To use a psychological term, the field of Industrial – Organizational Psychology has a split personality, but in this case, the two personas are close and happily connected partners.
Taylor Sparks, a graduate student in industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology, called the “dual” character of this specialty confusing, especially for new students. At least it was confusing to her. But she described the split effortlessly, labeling the industrial side as more empirical and precise, often employing quantitative and empirical methodology, and the organizational side as more “fuzzy” and humanistic often using more qualitative methods.
Both the industrial and organizational aspects focus on the study of workplace behavior within an organization.
What’s the Difference Between Industrial and Organizational?
“The ‘I’ or industrial side is focused on the organizational policies and processes that have an impact at the individual level,” said Sparks, a third-year PhD student at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
Industrial psychology uses psychometrics, statistics and other quantitative tools to design impartial and unbiased hiring systems for employees, such as tests that measure skills required for certain jobs. Job analysis and design, performance management, safety, and training all fall under the industrial umbrella.
In contrast, the organizational side of the equation refers to areas that focus on maximizing organizational performance. Those working with organizational psychology typically focus on interpersonal relationships at work, the role of individual differences as they influence organizations, group and team dynamics, leadership, organizational development and change.
But, Sparks added, the I and O are thoroughly interrelated and connected by common statistical methods. Therefore, a knowledge of statistics, psychometrics, quantitative and qualitative research methods is imperative. For example, once an individual is assessed and selected for a specific job – an “I” function – then the organization might identify that person as highly capable, qualifying that individual for a leadership development program – an “O” function.
Charmon Parker Williams, president of Parker Williams Consulting, agrees that learning empirically based, industrial methodologies is an integral part of the I/O field, and also essential for career advancement in today’s economy. I/O professionals today need to be generalists, she said, not specialists.
Parker Williams, who received her PhD from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and has worked in I/O psychology for 30 years, defines a generalist as someone capable of working on both the industrial and organizational sides of the field. She said that an I/O psychology graduate today might start out working in a testing or selection center, move into recruiting or executive search, and then move into compensation. Being able to work on a variety of projects on both sides of the I/O equation is the key to staying marketable, she emphasized.
Parker Williams’ own career path exemplifies flexibility. She has worked for the government, in private industry, and now as the owner of her own consulting firm. As a graduate student, she held two internships that she credits with giving her hands-on experience, and eventually a full-time position after graduation.
Through her first internship with the United States Office of Personnel Management in Chicago, she worked with experienced I/O psychology professionals completing hands-on psychometrically based projects. Traveling to state and local agencies, she helped design and implement employee assessment systems and centers.
Her second internship with Harris Bank in Chicago in the Policy and Research Division landed her an offer after graduation. At Harris, she worked as a Personnel Officer – again concentrating on projects affecting employee assessment and selection.
Parker Williams’ two internships and her later experience with both small and large consulting firms gave her the credentials and experience to move into more organizational concerns and development, such as change management, executive coaching, diversity consulting, and cross-cultural competency, which she specializes in today. Cross-cultural competency involves helping global companies compete in different, unfamiliar cultures, as well as helping their expatriate employees adapt to new customs and regulations. But she still performs occasional assessment and survey projects for clients.
Parker Williams emphasizes the value of internships for those interested in industrial and organizational psychology careers. It’s great exposure to I/O psychology, and it “puts tools in the tool belt,” she said. She also added that the United States Office of Personnel Management still hires I/O psychology interns.
Both Sparks and Parker Williams said that their interest in psychology started in high school, and both said that they only identified the I/O specialty after realizing they didn’t want to work in the more traditional areas of counseling and clinical psychology.
Sparks saw the I/O psychology field as a way to contribute and help people. She noted the number of hours people spend at work each week, and how much a person’s work life influences them as much as other people and factors in their lives. “For me, it’s important to make a difference in my career, and I feel that I/O psychology and its influence on an individual’s working life affords me that opportunity.”
Sparks said that she was also drawn to the field because she gets bored easily. The industrial and organizational psychology field offers opportunities in so many areas, and for a large number of companies and organizations. “It’s the most dynamic field, and it will continue to offer me new challenges as time goes on. The sky’s the limit.”
Parker Williams also credits the variety of options in I/O psychology as drawing her to the field. Owning her own consulting business now gives her the ability to work in many of I/O’s interesting and changing categories – with both industrial and organizational characteristics.
As the job market and careers change, so does the field of I/O psychology. If you are interested in helping businesses succeed, and have a desire to help individuals find meaning, satisfaction and success in their careers, you should consider master’s degree or PhD in I/O psychology.
Those individuals with bachelor’s degrees will find entry level positions in human resource departments. Those with a will assume more responsibility within organizations, while those with assume roles with the greatest responsibility, and also the highest salaries. You might also want to learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and the requirements for acquiring psychology licensure.