Bridging the natural gap: Ensuring that Theory and Practice go hand-in-hand

Theory and practice, the Yin and Yang of Occupational Psychology, are delicately inter-twined, yet seemingly impossible to combine. But is this synthesis of the two distinct wings of Industrial, Work and Organisational (IWO) Psychology what we necessarily want? Or is it that they should be separate, and this distinction exists as a natural consequence of differences in emphasis. Ultimately, no matter how far apart these two areas are, there must be a bridge that constantly connects them.

After 4 years of higher education, I’d have to admit that I write this with an academic’s hat on. But as I start my test user training, I appreciate the need for pragmatics and making theory work in the real world, which Psychometrics provides a fantastic example of. I wonder though, as I embark on the ‘Practitioner’ journey, is it possible to be a ‘Scientist-practitioner’? Anderson, Herriot & Hodgkinson (2001) seem to think this is impossible because of the differing and perhaps at times, conflicting agendas of each. But surely, a discipline like Occupational Psychology, grounded in Psychological theory, with the aim to solve real life problems, must have an equal representation of both of these elements?

This brings me onto a very interesting paper by Anderson et al (2001), who discuss a model of Science, within IWO Psychology, based on quadrants. Along one axis is ‘Methodological rigour’ and the other axis consists of ‘Practical relevance’. We must strive to produce Science which is high in both the former and latter aspects, hence a move towards ‘Pragmatic’ Science. An excellent example of this is the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice that’s found in the area of Selection and Assessment. On the other hand, where practical relevance is high, but rigour is low, ‘Popularist’ Science dominates. This is ‘Junk Science’ and represents management fads, which quickly fade. In the opposite case, where rigour is high and relevance is low, ‘Pedantic’ Science runs riot. Here, methodological correctness is prioritised over the real world value or utility of the research. Lastly, ‘Puerile’ Science represents both low rigour and relevance. Ultimately this is detrimental to the IWO Psychology disciple and must be avoided. Practitioners have a duty to help shift ‘Popularist’ Science towards ‘Pragmatic’ Science, and academics have a duty to do the same for ‘Pedantic’ Science. This way, the bridge between these two entities can be constructed and maintained.

But this of course is not an easy thing to do. Organisations are not conducive environments for the ‘gold standard’, Natural Sciences approach of experimentation. For this reason, Cox Karanika, Griffiths & Houdmont (2007) discuss the importance of being pragmatic and realistic with organisational evaluation research. They term this ‘Good enough’ research, where the methodology allows one to get to the heart of the problem, but with minimal methodological shortcuts. This requires the use of innovative research designs, perhaps involving a range of methods (including those from other disciplines) and qualitative as well as quantitative methods to secure ‘Fit for purpose’ research data. Fit for purpose, in that it allows for real world issues to be explored, in a scientifically acceptable manner.

Having a background in Experimental Psychology, I do value the importance of an empirical and research based approach, and it’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one. Industry leaders like The Mind Gym place great importance on research. Their ‘Core Belief’ of ‘Science is sexy’ serves as a constant reminder of the cornerstone of their business approach. Essentially, it boils down to the importance of synergy. Research must influence best practice and practice must drive and stimulate innovative, yet relevant research.

Far from trying to preach theoretical righteousness over practical relevance, I take the view that these two elements must remain balanced, if the credibility and effectiveness of IWO Psychology is to be maximised. I do wonder if my views on the degree of this balance will change as I better understand the practical aspects of IWO Psychology, in years to come.

Blog posted by Rajesh Chopra.

References

Anderson, N., Herriot, P., & Hodgkinson, G. P. (2001). The practitioner-researcher divide in Industrial, Work and Organizational (IWO) psychology: Where are we now, and where do we go from here? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 391-411.

Cox, T. Karanika, M. Griffiths, A. & Houdmont J. Evaluating organizational level work stress interventions: beyond traditional methods. (2007) Work and Stress 21 (4): 348-362.

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