Bringing Science to HR
Some years ago when I was employed by a large HR consultancy, I remember energetically preaching about the importance of research, of learning and development, and of evidence-based approaches to meeting our client needs. At the time, for a variety of reasons, some of which may have been very legitimate (e.g. the need to make the numbers assigned from “above”), these ideas only achieved modest traction. However times are a’changing and I believe that the view in the industry and especially from clients is quickly turning around. Increasingly we read of the importance of using the best of what science and practice have to offer and apply learnings to pressing HR/OD issues.
To be fair, part of the problem has been the relative inaccessibility of research to HR practitioners from mainly 3 aspects:
1) Dissemination of research: Barring a few exceptions, (e.g. HBR, The Economist) HR-relevant research is not disseminated in the popular press and gets read perhaps by 3 or 4 pairs of eyes stumbling upon them by chance in specialized search engines. It is a crying shame, as lots of ground-breaking research go unnoticed or spend longer than necessary in obscurity.
2) Language and format used: Granted that most academic papers are written with an academic audience in mind. When I was in graduate school we had a running joke (repeated in thousands of campuses around the world I’m sure) that the thickest the dissertation, the fastest it would get published. When reading papers these days, I can’t see much change on this front. A full discussion of academic incentives for publishing studies is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that papers are often inaccessible in their language and “thickness” and therefore are not often referred to by the HR community. Providing an easy to understand summary for the general public could help in increasing accessibility. SIOP, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, has listened and are producing regular “Perspectives on Science and Practice” which help bridge the gap.
3) Hypotheses tested: Finally, the research questions posed by academics are or seem so far removed from the concerns of HR practitioners, that they are perceived as lacking in practical applications. Of course, there must be a place for “fundamental” research that eventually leads to practical applications. The same holds true for so-called “pure sciences” where fundamental research outcomes precede applications by decades. However, I do believe business and the society as a whole would benefit tremendously from increased collaboration and formal associations with academia. Of course there are questions around research funding and vested interests but there are ways to minimize the risks.
As a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, I have access to a wide range of...