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A Practice–Science Partnership: An Integrated Approach to I-O Psychology

Rob Silzer, HR Assessment and Development, Inc./Baruch, Graduate Center CUNY; & Allan H. Church PepsiCo, Inc.

Over the last 10 years we have been working together to advance the field of identifying and developing high potential leadership talent. As our work evolved and advanced, we have worked hard to integrate the science and the practice of our profession to address a key business need. We believe we have advanced both the practice and the science of high potential leadership talent. We think of this effort and process as a practice–science partnership. We believe that it offers an integrated approach to I-O psychology. It resulted in significant advances in the client organization as well as numerous published contributions to our profession.

In this article we describe our approach to a practice–science partnership. First, we provide a brief historical perspective and then discuss the science–practice gap and factors that are contributing to the gap. We then describe the process and approach we used to implement a practice–science partnership. We close with some suggestions on how to purse a practice–science partnership.

Historical Perspective

There has been a longstanding recognition of the two perspectives in industrial-organizational psychology: science and practice. This reflects a historical and fundamental tension between the two worlds of psychology, science and practice.

I-O psychology has been one of the more applied fields in psychology, with origins in addressing real-world applied problems related to work, selection, and leadership. In the 1970s the field boomed when some major applied-research efforts, such as the AT&T Management Progress Study (Bray, Campbell & Grant, 1974), were published. They opened the doors for expanded organizational applications of I-O psychology knowledge and research results. Numerous senior I-O psychologists, such as Doug Bray, Marv Dunnette (1971), and Bernie Bass (Bass & Stogdill, 1981), led the way in demonstrating how this new knowledge could be leveraged for organizational and individual applications, benefits, and success.

Our field has long recognized and valued the scientific foundations underlying our work and has depended on I-O psychologists to document and expand our scientific knowledge. However, over the last 40 years, I-O psychology practice has noticeably expanded, and I-O practitioners are now a majority of the SIOP membership. Practitioners have energetically developed and applied I-O psychology knowledge and skills to important organizational issues. At the same time our I-O scientific knowledge has also greatly expanded into related fields such as organizational behavior, organization development, and human-resource development.

The Science–Practice Gap

However, despite the clear success of the field, a science–practice gap in I-O psychology knowledge and understanding, which has always present to some degree, has become more visible over the last 20 years, and there is a shared perception among others that the gap is widening (Cober, Silzer & Erickson, 2009a; 2009b; Silzer et. al., 2008; 2010). In a SIOP survey, I-O practitioners indicated that I-O practice was ahead of I-O science/research in 19 out of 26 core I-O content areas in our profession, whereas science/research was seen as being ahead of I-O practice in only five content areas (Silzer, et al., 2008). Researchers are regularly noting the lack of “evidence-based practice” in our field (see IOP Journal, March 2011 issue for an extended discussion), and sessions at the annual SIOP conference each year highlight issues in practice that have not yet been addressed by research.

So there is a perception by many I-O psychologists that there is a widening science–practice gap (Cober, Silzer & Erickson, 2009a; 2009b; Silzer et. al., 2008; 2010). We are not sure anyone can say specifically what caused it or if it is truly getting worse; we all have our own views on this. The origins of such a complex issue are never easy to identify. But we think there are some trends in the profession that may be contributing to it. If we take a hard look at ourselves we recognize challenges on both sides of the science and practice divide here, such as:

  • The noticeable absence of almost all I-O practitioners from editorial boards of key I-O journals and the journal resistance to accepting practice-oriented journal articles. Also the resistance of journals to require that every article address the applied implications of the specific research.
  • The limited training and education on practice-related topics and the underlying scientific foundations of those practice areas by I-O psychology graduate programs.
  • The exclusion of I-O practitioners from the SIOP Frontiers Book Series Editorial Board and their exclusion as book editors in the same series. These books and chapters often do not discuss I-O practice or the accumulating knowledge and advances by I-O practitioners. Although this may reflect the strategic intent of the series, it reinforces the exclusion of I-O practice by its very design. Moreover, this exclusionary approach is not true in the Professional Practice Series, where both practitioners and academics have both made important contributions (Silzer & Parson, 2014).
  • The scientifically questionable products, programs and services that are offered by some I-O practitioners that have little scientific underpinnings or validity (see recent issues of IOP Journal).
  • The major books in our field that purport to offer an annual review or a handbook of I-O psychology but only include academics as chapter authors, who in turn rely almost exclusively on the journal research literature for their understanding of the field.
  • Some of the sessions presented at the annual SIOP conference that are nothing more than a show and tell promotion of some application of a new product, tool, or consulting service with little or no discussion of any underlying scientific principles or knowledge.
  • The lack of awareness, or at times even curiosity, by some practitioners of relevant research literature on a professional topic of interest to an I-O practitioner.

