept of “I-O practice” is. Practices may be better organized around particular needs that client organizations or individuals have rather than around professionals with similar educational backgrounds and professional socialization experiences.
  • Even greater emphasis on learning to speak the language and to understand the business executives and work within the c-suite.

6. Changes in skills

  • Less specialization and broader focus (e.g., focus on many talent manangement domains and not just a subset).
  • R&D skills for HR studying workforce trends, metrics, and analytics.
  • Increasing interest in “business analytics” and  “predictive analytics.”
  • Increasing focus on adult learning, how individuals become skilled at leadership and how to identify and build talent for the long term.
  • Increased emphasis on the ability to interact with senior leadership, less emphasis on traditional research.
  • Provide thought leadership and moral authority in field of assessment as it evolves (morphs) through high technology and global applications.

7. Increasing influence of data-driven and research-based approaches

  • Evidence-based practice will help us maintain a vital link to our research base and will provide a critical point of differentiation between organizational psychology and other management consultants.
  • Practice should become more science based. Science-based practice should become the norm for organizations, diminishing expediency of quick and dirty approaches and of fad practices.
  • I-O psychologists in “senior” practice roles will demand that I-O and OB researchers refocus their research on topics that are most critical to business, and this will spur a renaissance for I-O psychology.
  • More focus on utilization of data to drive talent/HR decisions.
  • Elevation of the importance/visibility/contribution of I-O psychology by virtue of its ability to use, scientifically and for practical ends, the rapidly increasing amount of data available in organizations about people, their attributes, their situations, their behavior, and the outcomes they produce.
  • Use of research-based instrumentation and products become standard operating practice in a wider range of companies, as does adaptive testing over the Internet. Practitioners are seen by organizations as narrow but highly skilled technicians.

8. No change

  • Stay the same general course…do not resolve some of the fundamental issues with the academics within SIOP. Practitioners continue to complain but do not do much more. At this time I am not sure practice is encouraging or developing new leaders and contributors who are willing to even maintain the status quo let alone enhance the influence of practice within SIOP.
  • Wish I could honestly forecast that practice would become more united and influential both in the domain of psychology as it studies and serves organizations, and within SIOP itself. However, I do not see enough commitment from the broader practitioner group to make it happen.
  • Things keep going like they are, I-O gets bigger and better as a field.
  • Selection will continue to be a cornerstone of the profession.
  • I believe our theory building in employee attitudinal issues will be core also.
  • More of the same; I-O psychologists making their mark with some businesses (those with deep pockets and a leaning toward research) but are not viewed as providing unique value for most.

9. Increased competition from others

  • Lines becoming increasingly blurred/undifferentiated with non-I-Os practicing in the I-O “sandbox”; training people doing competency modeling, clinicians doing executive coaching and selection, social psychologists doing organizational surveys, and so on.
  • Boundaries between our profession and others (HR, OD, etc.) continue to erode and our profession moves towards more and more specialization.
  • Increasing competition with other psychologists and even other professions in the realms of coaching, assessment, and corporate advising.
  • We must prepare for our value differentiators. Fierce competition will erupt as other professions (e.g., MBAs) from around the world invade our vastly underleveraged and underpenetrated domain of increasingly obvious criticality (talent at work) accounting for over 50% of business expenses and untold dollar percentages of business value. (Get ready for Bain, McKinsey, and even law firms and IT on one side while on the other side, charlatans, snake oil salesmen, and rehabilitating IT programmers push out crap under the name of psychological assessments.)
  • Determine how to fend off and differentiate ourselves from the influx of clinical psychologists and nonpsychologist “executive coaches.”
  • Competition from online testing vendors could pressure I-O psychologists to lower standards for validity evidence and responsibility for adequately proctored testing.
  • Difficulty maintaining an identity as a branch of psychology given the proliferation of business school and nonpsychology programs in OB, “organizational leadership,” and other programs. Combine that with what I believe is the field’s ambivalence toward licensing and I think it will be very difficult for I-O psychologists to compete with the nonpsychologist “coaches” and consultants out there.

10. Changes in roles

  • More opportunities to leverage training in senior executive roles such as chief human resource officers.
  • Will become the talent gurus in an organization (perhaps CTO, chief talent officer).
  • Application of I-O to wide array of work problems; I-O psychologists will work in all parts of large companies helping to make the work place more efficient and satisfying.
  • More focus on the “total” employment process—recruitment through exit.
  • Technical roles in support of psychologists’ (as in those qualified to call themselves psychologists and practice psychology in their state) and human resources professionals’ work in organizations (i.e., statistical analysis, test validation, testing, developing surveys, etc.).

