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SIOP 2017: I/O Reformist vs. I/O Traditionalist

2017 June 16

One of the little things I noticed at SIOP this year – a little thing, but consistent across sessions and the people I talked to – is that there are two opposing stances toward the existential issues currently facing I/O psychology, and how to respond to them, at least among those aware of those issues: those of the traditionalist and the reformist.

First, the traditionalist.  I/O traditionalists tend to assume that everything’s okay and that this is a lot of noise about nothing important. I heard a lot of lines like, “We’ve been through this before” or “Practitioners don’t realize why theory’s so important” or “This too shall pass.” Traditionalists are not uniformly academics though; many practitioners believe in their tried-and-true-methods and think they are perfectly sufficient, that academia will continue to churn out small refinements, and that’s enough. Most of the foundational I/O techniques, like job analysis and basic scale design, were developed half a century ago, of course, and in general they still work great.

The most deeply entrenched traditionalists also seem to be the most deeply embedded in our current approach to publishing and have benefited in their own careers from mastering the approach: creating new theory is more important than any other goal, such as providing practical conclusions or using rigorous research methodology.

The second of these, and the side I fall on, is the reformist. Reformists tend to be a little younger, although not exclusively, perhaps more recently and first-hand having seen how broken our publishing system is. I met several mid-tenure Assistant Professors who when trying to publish their own work have realized that the standards for publishing are not precisely what they’d been taught. I could see their bubbles having recently shattered, and it is depressing. There are also overwhelmingly more practitioners in this group, people frustrated with how academia has seemingly ignored their pleas for years.

Reformists are a bit less uniform in their specific beliefs than traditionalists, but they all agree “something is wrong that need fixing.” Perhaps we need to better integrate science and practice. Perhaps we need to reach across the HR aisle. Perhaps we need to reach across the computer scientist aisle. Perhaps this is all the responsibility of SIOP leadership, or perhaps it can only be solved with a grassroots effort. So there is significant disagreement on what precisely is wrong, what precisely needs to be fixed, and how. The reformists I talked to also tended to be frustrated and disappointed that it became this broken before anyone in a position of power said anything publicly and attributed the magnitude of our current problems to that delay.

I also heard a couple of people resigned to no change, believing that our current momentum toward mediocrity will keep us moving that direction, that we are condemned to simply watch as I/O slowly fades from world relevance to an even less influential role for our field than we already hold. As a reformist, I’m not quite that pessimistic, myself.

What I was very happy to hear from both of these groups was a continuing desire to maintain the I/O community.  To me, this is the core strength of I/O; there is a strong “I/O psychologist” identity, as if the fact that we can’t call ourselves “I/O psychologists” to our clients and customers strengthens our awareness of that identity behind the scenes. To clients, we’re people analysts, or HR specialists, or senior consultants, or data scientists, or whatever other buzzword you might want. But to each other, we’re all I/Os. We’re all in this together, and so it’s together that we need to find a solution.

As for me, I don’t know what the solution is, where to find the right balance between reinventing ourselves and staying true to our traditions. But as a reformist, I’m confident there is one, if only we’ll try to find it together.

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