There are many more examples of this distancing in our profession between science and practice. There have been many efforts over the years to address some of these challenges, such as special journal sections (e.g., the now defunct Practitioner Forum in the Personnel Psychology Journal), entire journal issues dedicated to closing the gap (such as those that occur in the Journal of Business and Psychology, see Church, 2011), and frequent articles in SIOP publications (Cober, Silzer & Erickson, 2009a; 2009b; Silzer et al. 2010), as well as many relevant sessions at the annual SIOP conference. However, they continue to have only a marginal impact.

Underlying Factors Leading to the Science–Practice Gap

 We think there are a few underlying themes that are limiting our efforts to close the gap.

  1. Growth of the field. The field of I-O psychology has grown substantially from its origins. As a result it is becoming increasing difficult to keep up with the full range of information and findings from I-O science and I-O practice. Individuals, organizations, and graduate programs have a difficult time keeping up with the full breadth of our profession. Graduate programs offer few if any courses on important I-O practice areas such as executive coaching, talent management, and individual assessment (Nagy, 2018). Based on our professional networking, some I-O practitioners no longer can find the time to read I-O research journals. Everyone seems to us to be too busy to keep up with advances in the field except in the areas that are immediately relevant to their own current research or practice. Just consider the 3 full days of presentations at the annual SIOP conference, and the proliferation of I-O psychology books. Just keeping up with those is almost a full-time job.
  2. Career isolation. Many I-O psychologists have made an early career decision to be either a researcher/scientist or an applied practitioner. That decision often is a clear fork in the career road that is hard to reverse. Because of personal choices, career demands, and organizational pressures (on both researchers and practitioners), the result is often an intense focus on being successful as an academic/researcher or a practitioner. The reward systems for researchers and practitioners are very different and likely encourage this bifurcation.
  3. Limited contact. Researchers may connect only with other researchers who are relevant to their own work. They rarely attend the annual SIOP Leading Edge Consortium, which is designed to present recent advances in I-O practice and is well attended by leading I-O practitioners. Practitioners form special-interest networks, attend specific LECs, and join LinkedIn groups focused on particular practice areas, such as executive coaching and leadership assessment. Both groups may have limited contact with colleagues who have chosen the other career path. Often conference sessions, workshops, and other professional-development opportunities tend to focus on the interests of researchers or practitioners. The result is that they consequently attract professionals from one career track or the other but rarely both. It reflects what we see as the growing balkanization, rather than a coming together, of the discipline.
  4. Pressures from other disciplines: I-O psychology is no longer (if it ever was) the sole domain of all things organizational or individual in the form of data-based insights, measurement, or large-scale interventions. Today HR professionals, data-analytic professionals, as well as clinical, social, and counseling psychologists are entering the mainstream I-O practice areas. This results in some domain confusion and dispersion. For example, I-O practitioners have to compete in the marketplace with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds (such as HR, business, life coaching) who are offering psychological services (such as psychological assessment). Over time, many I-O practitioners, however, come to realize that our expertise and our science can frequently distinguish us from everyone else.

There are things that SIOP and I-O psychologists can do to overcome these challenges. For example both of us work hard to stay active and involved in the profession, to teach in graduate programs, to stay connected with academic colleagues, to frequently write and publish professionally, and to stay current on the field and the profession. Of course others may not have the same professional interests, but we do think all I-O psychologists have some responsibility for the sustainability and integration of the field. That should include a commitment to both I-O practice and I-O science.

