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Learning About Learning: Defining the Role of I-Os in L&D

Tom Whelan and Amy DuVernet

This article represents the first installment of a column focused exclusively on training and development. Your initial reaction might be, “wait a sec, do we really need one of these?” We think so, but not for the reasons you might expect. Although SIOP identifies training as a key element of the employment lifecycle to which I-Os can contribute (professionals) and training represents a core content competency and major component of the newly approved Guidelines for Education and Training in Industrial-Organizational Psychology (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc., 2016), a specific focus on the learning and development (L&D) space has been sorely missing from TIP. The publication boasts columns devoted to humanitarian psychology, neuroscience, legal issues, and more general practitioner, graduate student, and academic topics, but has rarely included content focused specifically on L&D in recent years, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Poeppelman, Lobene, & Blacksmith, 2015; Vosburgh, 2016). Moreover, training as a content area produced a mere 15 of the 901 (< 2%) presentations at the recent 2016 SIOP conference (although, 28 presentations included training in the title and the related content areas of leadership development/coaching and careers/mentoring/socialization/onboarding/retirement included 14 and 39 presentations, respectively). Even more evidence for a diminished focus on training comes from, arguably, the top two I-O psychology journals, Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology (Zickar & Highhouse, 2003), which published 40 of 1,206 and 36 of 766 articles listing training as the subject, respectively (as indexed in PsycINFO, accessed 5/22/2016). Thus, with this column we hope to stimulate more thought and focus on the ways in with I-Os can contribute to the L&D space, with the ultimate goal of observing a larger number of I-O articles, research studies, and collaborative applied projects related to training.


In our first column, we seek to cover some of the basics of L&D, level setting across TIP readership to create a common understanding what we mean by training; while many of you may work in L&D and have familiarity with the concepts discussed below, others are likely to be less familiar. We know because we used to fall into the less familiar camp and have found that there’s still plenty more to learn about the constantly evolving corporate L&D space. Thus, we offer a brief primer on training with the goal of moving the conception of training beyond a standalone, face-to-face, instructor led course to a broader definition that includes the application of new and emerging technologies and the propensity for the modern learner to consume knowledge in increasingly more informal ways. This is followed by a summary some of the many ways that I-Os can and do contribute to corporate L&D functions.


Training in the Wild


Training has been defined in numerous ways, but nearly all definitions revolve around a process of encouraging (or sometimes discouraging) specific workplace behaviors. For instance, Goldstein (1980) defined training as “the acquisition of skills, concepts, or attitudes that results in improved performance in an on-the-job environment” (p. 230). Twenty years later, Goldstein and Ford (2002) defined training as a systematic approach to learning and development to improve individual, team, and organizational effectiveness. However, these definitions may be treated as more malleable in practice, as what falls under the banner of “training” in the responsibilities of a corporate L&D function mirrors what some of us may consider to be broader areas of I-O expertise. For instance, L&D departments and personnel may assume the primary responsibility inside an organization for career development, coaching, certification/testing, leadership pipelines, and at least secondary responsibility for change management, analytics and metrics, and performance improvement. Further, L&D operations can involve an array of technology used to design, organize, and deliver training content across a range of hardware and software platforms. This may not seem like news, but if one were to attend a conference that brought together the range of corporate training vendors, you might have a hard time finding an I/O in the crowd and/or a decent number of L&D professionals who are even aware our field exists. Given the overlap in our expertise, there are certainly a great deal of areas where traditional I-O work overlaps with that of L&D.


Further, the operationalization of training in many modern organizations may differ from how we traditionally conceptualize its form and function. One of the most obvious differences is the concept of training as event-based, such that we, as I-Os, may be more inclined to see training as akin to a quasi-experimental study. This can result in a view of corporate learning as a series of crucible events, with both pre- and post-training assessments being an extension of each isolated training intervention. L&D professionals, on the other hand, are predisposed to see training occurring on a continuum of learning for each employee, whereby learning is a process with each learning opportunity playing a part in a larger developmental trajectory of additive knowledge and skills that may or may not have a shelf-life.


