Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology addresses the human component of organizations and explains basic motivational drives and social implications of people working together in an organizational setting. Both its research and applications strive to accommodate characteristic human nature as a means to productivity and efficiency while facilitating safe and conducive environments as they affect the employee. Throughout its rich history, I/O psychology has used scientific research and statistical analysis to determine real-world applications within the work environment as a means to promote efficiency while providing a safe environment conducive to employee satisfaction and well-being (Spector, 2008).
The Evolution of Industrial/Organizational Psychology
I/O psychology has its genesis in the early history of psychology during the late 1800s when experimental psychologists sought to apply psychological principles to organizational problems such as efficiency and individual performance (Spector, 2008). Credited with foundational work in the field, Hugo Munsterberg and Walter Dill Scott were influential university professors and experimental psychologists with a keen interest in employee selection and the newly introduced psychological tests. Frederick Winslow Taylor developed scientific management, which focused on managing production workers and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth studied the efficiency of performance as a means to develop more efficient ways of working. Their work became foundational in the study of designing technology for people (Spector, 2008).
Both World Wars boosted I/O psychology as psychologists developed tests designed to assess mental ability for more appropriate personnel placement. Used by the Army, this was "the first large-scale application of psychological testing to place individuals in jobs" (Spector, 2008, p. 12). World War II continued to stimulate the work of I/O psychology in military applications, and included the new aspect of maintaining the morale of military personnel. After the war, I/O psychologists were called upon to address expansion problems specifically related to productivity and motivation (Kanfer, 2009). Today the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology represents the field whose integrative approach accommodates the individual and the social fabric of organizations, and enhances the environmental character of the workplace (Kanfer, 2005).
I/O Psychology as it Differs from other Psychological Disciplines
I/O psychology is "one of the major applied areas of psychology" (Spector, 2008, p. 22). The unique aspect of I/O psychology is its exclusive focus on people as they function in their work environment as well as the work environment itself. Other disciplines in psychology focus on different aspects of human psychology, but none other supports the research and its applications within the organizational setting (Spector, 2008). Equally important, this branch of psychology applies the principles and information gained from its research. I/O psychology focuses on research and its application to the challenges of human nature as it occurs between individuals within the organizational setting (Spector, 2008). Spector (2008) defines I/O psychology as, “…an applied field that is concerned with the development and application of scientific principles to the workplace” (p. 5). From a human standpoint, life as an employee consumes a significant amount of time, and this time-consuming role deserves the focus of a science that enables efficient function within an environment, yet is conducive to the well-being of the human organism and its social nature (Spector, 2008).
Organizational Use of Industrial/Organizational Psychology
I/O psychology is used in a broad range of industrial and organizational settings including universities, which employ approximately 40% of I/O psychologists in a research capacity as teachers, writers, mentors, consultants, or administrators. In applying I/O psychology, psychologists may fill some of the same roles as researchers, but may also engage in job analysis, solve organizational problems, obtain employee opinion through surveys or discussion, design employee-related systems and training programs, and develop psychological tests applicable to the work environment. Additionally, practicing I/O psychologists evaluate any aspect of the work environment or its systems and practices, and implement "organizational change, such as a new reward system for employees who perform well" (Spector, 2008, p. 7). I/O psychologists work toward creating a more effective environment within organizations. They design more effective jobs, develop and implement more appropriate employee selection, and create training programs that facilitate employee efficiency. Ultimately, the task of the I/O psychologist is to create a safe, efficient, well-oiled organizational machine while preserving and supporting the well-being of the employee.
The Role of Research and Statistics in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
The two main venues in which I/O psychology functions are psychological research and its application. Research is a major focus in this field and is essential to developing the principles that will eventually contribute to the design of new methods and procedural applications for various aspects of the work environment (Spector, 2008). I/O psychology uses the scientific method to collect and analyze data to address ideas, problems, and questions pertinent to organizations. The four major components of the scientific method are research questions, research design, measurement, and statistics.
The researcher begins with a question that translates to a research hypothesis. The hypothesis determines the study's foundational design, which can take either an experimental or a non-experimental form. The study relies on consistent and valid measurement that accurately accounts for results, and is essential to making reliable inferences. Descriptive statistics are used to summarize the gathered data and inferential statistics are applied to interpret the findings of the study. In I/O psychology statistics facilitates the efficient determination of research results for their effective application to real-world situations within organizations (Spector, 2008).
Accommodating the social fabric of the human workforce is the major undertaking of I/O psychology. Throughout its history, I/O psychology has built strong foundational designs for safety, efficiency, motivation, and addressing the behavior, attitudes, and needs of employees (Spector, 2008). Scientifically researched information from I/O psychologists continues to facilitate the evolution of the human workforce, tempering its relationship to the organizations in which it functions, and refining and redefining the work environment.
Kanfer, R. (2005). Self-Regulation Research in Work and I/O Psychology. Applied Psychology, 54(2), 186-191. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2005.00203.x
Kanfer, R. (2009). Work Motivation: Advancing Theory and Impact. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2(1), 118-127. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2008.01120.x
Spector, P. E. (2008). Industrial and organizational psychology: research and practice (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.