Benefits to Integrating Our Practice and Our Science

There are, in our view, numerous benefits for our colleagues and the profession by encouraging an integration of practice and science. It increases our professional expertise, impact, and influence. In our opinion this results in more significant contributions to our profession and to our organizational clients and community. The researchers are likely to gain more insight and understanding of the complexities of applied work that should result in more relevant and useful research. I-O practitioners are likely to discover that significant research is being done that is relevant and helpful to solving applied problems. Perhaps SIOP should create more professional recognitions for members who are working to integrate our practice and our science.

New Metaphors Are Needed

Often the metaphor of a bridge is used to suggest a physical connection between our science and our practice. This is an easily understood and visualized metaphor and is not new to the field (see Church, 2011; Hyatt et al., 1997; Rynes, 2012); however, it may not be the most helpful one. It implies two separate entities, such as river banks, that can be connected but never fully integrated. The bridges over the Mississippi River have not integrated Minneapolis and St. Paul, nor has the bridge over the Bosporus River in Istanbul integrated Europe with Asia.

After years of observing and actively participating in these discussions and debates ourselves, we would suggest that a new approach and terminology should be introduced into the lexicon. Perhaps a new concept is needed that moves the field forward and implies the integration of two perspectives rather than just connecting across a permanent divide. Perhaps there are other metaphors or concepts that should be considered such as:

  • Two sides of the same coin
  • Collaborative partnerships
  • High performing teams
  • A business merger
  • A dynamic algorithm
  • An integrated network
  • A total system

These examples imply that science and practice could work together with close collaboration and connectedness, for shared goals and at some point full integration. Surely the integrated whole is greater than the component parts. We are open to exploring these and other metaphors. We have been working from a concept of practice–science partnership (PSP). Each of us has a personal commitment to integrating practice and science despite operating in somewhat different spheres of our own. We have also been doing this with others in the field of I-O psychology (both with practitioner and academic colleagues) for the past 20+ years.

A Partnership to Address a Business Need

Our Objective

Each of us has extensive career experience working in organizations and in consulting to organizations and individuals. We have both leveraged I-O science and I-O practice to advance individual, group, and organizational success. So we were both comfortable and experienced in dealing with the interface between science and practice and between scientific prescriptions and organizational realities.

Over the last 15 years, talent management has emerged as an important strategic and organizing framework of human resources in organizations, and in 2006 we participated in one of the first SIOP sessions focused on talent management (Church, 2006; Silzer, 2006), which was extremely well attended. In 2008, as organizations were shifting their focus in this direction, we became acutely aware of the critical emerging business need to accurately identify and develop individuals early in their careers who have the potential to be effective future leaders in an organization.

This was a clear example of a practice-based need that was ahead of the science-based curve, as our clients were beginning to look for answers to these same questions as well (there were no major books on talent management or high-potential talent at the time, but one soon emerged—Silzer & Dowell, 2010). Based on our experience and knowledge we thought I-O psychology was uniquely suited to address this strategic issue.

We decided to initiate a comprehensive and systematic process for developing effective solutions that would be sustainable over time. Specifically, we were interested in directly addressing the fundamental challenge of talent management in businesses, to ensure the readiness and availability of leadership talent to sustain the business over time. This led us to the issue of how to identify high-potential leadership talent earlier in their careers. What are the key factors to consider when identifying and assessing the leadership talent potential in individuals?

Our objectives were to:

  • Address the strategic business issue of high-potential talent identification by developing and implementing effective and sustainable solutions
  • Capitalize on relevant I-O science and I-O practice and look for synergies across them.

Our Process

We partnered together to follow a process that worked to leverage both science and practice and inform each of the knowledge and advances from the other. Our process steps were to:

  1. Define the business need
  2. Determine the current state of leadership potential
  3. Review relevant research and practice
  4. Build a comprehensive model of high-potential leadership talent (see Figure 1)
  5. Develop and implement tools and programs that support the model
  6. Evaluate outcomes and determine organizational impact

We think that our process provides a good example of how I-O psychology can address real business needs with an effective process that leverages and integrates both I-O science and I-O practice. Our focus here is on the larger practice-science integration challenges in our profession. We use our work on high potential talent to as an example of how to pursue a practice-science partnership. See Silzer, Church, Rotolo, and Scott, 2016, for a full and discussion of the detailed process steps and outcomes, and the lessons we learned along the way in addressing the high-potential business issue.