In line with the view of individual learning as a continuum, an increasing amount of attention is paid to informal learning in corporate L&D. Informal learning occurs in the context of “employees attempting to deal with emerging problems in the workplace” (Gu, Churchill, & Lu, 2014, p. 1049) and envelops self-directed learning, which is intentional and learner-directed, incidental learning, which is unintentional and situation driven, and tacit learning, which is unintentional and often not obvious to the learner. While this may not seem revolutionary in the domain of I-O research, there is a healthy training market for informal learning techniques. For example, e-learning, mobile learning, and other forms of distance learning can serve to introduce and implement informal and self-direct learning in enterprise training strategy. Similarly, many L&D functions require the agility to deliver “just-in-time” learning depending on the regulatory needs of various industries or the complexity of the pace of changes to knowledge (e.g., Vosburgh, 2016). Such needs are further met by the preference for generative (i.e., learner controlled and initiated) training that minimizes or eliminates the role of an instructor, thereby permitting dispersed learning that doesn’t require co-location or scheduling (London & Hall, 2011). Simply put, contemporary training is not a discrete classroom experience for most employees, or at least they may perceive workplace learning as having a much wider aperture that includes many forms of on-the-job learning, coaching, and software architectures that guide them through developmental curricula.


So is I-O as a field driving these inconsistencies in how training is defined? Largely, the answer is no, but that also mean we may not be doing our best to sit “at the table” with corporate L&D. There are a host of stakeholders and providers in the training marketplace that have never been exposed to the I-O research literature, and who may also come from backgrounds with varying degrees of experience with the scientific study of workplace learning. Although we will explore common L&D roles in greater detail in future columns, it bears noting here that education is a more common field of study to find on the resumes of learning professionals. This is nothing to bemoan, but it does imply that there is not necessarily a shared language and theoretical background when the time comes to collaborations with individuals in such roles. To that end, I-Os working with L&D professionals need to meet them halfway, and learn some of the language of corporate training in order to make better judgments and provide expert advice about learning initiatives built on solid analytical foundations (i.e., the adoption of e-learning) and those built on useful heuristics that have dubious empirical origins (i.e., the 70:20:10 model).


A partial solution is to seek to build more bridges between the world of corporate learning and the field of I-O. Aguinis and Kraiger (2009), in their summary of the state of training research in the Annual Review of Psychology, noted that “we cannot rely on the psychological literature to be the only or even main source of knowledge that has been generated” (p. 452). I/O as a field could potentially be missing opportunities to work closer with L&D departments, both in consultative and operational capacities. As such, the market of corporate training reflects many of the recent SIOP workplace trends for 2016 (SIOP, 2015). L&D stakeholders and training providers are widely interested in the implications of social media, leveraging diversity, promoting organizational flexibility, big data, in addition to employee engagement and wellness. As a field, I-O has not-so-strange bedfellows in the world of corporate learning that could provide for both more inroads for I-Os to make meaningful impacts on employees as well as an opportunity to encourage and enrich the study and understanding of training through a more multi-disciplinary lens. Which brings us to a brief discussion of where we fit and can have the greatest impact in L&D.


I-O and L&D


SIOP lists a number of ways in which I-Os can add value to L&D initiatives including: facilitation, defining the need, building the learning strategy and frameworks, program design/delivery, leadership development, executive coaching, and performance and program metrics (Learning and Development). Below we expand on these, acknowledging that the field is dominated by non-IOs and outlining how each of these can be accomplished in collaboration with the L&D professionals who are typically tasked with their execution.


  1. Facilitation - I-Os can work with L&D leadership to bridge the gap between business leaders and training organization leaders, establishing and emphasizing a common language and framework with which each can approach business problems. Most of us already know this is the type of role we often play when consulting with organizations, but how much are we engaging with the full capability of L&D functions? When we advocate for L&D, knowing that training can play a significant role in larger organizational strategy and outcomes (e.g., Kim & Ployhart, 2014), the combination of L&D and I-O perspectives can yield optimal decision-making to maximize both long- and short-term outcomes.


  1. Defining the need - Assessment is clearly a key strength that we as I-Os possess, and most L&D leaders would be delighted to discover, if they haven’t already, that there’s a whole field full of professionals that actually enjoy analytics. As Vosburgh (2016) suggested, I-Os can play a key consultative role in identifying key skills and knowledge gaps, in addition to possessing the statistical acumen to answer complex questions about how closing such gaps may benefit the organization. In addition, we can also add value in diagnosing business needs; the ability to recommend a variety of solutions beyond training has long been identified as best practice for training organizations (Harward & Taylor, 2014). Because of our unique position and ability to add value across the employee lifecycle, we may be better able to diagnose business problems, as we possess the training and skills necessary to offer that variety of solutions (e.g., selection system design, performance management development).


