Getting to Know I/O Psychologists

May 21, 2007

Article by Charles Handler and Mark C. Healy

Many ERE readers are aware that there are several different types of scientists who study the interaction between humans and the workplace. Among this small but illustrious group are several types of psychologists, including those of the industrial/organizational variety (i.e., I/O psychologists).

While many I/O psychologists still spend their time in ivory towers, things are changing and an increasing number of us are making very real and practical contributions that have an impact for companies of all types.

Given the increasing interest in I/O psychology among staffing professionals, we thought it may be of interest to provide some background about who we are and what we can do. Although I/O psychology has many facets, this article focuses specifically on our role in the recruiting and staffing functions.

The Science of Hiring

The early years of formal I/O psychology only go back to the 1890s. The roots of the science of finding the best people to fill a job may be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and was central to questions around how to manage several thousand workers at once, ’round the clock, in many factories.

The problems of the Industrial Revolution provided fertile ground for the grandparents of I/O psychology, who included Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Munsterberg.

However, the well-known (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Frederick W. Taylor was the true impetus for the field, in the early 20th Century. Dubbed the “Enemy of the People,” Taylor used painfully detailed observation and film to dissect the job tasks of the physical laborer. He showed that work could be systematically described and made much more efficient by redesigning each step of a task.

This makes Taylor the father of job analysis, which is the bread and butter of I/O psychology, and a common and highly valued aspect of the work of I/Oers.

The major focus of our fledgling field then shifted to the question of which people should be hired to perform all the new jobs created by the Industrial Revolution and its related societal changes.

The U.S. military’s quest to improve the assignment of recruits to specific roles led to the Army Alpha and Beta tests of World War I. These programs are the roots of all personnel testing and although these early versions of cognitive ability, psychomotor, and personality tests were never really validated or used in the war, their development rapidly advanced the science of hiring.

Despite the importance of earlier work, it was really World War II that ended up being I/O psychology’s watershed moment.

In WWI, the military was slow to realize that a much more effective method of determining who should pilot dangerous and critical combat missions was desperately needed. Interview-based evaluations of “courage” and early incarnations of IQ tests were not resulting in effective piloting of early, crash-prone fighter planes. The Aviation Psychology Program was born out of this problem.

The most important contribution of this program was the decision to place John C. Flanagan in charge of implementing testing and other assessment tools to figure out who should fly planes for the military effort.

This hectic yet methodical effort was nothing short of incredibly successful. In a short time, Flanagan’s team changed the way things were done by:

  • Linking performance on realistic job simulations, an array of cognitive ability tests, carefully structured interviews, and personality profiles to performance in the field.
  • Using a wealth of qualitative data and statistics about how teamwork and group cohesion improved the success of all aspects of aircraft maintenance and flight missions.
  • Demonstrating how overall job fit and interest in aircraft contributed to the motivation of recruits.
  • Dramatically improving the success of flight missions and the worldwide deployment of support roles for those missions.
  • Training hundreds of future testing experts in the science of psychometrics, statistics, and human individual differences.

In fact, Flanagan and his team of over 1,000 professionals are unsung heroes of World War II. By ensuring that workers’ strengths were matched to the right kind of hard work required by the war effort, the Aviation Psychology Program ensured the selection of the most motivated Air Corps workers and saved thousands of lives.

The mid-20th Century featured a gradual, yet overall dramatic, extension of the use of tests and assessments of human individual differences in the workplace. Both research and implementation expanded in a variety of ways:

  • Thousands of articles published in Personnel Psychology and the Journal of Applied Psychology formed the knowledge base supporting the assumptions and opinions of I/O psychologists today.
  • Businesses expanded their use of testing, assessment, and job simulations. (By the time Elvis recorded That’s All Right Mama, I/O psychologists already knew that having a job applicant perform a task they?ll face on the job is the best method of identifying a suitable employee.)
  • Hundreds of graduate programs were started or expanded to train a new generation of hiring experts.

Into the late 20th Century, societal changes, the decline of heavy industry, and ever-more complex work arrangements greatly enhanced the role of I/O psychology in understanding human performance in the workplace and determining how to best hire and promote employees.

Key drivers of this greater role of I/O psychology in business included:

  • Expansion of the general use of science in the strategic deployment and management of both managers and employees.
  • Legal compliance issues surrounding hiring, particularly in the public sector, generated by concerns about racial discrimination.
  • The globalization of work and working.
  • Greater dialogue on leadership effectiveness and the cult of personality surrounding famous entrepreneurs and CEOs.

What They Do Know

Today, you will find I/O psychologists working on a variety of interesting issues within organizations. Key areas in which we are making contributions include:

  • Recruiting and staffing
  • Leadership development
  • Training and development
  • Performance management
  • Compensation
  • Organizational development
  • Survey work
  • Change management
  • Counseling
  • Workplace violence
  • Employee wellness
  • Statistical analysis and methodologies

Of these things, hiring and staffing activities account for a significant amount of the work done by I/Os. It was our historical work in these areas that helped open the doors for some of the other practice areas in which we currently work.

The really cool thing is that most of the issues we work on are grounded in science; specifically, the science of understanding and measuring human performance.

This scientific background serves as the basis for the staffing-related value propositions provided by today’s I/O psychologist, including:

  • Understanding jobs in terms of the human traits required for success.
  • Creating tools to measure these traits reliably and accurately.
  • Using statistics to understand the ROI associated with measurement and predictive hiring processes.
  • Ensuring legal compliance for employee-selection systems.
  • Creating effective evaluative tools to allow measurement during interactions with candidates (i.e., structured interviews and simulations).
  • Providing career and vocational counseling.

You can find I/O psychologists in a variety of different places. Those of us concentrating on staffing-related issues are usually found at places such as:

  • Universities
  • Corporations of all types and sizes
  • Consulting firms of all sizes
  • Municipal, state, and federal government agencies
  • Vendors of screening and assessment products
  • Counseling firms
  • Outplacement firms
  • Executive selection, development, and coaching firms

We are in almost every country in the world and belong to several different globally oriented professional organizations, including:

The need for scientific methods to be applied to the evolving world of work has been increasing and has driven an increase in the need for I/O psychologists. In response to this need, there has been a significant increase in the number of graduate programs focusing on I/O psychology, and attendance at our annual conference continues to grow significantly each year.

The Future of I/O Psychology

We want to collaborate with other scientists in order to develop new multi-disciplinary approaches to solving problems. Our real value comes when we are able to work alongside computer scientists, statisticians, and a variety of other folks who are helping to use technology and advanced techniques to create new ways of doing things.

I/O psychologists are also adding value to the work of entrepreneurs, especially those who focus on using technology to help establish new and more efficient hiring products and processes. While the basic paradigms of our field have not changed in the brief 50 years that our science has existed, technology is providing us with a new lens of clarity regarding how to best apply what we know.

These innovations are in turn making it easier for hiring professionals in both staff and line functions to accomplish their goals by providing them with employees who have what it takes to get the job done.

The huge amounts of data we are currently collecting and the technology available to help us understand it have led to a steadily increasing ability to understand the basic truths behind human performance in the workplace.

This understanding has allowed organizations of all types with an increased ability to meet their strategic goals while also ensuring that workers are happier and more satisfied.

We expect this trend to continue and to feed a bright future for workplace optimization.

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