flowing motion

My predictions for the future of business psychology

Posted on: March 3, 2010

Facets of business psychology

Being a business psychologist can be giddy-making. Well, that is our job.  To have the giddy-experience so other people don’t have to.

Industrial or work psychology

When we want to improve productivity, we ask “what is the best way of doing this work?”  Whether you do it or whether I do it, what is the best way (and when we get sophisticated, what is the error range and variance)?

Personnel psychology

When we want to choose someone to do the job, who will find it easiest to do the job?

Organizational psychology

What is the best way of organizing the work so that we can all get along with the minimum of emotional friction?

The thinking behind business psychology

The answers to these question do not necessarily contradict each other but the thought process behind them is contradicting.

Work psychology assumes we are all the same and can learn easily. Personnel psychology assumes we are all different and our differences are hard to change.  Work & personnel psychology looks at what we do as individuals and organizational psychology might ask us to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of the group.

Who’s right and who is wrong?  No one.  Each question offers a slightly different perspective.  And that is giddy-making.  What we are good at is separating the questions  and asking them one at a time so that we don’t end up with a confused, useless mess. That is what we are trained to do and we train for a long time – 5 years.

Modern questions in business psychology

Our giddy life doesn’t stop with the 3 traditional questions, though.

Old management theory assumed that change was slow, that there was a ‘best way’, that people were happy with the social and political relationships suffered and enjoyed by their forefathers, and that someone, somewhere knew what to do and how to do it and that the world would be sufficiently obliging to wait while they decided what to do and told everyone in the organization.

We know now that the world is not like that.

Work psychology

Laying out work for others to do while we decide is so, so, last century and bankrupt motor corp, we should be shot for suggesting it.

We’ve known for I don’t know how long in the military, and at least 40 years in psychology, that we should set a goal that is appropriate for a person’s skill level, give them the resources, free access to incoming feedback, and let them get on with it.

People cannot function with our constant back-seating driving.  And the world will not wait for an organization that is that slow.  It might seem like it will wait but that is probably because of some artificial barrier to entry.  Best to see how much that barrier costs and how long that will be sustained.  More under organizational.

Personnel psychology

Much of the work we do in personnel psychology is for really large organizations, like armies, where gathering “objective” information and allocating people on a “best fi”t model makes sense.   We introduce efficiencies for everyone.

In smaller organizations, we are expensive ,and frankly managers don’t listen.  Why is it that?  This is an organizational psychology issue not a personnel psychology issue. So let’s move on.

Organizational psychology

Getting along in an organization is about human relations and “passing the ball” without dropping it.  Management and organizational theory comes into play along with a raft of other issues, including politics.

The biggest issue in organizational psychology is “what is in it for me?” When managers are insecure, they will look for people who will protect their interests.

In big organizations, it is our job to reassure the managers and put the brakes on their worst self-interested excesses.  We flag up artificial barriers to entry that are maintained at huge financial and moral cost (e.g. apartheid in South Africa and excessive privilege like doctor’s payments in the US).  We put in procedures to balance managerial interest with organizational interest, in pay, for example, and in the selection of people who are good for the organization and not simply good for the manager.

We provide stability, in other words.  Sometimes we even introduce a generative, healthy upward spiral.  Though world events in the last two years show clearly that preventing a destructive tail spin would be a pretty good outcome.

We have to include people.  Honorably.  Allowing a core group to take over is very, very destructive.

Future organizations

Having said that.  What is the future of large organizations?

We are much more likely to move towards a system of local modularization in which smaller companies cooperate to complete specific contracts as the aerospace industry did with the Boeing 787.  Our business will change accordingly.

My predictions for the future of business psychology

This is how I see our profession moving.

Work psychology

In depth understanding of the work of an industry and the critical factors affecting productivity and learning in each sub-sector.  We will become a mirror to the industry.

Personnel psychology

Continue to show people the limits of occupations.  To give an obvious example, if I am a sprinter I’ll run the sprints not the marathon, and so on.

Beyond this well developed technology that needs to be updated to keep us informed about the limits of new professions, we might possibly change our focus to understanding careers over a lifetime: how do we develop a narrative that sustains us over the rapid changes in industry structures that we are likely to see over 50 years of our working life?

I think developmental psychology might become more important than personnel psychology and understanding business might become more important that the brute horsepower of “intelligence”.

Organizational psychology

The biggest change will be the nature of organizational life and the work that we are called upon to do. Companies will become smaller and more specialized and a new beast will emerge. Akin to entrepreneurial and holding companies, and replete with negotiation-minded supply chain specialists, these new organizations will create the projects and organizational conditions that set the boundary conditions for specialists to work together to be creative.

Specifically, it is my best guess, at March 2010, that these new organizations will analyse the markets and flag up what markets want, host discussions between relevant suppliers and arrange consortium funding, and carry the market risk themselves, though conceivably they may make innovative arrangements on the demand side too.

Further, some firms will specialize in backing up the market “seers” with infrastructure to allow global cooperation – firms like Cisco and firms specializing in virtual law and financing.

And then we will have people doing their stuff.  The producers.  Who are doing what they love and who morph and develop as they respond to the market. Hmm, I think there may be a role for people who develop the industry, much like the aerospace industry in the UK.

These aren’t my ideas. The first three strands were developed by Hagel & Brown, now of Deloittes.

My advice to young business psychologists

In not so brief words, that’s where I see us going.  My advice to young psychologists is

1. Pick an industry that you love and understand how it is developing and changing and the skills needed within it.

2. Learn more developmental psychology and narrative counselling than psychometrics.  Testing is a mature field.  Little is happening there.

3.  Think whether you want to serve producers, coordinators or entrepreneurs.  Maybe try all three out. Maybe in you industry you have to do all three.  Or, maybe you should specialize.

You need to map the ecology of your industry, see where your heart is, and join the people you love to serve.

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