  1. Learning strategy and frameworks - Similar to our value in facilitation, I-Os can work with business leaders to translate overarching goals into operational outcomes and bridging divides between business leaders and L&D professionals. In addition, we are equipped to develop multiple interrelated systems, creating linkages between various HR functions that facilitate the identification of the root causes of business problems. For example, performance problems are often diagnosed as either a selection or a training issue, but how do these 2 functions work in concert to impact performance? Training may also be ruled ineffective when the culprit is actually related on-the-job obstacles such as a lack of manager support or misaligned performance management systems. Again, because of our unique positioning across the lifecycle, I-Os may be better equipped to develop strategy and create linkages across interrelated systems to align such systems to meet organizational goals.


  1. Training design/delivery - We see these as separate, but interrelated L&D processes. When it comes to design, I-Os can add value by working with instructional designers to link objectives identified through needs assessment to learning objectives for specific courses or programs of courses and to build a plan for evaluation into the course from the beginning. I-Os can assist in delivery in through the selection, training, and evaluation of trainers. We can also provide guidance on the best delivery methods given job constraints and individual learner needs and characteristics. Here I-Os must work with training leaders to provide guidance and understand restraints.


  1. Leadership development and coaching - Spanning the above, leadership development is one of the training content areas where I-Os have been firmly established. Here we add value in facilitation, needs assessment, learning strategy, design and delivery, as well as coaching and evaluation, which are discussed below. Specifically, we are again uniquely suited to contribute because of our value across the employee lifecycle, allowing contributions in succession planning, the identification of high potential employees, the design, implementation, and evaluation of performance management and promotional systems, and our abilities to align these systems with leadership development programs.


  1. Training evaluation - SIOP lists 3 training outcomes that can be influenced by L&D (Professionals). We understand that this is a topic near and dear to all of our collective I-O hearts, so we plan to dedicate an entire future column specifically to evaluation. For now, we’ll say that this is clearly an area where we possess a level of expertise that adds considerable value. While many L&D programs focus exclusively on the number of individuals going through training or reporting satisfaction with training as metrics of success, we can facilitate the operationalization and measurement of additional metrics tied more closely to business results. Additionally, it is important that we stay aware of trends within the L&D field; as training moves to more informal and self-directed methodologies, our evaluation methods must also evolve.




We hope the above has been useful in setting the stage for training and development. Future issues will provide much greater detail around corporate L&D and the multitude of ways it is manifest in organizations. Upcoming column topics include the use of “bleeding-edge” learning technologies, trends in L&D strategy, the state of applied learning analytics and evaluation, outsourcing L&D services, training design and delivery methodologies and much more. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you if you are working in L&D, want to transition to an L&D role, or have thoughts, questions, or suggestions on how I-Os can contribute to corporate training programs. 




Aguinis, H. & Kraiger, K. (2009). Benefits of training and development for individuals and teams, organizations, and society. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 451-474.


Goldstein, I. L. (1980). Training in work organizations. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 229-272.


Goldstein, I. L. & Ford, J. K. (2002). Training in organizations (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Gu, J., Churchill, D., & Lu, J. (2014). Mobile Web 2.0 in the workplace: A case study of employees’ informal learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(6), 1049-1059.


Harward, D., & Taylor, K. What makes a great training organization? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson FT Press.


Kim, Y., & Ployhart, R. E. (2014). The effects of staffing and training on firm productivity and profit growth before, during, and after the Great Recession. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 361-389.


Learning and Development. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/business/learning.aspx.


London, M. & Hall, M.J. (2011). Web 2.0 technologies for training and development: The shift from instructor-controlled, adaptive learning to learner-driven, generative learning. Human Resource Management, 50(6), 757-775.


Poeppelman, T., Lobene, E., & Blacksmith, N. (2015). Personalizing the learning experience through adaptive training. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 52(4), 82-88.


Professionals. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tab_default/professionals_default.aspx.


SIOP Administrative Office (2015). SIOP Announces Top 10 Workplace Trends for 2016. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/article_view.aspx?article=1467.


Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. (2016). Guidelines for education and training in industrial/organizational psychology. Bowling Green, OH: Author.


Vosburgh, R. M. (2016). Learning and development. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 53(4), 92-97.


Zickar, M.J., & Highhouse, S. (2003). Measuring prestige of journals in industrial-organizational psychology. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist.

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