11. Changes in careers

  • Less I-Os in companies, more in consulting.
  • More careers in HR/organizations.
  • Outsourcing of most personnel research to consulting firms.

12. Increased legal considerations

  • The legal environment for selection will become increasingly complex and challenging. The Uniform Guidelines are not getting any younger, and enforcement agencies are becoming increasingly active, so the pressure to justify our practices against older standards will increase. This influence will impede our ability to advance our practice in this vital area of expertise.
  • Increased legal scrutiny. Will be delicate balance to use “off-the-shelf” tests with more generalizable validity evidence versus building customized assessments that might be more applicable but that must rely on internal validity only.
  • Increased litigation and scrutiny by enforcement agencies of a growing range of activities, including selection, promotion, RIF, compensation, and access to desired programs such as 360, coaching, and management development.
  • Pressure from companies to increase the diversity of their organizations and from regulatory agencies to ensure equal opportunity will continue. I-O psychologists whose work is related to “employment decisions” must continue to ensure it meets professional standards and legal guidelines.

13. Better measurement of impact and outcomes

  • Increasing demand from line leaders for I-O psychologists to solidly demonstrate the ROI or value of the work we do.
  • We need to focus on meeting legitimate business needs with practices that really work and don’t just function as a bandaid. There are a lot of solutions that sound appealing to a business person but don’t work well in the long term. I have concerns that these things will come back to bite us.
  • We do need to police ourselves. I can’t believe some of the ads that I see. We are taking the worst of business and adopting it rather than the best.
  • Increasing focus on ROI of I-O services.

14. Greater public visibility

  • I-O psychologists should become better known in the public domain as long as a few high-profile projects demonstrate the expertise and value of our field.
  • Increased utilization of I-O psychologists due to excellent marketing regarding the unique value the field contributes to the accomplishment of business goals.
  • Growth and prominence: We become more visible and we “own” a variety of HR practices (e.g., selection).

15. Impact of economic factors

  • Recession and global competition have pushed management into some very tough corners, and I think we are seen as a very small part of the solution if not an actual hindrance. The good news is our science is better than ever; we need to sell its value and apply it effectively.
  • Decreasing organizational reliance on I-O practitioners due to economic constraints.

16. Commodizations of products and services

  • Increasing reliance on scalable, commoditized products, reducing opportunities for research; greater demand for cheaper, faster, easier processes ranging from testing to performance management, even if they don’t represent our best science and knowledge; increasing disinterest from management in anything that requires time or effort to develop or implement.
  • It will break into two parts: a commodity portion in which online tools (both good and terrible) will be distributed over the Web at very low cost and elite consulting practices where practitioners do highly customized work with senior executives.


The responses to this question are thought provoking and perhaps challenge our collective mindset of who we are and what we contribute to business and society. We are encouraged that the overwhelming majority of respondents are able to envision future changes in our field but are concerned about the mix of positive and more negative trends. There are many important insights here that I-O practitioners and SIOP should carefully consider. In our view some primary insights are:

  • Ongoing concern about the integration versus divergence of I-O research and I-O practice
  • Potential irrelevance and splintering of the field
  • Perceived threat and competition to our field from professionals in other fields
  • Possible integration and incorporation into other fields
  • Migration to business schools
  • Increasing focus on individual psychology and talent management
  • Diverging professional interests between a focus on individuals/talent and a focus on organizations
  • Need to be more relevant and useful to business clients and organizations
  • Increasing impact of technology, globalization, and economic conditions
  • Opportunity to leverage a data-driven and research-based approach for the benefit of individuals and organizations
  • Potential changes to I-O roles and careers
  • Increasing demand for demonstrating the ROI of our contributions

These insights suggest that the field of I-O psychology is highly likely to go through some significant changes in the future. One core question is whether I-O psychologists and SIOP are prepared to proactively shape the future of our field or whether we will just passively stand by as the world shapes us.

A recent symposium at the 2010 SIOP conference in Atlanta discussed the future of I-O practice (Silzer, Ashworth, Paul, & Tippins, 2010). The main conclusion was that the symposium audience strongly preferred that the headline for the future be “I-O psychologists become the indispensable gurus of talent,” with some also supporting the future as “chief strategist for HR.” But the audience thought the most likely future will be “more of the same.” This points out the difference between wishful thinking and passive reality.

This article is the first of several articles that will explore the future evolution of I-O psychology and outline suggestions on what I-O psychologists and SIOP can do to proactively shape the future of our field. Our perspective is slanted toward being proactive and looking for ways to actively shape the future of I-O psychology. Some of the survey responses make us concerned about the general long-term health of our field.

In the next article, we will summarize the survey responses to the question of what I-O practitioners can be doing to further contribute to organizational and individual effectiveness. 


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