The Integration of Science and Practice

We have found that some of our I-O colleagues see the integration from either a practice or a research perspective and want the other side to walk across “the gap in the bridge” to their side. Some I-O practitioners would like researchers to produce more “relevant research.” Some researchers would like practitioners to practice in much closer allegiance with available research. Although these are typically well-meaning attempts to connect science and practice, they seem half steps or a temporary approach that soon disappears in the middle of the night.

Our interest was to pursue an interaction where I-O science informs I-O practice and I-O practice informs I-O science. But more than just establishing a two-way communication we wanted to also integrate science and practice under shared goals, like a high-performing team or a collaborative partnership.

We wanted to make sure practice and science was closely aligned throughout, and importantly, as the work continued to evolve over time. Table 1 outlines some of the ways that we worked to include I-O practice and I-O science in each step of the process.

Table 1

The Role of Science and Practice in Our Work on the Identification of High Potential Talent

Process steps

I-O science role

I-O practice role

  1. Defining the business need

Reviewed research on the connection between talent management efforts and business success (see Silzer & Dowell, 2010)

Drew from own applied practice experience, connected with practitioner colleagues and reviewed practice literature to understand and define the underlying business need (see Church & Silzer, 2014; Silzer & Church, 2009a, 2009b)

  1.  Determining the current state of leadership potential

Developed an organizational-practice survey based on research related to key leadership-success variables (see Silzer & Church, 2009a, 2010)

Developed an organizational-practice survey of HiPo practices in some organizations

Surveyed 20 leading companies on their organizational practices in managing high-potential talent (see Silzer & Church, 2009a, 2010)

Later expanded to survey wider population (see Church & Rotolo, 2016; Church, Rotolo, Ginther & Levine, 2015)

  1.  Reviewing relevant research & practice

Completed a thorough review of research literature related to early identification of High-potential leaders (see Silzer &
Borman, 2017; Silzer & Church, 2009a; 2009b 2010;)

Completed a review of all research based high-potential models being used in consulting practices (see Silzer & Church, 2009a; 2009b; 2010)

  1.  Building a comprehensive model of high-potential leadership talent, the blueprint model of High Potential

Developed a theoretical and operational model of high-potential talent that is being used for additional research (see Church, et al., 2015; Church & Silzer, 2014, Silzer & Church, 2009a, 2009b)

Developed a theoretical and operational model of high-potential talent that is being used operationally in numerous leading organizations (see Church, et al, 2015; Church & Silzer, 2014, Silzer & Church, 2009a, 2009b)

  1.  Developing & implementing tools & programs that support the model

Researched and identified valid assessment measurements that implemented the blueprint model in a leading organization (see Church & Silzer, 2014; Church et al. 2015; Silzer, Church, Rotolo & Scott, 2016).

Developed assessment tools, instruments, and programs to implement blueprint model in a leading organization at multiple levels (see Church, 2014; Church, Del Giudice & Margulies, 2017; Church & Rotolo, 2016; Church & Silzer, 2014; Happich & Church, 2016; Silzer, Church, Rotolo & Scott, 2016).

  1.  Evaluating outcomes & determining organizational impact


Currently conducting organizational research on outcomes and impact on prediction success, participant reactions, relationship to performance (see Church, et al., 2017; Church, et al., 2015; Church & Rotolo, 2016; Happich & Church, 2016)

Determining impact on organizational culture and senior-leader support (see Church, 2017; Church, et al., 2017, 2015; Church & Rotolo, 2016; Happich & Church, 2016)

  1. Expanding ourlearnings to the broader field

See Scott et al., 2017; Silzer &
Borman, 2017





Throughout this process there has been regular attention to involving and integrating knowledge from both I-O practice and I-O science. It has been a PSP at each stage. One informs the other and the integrated outcomes are greater than the parts.

