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Where Is the Divide: I vs O vs HR vs OB

2009 April 25

A recent myriad of discussions across the I/O blogosphere on the status of I/O psychology as a science had led me to notice something peculiar about people in these discussions – the tendency of some to self-identify as only a single part of the larger I/O-OBHRM community.

For example:

In this post on the SIOP Exchange, Herman Aguinis discusses the need within I/O psychology to bridge the scientist-practitioner divide.  In the comments, however, this is reinterpreted by a few people.  Tom Baker, for example, comments “It’s good to hear of I-O’s continued interest in staying relevant to HR.”  Aren’t they essentially the same thing?

In this post at In the Jungle, George Guajardo posts on the reasons that I/O psychology should be considered a science (which is definitely worth a read in and of itself), and uses the term “organizational science” to refer to I/O-OBHRM research in general, which is probably a much better term than I/O-OBHRM.  But a comment from Frank Z. once again draws a line: “I/O Psychologists” are somehow altogether different from HR professionals practicing “psychology.”

And finally, in this post at iOrgPsych, Eva includes the line, “Industrial/Organizational Psychologists (Practitioners).”  Didn’t Tom Baker just say those were different people?

All of this made me wonder – what’s the difference?  Early in my graduate education, I thought of myself as an industrial psychologist – I tended and still tend to focus on the topics more often thought of as “I-Psych,” like training, performance appraisal, and testing, although recently virtual teamwork and stress related to technology (more O-ish topics) have been on my radar.  Now heading to graduation in two weeks, I think of myself as an industrial-organizational psychologist, mostly through the nudging of my adviser, Paul Sackett.  To the faculty at Minnesota, though a single I/O psychologist might lean toward I or O, that person still has a responsibility to be an expert in both.  It helps that the line between them and the topics that inspire them are often not very different, as might be inferred from my recent article in TIP.

But what about the larger business community?  Is HR really all that different from I-Psych?  Is OB really all that different from O-Psych?  Aren’t they all really the same field, just with slight differences in focus and methods?  We all ask questions about the people in our organizations.  We all seek to learn what they want, what they feel, and how to help them be the best employees they can be, whether for their own sake or the organization’s.

Wouldn’t time be better spent integrating them all than describing the differences?  Shouldn’t the issue shift from “It’s good to hear of I-O’s continued interest in staying relevant to HR” to “How can we best combine the efforts of I/O and OBHRM for the good of organizations?”

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  1. May 28, 2009

    I think theoretically, you’re absolutely right… there should be an area/career path that deals with people at work — which would include HR, IO, OB, Org Comm, Talent Management, L&D, etc.

    Each of the labels has slight differences that aren’t covered by the others though. As an example, HR includes benefits and compensation – something not taught in IO or OB programs. IO has a strong focus on quantitative data methods while that is not necessarily true for the rest.

    So maybe ideally, you’d have one broad umbrella of ‘people @ work’ and there would be specialists within that. Like IT and Finance.

    But in reality, where do you draw the line? Check out this blog post about a new title, Chief Performance Officer. ( It seems ideal for an I/O psychologist to fill that role but it includes process improvement and knowledge management, spaces traditionally residing outside of HR.

    • Brandon permalink
      April 3, 2013

      Hello Eva,

      Thanks for the discussion on the differences b/w IO and HR. and also thanks for linking about the Chief Performance Officer; never heard of it until I read your post.

      With regards to HR, I don’t particularly like learning about benefits & compensation while in IO, stats doesn’t sounds all that appealing to me. Thus, I need to make up my mind. Maybe OD might be the best fit?


  2. May 29, 2009

    Interesting post. I have to say, though I consider myself an I/O psychologist, I suspect that term only has meaning for other I/O psychologists. Heck, even other psychologists may know know I/O psychologists even exist.

    As you mentioned, I use the term “Organizational Science” to describe what we do. It was a unilateral decision on my part because it is more descriptive of all the types of professional activities we can inform (HR, OB, training, Marketing, Management, SHRM, etc.). So, I use a term that is relevant or understandable to all the people in my (potential) audience.

    Perhaps this can inform the SIOP name change debate, but I doubt it. Ours is not so much as identity crisis. We all know what we do, what we like, what we stand for, even in the face of substantial variability. Our real crisis is one of marketing; other people don’t know who we are, what we do, or why they need our services. I am not yet convinced that a name change, by itself, will correct the real issue.

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