Sunday, 13 February 2011

One for the Work Psychs.... Opportunities in Disguise.

As a member of the British Psychological Society, a copy of The Psychologist lands on my doormat every month. My current IT service management (ITSM) assignment contains little in the way the of formal work psychology (although informally I draw on much of the knowledge regularly), so the publication is a welcome method of staying connected to the last research findings and trends. A recent issue contained a debate about the future of occupational psychology, and while there were many interesting views expressed, Professor Rob Briner's honest and critical appraisal of the discipline chimed with me the most. He argued that practice can be compromised through too close an association with those who pay (the management), and that the practice of work psychology is often indistinct from the work of management consultants, despite being supposedly grounded in scientific method. In reality, he suggested that work psychology has only really made a lasting impact in the area of psychometric assessment.

I've created my own bubble at the intersection of ITSM and work psychology so my views will always be at the edge of the debate (in both fields, actually). I've learnt first hand that whilst ITSM managers enjoy listening to the ideas and results thrown up by workplace psychology research, very few are willing to risk departing from their well-tried paradigms to see whether doing things differently (indeed even using evidence-based approaches) will improve areas like service, efficiency and motivation.Workplace psychology is, of course,  a social science and is not as cut-and-dried as the physical sciences. So when a study suggests that an effect is statistically significant (e.g. that greater autonomy leads to greater motivation) critics can often argue reasons why this evidence may not be applicable to any particular workplace or industry. The results can even be argued to have been influenced by experimenter bias, or disregarded altogether if the critic is a relativist rather than a subscriber to the epistemology of logical positivism! Perhaps the ITSM managers that I speak to are instinctively aware of all of this and are afraid of putting hard-won reputations on the line by trying something radical, new and often unproven.

However, in recent years and certainly in the UK, work psychologists appear to have found many practice opportunities in the public sector. Without getting too political about it, it could be argued that these organisations found it easier in recent decades to spend money on workplace psychology research and practice. I find it regrettable that many psychs didn't appear to question this, and to try to build some kind of proposition that was saleable to the rather more brutal private sector. Indeed it could be argued that this state of affairs made the discipline a little flabby and unfocused. After all, if government was providing work a-plenty, then complacency was always a danger.

A number of the classic work-psych studies have their roots in manufacturing; for example socio-technical systems theory. While I am a huge fan of Albert Cherns' nine principles (and to a lesser extents Chris Clegg's twenty-one updated ones), coal mining and heavy industry are no longer at the cutting edge of industry and commerce. The studies of call centres that proliferated in the nineties were an interesting investigation of  Nu-Dickensian working practices, but similarly this was not the work that was driving the future. To find what was and is changing the workplace and the world, look no further than the devices that most psychs use to write their academic papers, to calculate their multivariate statistical results on and to communicate with each other: computer and electronic communications technology.

The technology industry is huge and many of the commercial giants of today have emerged from this sector: Apple, Google, Microsoft. Cisco. Moreover, every other major enterprise will have technology departments of a considerable size dealing with all aspects of the operations. Millions of people work in this field: web designers, developers, customer support staff, technical support staff, networking specialists, security specialists, process designers, business analysts (I could go on). It astounds me that in a time of immense technological and workplace change (between the 1960s and now) work-psychologists have not produced a wealth of literature exploring the working practices within these industries. During my studies I often searched fruitlessly for research conducted within the technology sector - I found numerous heavy engineering classics, many examinations of call centre or health care environments, but comparitively few from the game-changing technology industry.

Aside from two brief stints working within local authorities (both of which shocked me with the laxity of the procedures that I encountered) I have always worked in the private sector. Furthermore I have also (nearly) always worked in the field of computer technology (across various industries: banking, communication, retail - even management consultancy). In these environments return on investment (ROI) is king. Offering managers in these environments workplace psychology projects that lack proven benefit rarely bears economic fruit. In the light of the austerity cuts to come in the UK, the work psychologist's easy public sector option may be much reduced. This then may be the opportunity in disguise. Perhaps work psychs will be encouraged to undertake research in the industries that are of relevance to the twenty first century and which will only grow in importance. Such research would surely increase the likelihood that practice paradigms of value to these multi-billion pound corporations and those who work within them would emerge.

The successors to Professor Rob Briner would hopefully then have much more to celebrate in mid twenty-first century editions of The Psychologist.

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