I am a professor of Industrial-Organizational psychology
and a business consultant. I have an
active interest both in generating research-based,
reliable and valid knowledge, and in applying
that knowledge to practical problems in the workplace.
Thought leaders in Industrial-Organizational
psychology generally say they subscribe to a “scientist-practitioner
model”, which values both the research (to
discover the knowledge) and the application (to put it
to use). But as a practical matter, science and practice
do not always mesh as comfortably as we might hope
or expect, and many scientists and many practitioners
are one, but not the other.
It seems pretty clear that the aims of the academic world and the business world are not identical. Indeed, at times they can appear vastly different. Academic research is published in scholarly journals, sources that are read mainly by other scholars with similar interests. Academic-written, scholarly articles published in academic journals are judged by other academics on the bases of their scientific rigor, their contribution to theory, and their likelihood of leading to further productive research.
Even in a field like Industrial-Organizational psychology, where research-based knowledge has such obvious applicability to the real world, research articles are judged only minimally on their practical significance, their “usefulness” in the real world.
Rather, editors and reviewers ask, “are the results statistically significant, were the proper tests run, have alternative explanations for the results been ruled out, can the findings be replicated, are there clear theoretical implications”, etc., etc.
Science is notoriously conservative, and one can argue, with good reason. But the reality is that the academicians who publish the basic research findings are largely writing for each other, and for the most part they teach their graduate students to do the same. The top professional association for Industrial- Organizational Psychologists (SIOP) has long identified the need for researchers in the field to make their findings more relevant and more accessible to the business world “out there”. Many academic researchers are in a kind of closed academic loop, and are short on real-world experience.
Letâ€™s get real
In the real world of the practicing business
manager, the focus is on “the best
available idea that works”. Such ideas are
often drawn from the manager’s personal
experience, the anecdotal experience of
others, pop management books, magazines or industry
journals, or advice from their consultants (much of
which is also impressionistic, and drawn from the same
sources as the manager’s ideas â€” many consultants
also lack a grounding in behavioral science).
Great if there happens to be scientific support for
the “solution” to be imposed, but the ideas that are
put into practice are not often drawn directly from the
aforementioned scholarly journals. Business managers
are much more likely to read trade journals and
popular management books (like “Good to Great,”
“Who Moved My Cheese,” “One-Minute Manager”)
than “top” academic journals that publish cutting-edge
research (like the Journal of Applied Psychology or
). The ideas that are drawn from
scholarly sources are likely to be vintage, “recycled”
material, rather than cutting edge.
Who has not experienced training classes that featured
Maslow’s Hierarchy, or the Accident Pyramid,
presented as “the latest and greatest”? Again, many
practitioners lack the science background, but they
daily uncover and wrestle with the practical problems
which science should study and help them
A relevancy check
Organizational researchers don’t much focus
on surviving the down economy, talent retention
and succession planning, employee engagement,
healthcare costs, or any of the other issues that keep
practicing managers and their HR departments up at
night. Indeed, these are the very issues which recent
surveys of HR professionals and practicing managers
indicate they are most concerned with. Presumably,
these are the issues for which they seek the wise
counsel of internal and external consultants. Where
are those consultants getting the advice that they
purvey to the client with a real need? Not much from
the research of organizational scientists, it would
Recognizing the disconnect, there is a current call
from the academic side for managers to employ so-called
“evidence-based management”, that is, business
strategies that in fact draw on the best behavioral science.
But how to get there from here?
I believe it is the job of the behavioral scientist to
translate science into practice, much more than it is
the job of the practitioner to contribute to (or even
to make sense of) the science. I think academicians
who are interested in making a positive difference can
effectively translate their science into practice if they
will step away from the jargon of the academy and
learn the issues and language of the businesses they
aim to help.
They can translate their science into practice if they
realize that while “significant at the .01 level” may
be required for scholarly publication, “works pretty
well, and better than the alternatives” may be all that
is required in the field; what managers confronting
a critical issue can’t do is “wait until all the data are
in”. More and more graduate programs in Industrial-
Organizational psychology are urging, and even
requiring their students to get deep and meaningful
real-world experience as part of their education â€”
a good thing indeed.
I am going to conclude by patting ISHN
and much of
the EHS community on the back, and deservedly so. I
believe the critically important area of workplace safety,
about which readers of this journal obviously care deeply,
is one clear counterpoint to the gulf identified above.
In our shared area of interest, I do not see the yawning
gap between those who generate the ideas and those
who apply them. I think we are a benchmark example of
how evidence-based management can thrive.
True scientist-practitioners are to be found in the
ranks of the safety experts whose thoughts grace these
pages. Many of the contributors to ISHN
show by personal
example that scientist and practitioner can indeed
coexist in the same skin. They translate regularly their
science into practice, and let their practice inform their
science, to the benefit of both domains.