Our Approach at PepsiCo

Seven years ago, PepsiCo embarked on a journey to enhance the level of objectivity, consistency, rigor, and impact of their talent-management processes at a total systems level. This effort has resulted in a number of significant changes and a fundamental realignment of the HR function to enable growth and development across the entire employee life cycle. A key enabler of this shift has been the introduction of a fully integrated, evidence-based assessment-and-development process that addresses the key question of how to identify the best and brightest talent and ensure they achieve their full potential.

This process, called the Leadership Assessment and Development (LeAD) program, was based on the Leadership Potential BluePrint (see Figure 1 and Silzer & Church, 2009a), which was a product of this project. The BluePrint addresses the question not only of “What do we mean by high potential?” but also and more importantly, “Potential for what?” That is, it outlines the fundamentals of global potential for success and also illustrates that different capabilities are needed to be successful in different roles.

Figure 1. Leadership potential blueprint

Adapted from “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential,” by R. Silzer and A. H. Church, 2009a, Industrial and Organizational Psychology Journal: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 2, p. 401. Copyright 2009 by Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.



Numerous leading-edge high potential programs and systems have been introduced into PepsiCo and other leading corporations as a result of this integrated effort. As a result, PepsiCo is now seen as one of the leading corporations in the world for identifying and developing future leadership talent. In addition, the Blue Print Model (see Figure 1) being adopted widely in organizations, our related high-potential articles/publications have been widely read and our conference presentations fill meeting rooms. For example at a recent SIOP conference we led a Community of Interest session on developing organizational programs to identify high potentials. There was overwhelming attendance of about 200 people and we had to move to a much larger room (usually these sessions attract 20-30 people). The BluePrint model and related publications are being cited in numerous other professional articles and books.

More recently the SIOP 2018 Leading Edge Consortium was on High Potentials: Identifying, Developing and Retaining Future Leaders (Chairs Rob Silzer and Allan Church). This major conference attracted over 200 participants. The results included strong LEC and program evaluations ratings by participants, very positive responses to the LEC innovations, high attendance and strong ratings for several pro-consortium workshops, a record level of LEC sponsors and a record net profit for SIOP. The LEC was a major success and established High-Potential Leadership Talent as an important practice and research area in our field.

In our view this demonstrates the power of integrating science and practice into solutions that effectively meet organizational and business needs. It was a highly impactful process that led to highly successful outcomes (see Scott, Church and McLellan, 2017).

Suggestions for future Practice-Science Partnerships

This process is ongoing as we continue to explore, research, and implement variables, programs, and outcomes related to the early identification of high-potential talent. We did identify some guidelines that we tried to follow. These guidelines are more fully described is Silzer et al, 2016.

  1. Clearly define the business need.
  2. Identify a framework that is grounded in theory and research.
  3. Develop or utilize tools and assessments based on a rigorous analysis.
  4. Validate the process.
  5. Gain senior leadership support.
  6. Align the program design with the culture.
  7. Pay attention to participant reactions for all program phases.
  8. Lay the groundwork for future ROI studies.

We also have some suggestions on how to pursue PSPs. They include:

  • Work with colleagues who are personally committed to the practitioner-scientist model
  • Explore and integrate current I-O practice and I-O science at every stage
  • Focus on addressing a real-world need, whether for an individual, a group or an organization, and ensure the practical outcomes are useful and effective
  • Base all work in sound science and critical analysis
  • Regularly look for ways to extend both the practice and the science
  • Communicate Research findings and Practice applications to colleagues (both in academia and practice) and work with them to ensure full understanding not just a hand-off

We agree that in general the practice–science division in our field is real and probably growing in our profession for the reasons cited above. We think a new metaphor is needed that reflects a true integration, that the whole is greater than the parts. We like the PSP idea. But that does not mean that the partnership must always be between a researcher and a practitioner (it certainly can be), but rather between a science mindset and a practice mindset or perspective. Each of us should have a professional commitment to integrating both and to keep working back and forth to integrate them. We must be careful in assuming that just because someone comes with a practice perspective they do not consider the science, and vice versa. We have tried to always consider both sides in our work as best we can, and we think we have had some success.



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