One of the most lively discussions among members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is the gulf between science and practice. This issue is not unique to the field of IO Psychology. Much of this discussion revolves around reasons that academic research is so rarely used in practice, and things that might be done to remedy the problem.
The Nature of the Academic-Practice Divide
Much of the discussion of the science-practice divide is predicated on the assumption that the research published in academic journals is applicable to the world of work. The main problem is not with the work itself, but rather how it is communicated (on the academic side) and how it is received (on the practice side). But how much of academic research is really relevant to practice?
What Makes Research Actionable?
When we talk about evidence-based practice, we can think of three levels of evidence*.
- Association: Finding that a potential driver is correlated with an outcome, such as transformational leadership correlates with employee engagement. The obvious limitation is that we cannot determine if the potential driver led to the outcome or the reverse. In the typical study both variables are assessed via employee reports, so it is possible that engaged employees see their leaders differently.
- Prediction: This introduces the element of time in showing that the driver assessed at Time 1 can predict the outcome at Time 2. This is certainly useful information, but it cannot tell us if transformational leadership is really the driver, or is just associated with the driver. For example, perhaps transformation leaders do a better job of identifying and hiring employees predisposed to being engaged.
- Intervention: We create an intervention to manipulate the proposed driver to see if it affects our outcome. We train our leaders to be more transformational and see if engagement increases. This is not going to establish unequivocally that it is the transformational leadership behavior that is driving the outcome, as the training might have other effects as well, but we can establish that leadership training can have desirable effects.
Most academic literature is mainly at the first two levels. Studies establish associations, and in some cases they establish prediction over time. This is useful for the testing of theory, but not so useful in most cases for the practitioner who wants answers about what can be done to drive a desired outcome. There is a big difference between knowing that transformational leadership relates to engagement, and knowing 1, how to increase transformational leadership, and 2, that increasing it will raise engagement. In other words the practitioner needs studies that involve some sort of manipulation of a driver to see what happens. Such studies provide results that are actionable.
How Do We Bridge the Divide?
If we are serious about bridging the divide, we need to make more of the research in our academic journals actionable. We certainly need research on association and prediction to help build and test theory. But we also need research on interventions for practitioners to consult on potential solutions for organizational problems. There is a role for both academics and practitioners to play in conducting and publishing more research that is actionable.
*The three levels of evidence is based on Helena Kraemer et al.