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The One Constant of the Workplace: Technological Change


In support of SIOP’s Smarter Workplace Awareness Month, SIOP member Denise M. Rousseau agreed to answer a few questions about the impact of technological change on today’s workplace.

Dr. Rousseau is the H.J. Heinz II University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and the Tepper School of Business. She is the faculty chair of the Heinz College Health Care Policy and Management program and Academic Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Management.

  • You recently posted a question online “Are employee surveys becoming obsolete?”  What is your opinion?

No and Yes. There have always been alternatives to surveys for tapping employee attitudes, for example, the old concept of “unobtrusive measures.”  Some clever I-O colleagues have used behavioral substitutes for attitude surveys since the 1980s, like how fast people walk from the parking lot into the (organization’s) building, how lively the chat is in the lunchroom (and if people use the lunchroom instead of sitting at their workstation).  Today web posts and Workplace by Facebook conversations are being coded to capture affect (aka Work Satisfaction or Organizational Climate). Still, there is a precision that surveys can provide with respect to “facets” of satisfaction, justice, climate, and other concepts, but they aren’t the only source of insight into individual or group workplace experiences or responses. We now have more readily available “unobtrusive measures.”

  • How does I-O psychology fit into this postsurvey approach to organizational metrics?

I see I-O psychology as key in informing the new approaches to organizational metrics and analytics.  I have been participating in a monthly call David Creelman leads for a community of data analytics professionals in American and Canadian companies. A dozen or so professionals participate each month. One of them will take a lead to present his or her company’s approach to data analytics, and we discuss the processes used and their implications. Two things stand out about the role of I-O psychology in this community of practice. First is that the majority of participants are trained in either I-O psychology or marketing research—statistics training is not enough! Subject matter knowledge is needed, and in the organizational context of contemporary data analytics, a behavioral science background typically is critical. The reason why that background matters is the second thing I have learned from this community—to make sense of Big Data you need to be able to develop evidence-based logic models.  Logic models map connections among organizational data, like inputs and attributes of actors, to organizational practices, and the outcomes that follow.  Sometimes this is described as a “theory of change.”  The key idea here is that data analytics is not dustbowl empiricism. Instead, theory is needed to choose among the myriad ways data could be analyzed, to find a sensible logic that helps detect to whom and how the outcomes of interest are tied. I-O psychologists in industry are increasingly working in support of analytics, and I-O research often provides a basis for the logic models they apply.

  • What advice do you have for organizations as we move toward a technological landscape of rapid change?

My advice would be to act on the strong and consistent findings from organizational change research (see my AOM Annals chapter with Jeroen Stouten and Richard deCremer).  If you want to effectively change while keeping pretty much the same workforce, employees need to believe that their managers are competent and trustworthy.  Managers build and demonstrate competence when they use quality evidence in making decisions, involve stakeholders in the decision process, and measure the outcomes of their decisions—and learn from these outcomes. Managers build trust by demonstrating that they have the interests of employees and other stakeholders at heart. Competence and trust are the cornerstone of effective change, and they have virtuous spillovers, in the sense that competent managers are likely to develop competent employees who can exercise autonomy and proactively engage change.

  • You’ve written extensively about psychological contracts, idiosyncratic deals, and evidence-based management.  Are there any shifts in these areas that you see in the near term, due to societal pressures?  For example, given current demands for gender equality, are we likely to see fewer i-deals in the future? 

I believe I-O psychology should have a global reach, which means that we seek to understand the workplace in non-Western settings too. One of the most overlooked, at least in the West, effects of societal pressure is the aversive work climate experienced by workers in Japan and China. The toll is high and so far little attention is given to remedies and how I-O psychology might provide useful research in this context. To your query about gender equality, I fully expect more i-deals, not fewer. I-deals often arise in how policies are actually implemented. It is difficult to write a one-size-fits-all rule. First-line managers will always be rule interpreters for HR practices.  My hope is that we will see i-deals become more public and less secret as managers share the principles around which they make such deals.  In a more supportive work environment, there may be less felt need to hide i-deals. 

  • As another example, given the increase in available evidence, are we likely to see an increase in evidence-based management practices?  

Recent research I have done with Denise Jepsen finds that managers who are seen as making decisions based on evidence are more likely to be trusted by employees and to promote learning in their workplaces. I believe managers and employees will benefit from attention to the quality of evidence used in decision making—and that experiencing this benefit can build more uptake of EBMgt. But for managers to adopt evidence-based practices, they have to be able to figure out what the evidence is for a practice in the first place.  I believe I-O psychology and organizational scholars in general need to commit to conducting systematic reviews on organizational practices to learn what works and what doesn’t.

  • Thank you, Denise, for taking the time to contribute to SIOP’s Smarter Workplace Awareness Month efforts. Is there anything else you would like to share?

My colleague Eric Barends and I chair the Management and Business Coordinating Group for the Campbell Collaboration. Tell your readers we are seeking proposals for systematic reviews on practices in the workplace. If your proposed protocol is approved, we guarantee publication of the review as long as you do what you said you would!

This interview was contributed by Dr. Jerel E. Slaughter. Jerel is a member of SIOP’s Visibility Committee and Eller Professor of Management and Organizations in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.

September is Smarter Workplace Awareness Month! Smarter Workplace Awareness Month is all about celebrating and promoting the science and practice of I-O psychology and how I-O psychology can help to make a workplace better. This year, we are focusing on the Top Ten Workplace Trends for 2019.

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