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Posts Tagged ‘industrial psychology

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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Day One at Xoozya (cont’d)

Back to my office with my three goals:

  • Explore the communication system
  • Catalog skills that I use and must look after, skills that I need to learn in the forseeable future, and skills that I am likely to stop using because they are no longer useful
  • Describe my current project – what am I doing by joining Xoozya?  What is important to me and why is my success important to others?

My current project

At first, I though describing my current work would be hard. How many of us feel we can explain openly why we have joined an organization?  But it turned out to be refreshingly easy.

  • I believe that the world of work is on the cusp of radical change.
  • As a work & organizational psychologist, I want to understand the changes that are taking place.  But no, that is not all.  I want to be in command of the changes.  I don’t want to be in charge of the changes, because I think the changes are emerging out of changes in the business environment.  I want to understand the changes fully and describe them to others.
  • And why is it important to others for me to have this command?  Work & organizational psychologists are midwives.  We help change occur.  Traditionally, psychologists have three roles.  When someone is facing a situation they find difficult, we provide models to think about the situation in an orderly way, we bring experience from working with people in similar situations, and we provide support while the person is working through the issue.

Being a psychologist at Xoozya

  • So what is my work here at Xoozya?
  • What models can we bring to this new organization that is determined to work in modern ways?
  • Can people cope with this open-ended assignment – describe your project and tell me why it is important to you and others?

My knowledge of ludology is not very good – that is one of the reasons I want to work on Xoozya – to learn more.  An idea from the games industry, that I read on Chris Bateman‘s blog, is useful for helping me think around these questions.

In a new environment, children, and adults, tend to play.  We take a new gadget out of a box and play around with it.  Only afterward do we say “should have read the manual”.  Bateman calls this paidia – free form play – and it is inspired by the combination of elements.  For example, pebbles and water tempt us to throw a pebble and try to make it bounce.

The opposite of paidia is ludus – or organized play, like sport.  Ludus is what Jane McGonigle specialixes in.  Play with an objective and rules.

Chris Bateman argues that a good game begins with paidia.  We are tempted to try things out in a playful way.  As we get used to the elements at our disposal, on our own or with others, we develop norms and sports-like rules.

This perspective is not very different the principles of work psychology that I grew up with.  And nor should they be. Good psychology is good psychology.

Cross-cultural psychometrics

Learning my trade in Africa where cross-cultural psychology and cross-cultural psychometrics are important, I was taught four principles for introducing people to psychological tests.

  • Give people easy obvious tasks to do directly and immediately.  For example, “write your name on the top”.
  • Begin with easy quick tasks like clerical and speed and accuracy.
  • Assume that the hardest thing to do is to find where to put the answer.
  • Show people what to do and check they’ve done it.  Eliminate strategies that are not in the candidate’s best interest.

These principles seem to represent the idea of helping people play with the elements, though in the context of testing, keeps an eye out for novel arrangements that would hurt the candidate.

Action theory

An action theory approach to work has demonstrated experimentally that the best way to train people on new technology is to introduce it as a functional level.  In other words, don’t teach people to type or to copy a letter.  Teach them how to save, to edit, to copy.  This seems to be equivalent to introducing people to the ‘elements’.

Another recommendation from action theory is to let people play with technology and to make ‘errors’.  Making errors builds our mental map of technology.  From my very limited experience of playing games, I also think free exploration makes early learning more purposeful.  We want to find out what we can do, and not do, and we adopt this broad goal without being told to.

Group stages

The five stages of group formation reminds us that in the first stage of joining a work group, people are quite dependent on the ‘leader’, in much the same way as we are dependent on a landmark for finding our way in a new city.

In the second stage, we begin to make errors and we evaluate whether we want to stay in the situation (or game).  Error recovery is central to our willingness to continue.

In the third stage, we become playful, often in groups, and are willing to accept goals.  We move from paidia to ludus, perhaps?

Then we become goal oriented – ludus? Sports-like play that morphs into work?

The fifth stage is ‘adjourning’, which is not so relevant here.

So how could I improve the induction?

What are the elements that people need to learn, explore and manipulate?  How can we bundle elements so they signal obvious affordances for the noobe?

How can we encourage a playful approach that encourages exploration and mastery?

How can we arrange the elements so that people explore them on their own, safely and profitably?

What do I want to have achieved by the end of the day?

Is it sufficient to say, hello I am Jo.  I am a psychologist and I joined Xoozya to be part of one of the most innovative contemporary experiments in management & organization.  I am interested in what you are doing and can swap the experience I gained consulting to multinationals and big organizations, where that is relevant.  What do you do here?

Is that enough for day one?  Time to go home!

And if you want to leave me a message saying what you are working on and why it is important to you and to others, I’ll read it gladly!


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