Additional Training Will Lead to a Competitive Disadvantage: Perspective From a Business School


Byrne et al. (2014) seek to make the case that further training in industrial–organizational (I–O) psychology beyond the typical PhD program is warranted in part because of the competitive disadvantages faced by I–O graduates seeking employment in business schools. In doing so, many of the assertions addressing how training in business schools differs from I–O programs appear overly simplistic and unnecessarily adversarial. In response to this, and as individuals working in a management department, we would like to address how best to leverage the differences in training and perspective that I–O and organizational behavior (OB) programs provide. We believe these differences can foster greater creativity and scholarship and ultimately deepen our understanding of organizations.

The Differences Between I–O and OB Training

The authors of the target article argue that a key difference between I–O and OB is that I–O utilizes both a top-down and a bottom-up approach but that OB is only top-down. This appears to represent a misunderstanding of the differences, and we feel the distinction is better explained in terms of levels of analysis. I–O psychologists are primarily concerned with phenomena that occur at the individual “person” level, whereas management scholars are primarily trained to think of the organizational “business” level. Management scholars are socialized to be ever aware of the purpose of organizations (e.g., to make a profit; to fully utilize resources; to serve the most in need; to grow and sustain the business). In business school training, individuals are often expendable—the primary interest is in the success of the business, and this may or may not align with the success of the individual. Therefore, although Byrne et al. are correct in noting that the ultimate concern of management scholars is the success and sustainability of the firm, this goal is not necessarily achieved via increasing job satisfaction or even considering the perspective and experience of the individual.

Byrne et al. argue that this difference in focus presents a competitive advantage for those trained in I–O. However, while some I–O scholars may perceive this focus a competitive advantage, their OB colleagues may perceive the very same focus as a sign of competitive rigidity as scholars who design their studies with purely individual focus forgo consideration of the organizational context of interest to management journals. Moreover, the focus on postpositivist methods emphasizing statistics makes capturing context even more difficult, as contextual factors may not be well represented in variable-based approaches. This is precisely the strength and the limitation I–O brings to OB. I–O offers strong understanding of the individual and rigorous empirical approaches to studying the nature individual differences in organizations. At the same time, the lack of understanding of the socialization of business scholars and the nature of the business context often makes the transition from I–O into management departments more difficult.

Because the objectives and approaches of the two disciplines may naturally differ, it isn't meaningful to compare them in an effort to see which approach is “better.” Ultimately, a wiser approach would be to realize that both perspectives are needed in order to fully understand the nature of organizations. Not only do we see increasing calls for multilevel research in the literature, we also see a broadening of training to include both micro and macro perspectives. We believe this will ultimately foster greater levels of creativity, as students are presented with new opportunities to integrate theoretical literatures and master new approaches to addressing problems.

One other difference between I–O and OB training described by the authors bears special attention. The perceived “salesmanship” advantage of OB students is, like most stereotypes, wildly exaggerated. To the extent that this is true, it is likely due to the fact that most management programs require some business experience prior to graduate work, with undergraduate business programs heavily emphasizing presentation and interpersonal abilities. Consequently, OB students are likely to acquire presentation skills and an ability to present to broader audiences before they enter graduate school rather than in it.

However, this stereotype does raise a potential difference in the fundamental focus of each discipline with regard to rigor and relevance in research. As noted by the authors, I–O psychologists tend to emphasize empirical rigor in their graduate training. OB researchers are more prone to think in terms of theoretical rigor. That is, whereas I–O researchers may focus on designing excellent instruments and analyzing data in an appropriate manner, their OB brethren spend far more time building a solid theoretical rationale for why relationships exist. One suspects that if polled, I–O psychologists would admit to skipping over the introduction and discussion sections of articles in order to concentrate on the “facts” and draw their own conclusions about the implications. Conversely, OB scholars may read the introduction intently and decline to proceed through to the rest of the article if the theoretical underpinnings of the research are unacceptably weak. This difference likely explains the vast difference in rates of publishing meta-analytic reviews in the respective top-tier journals of I–O and OB. The Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) and Personnel Psychology are well-known repositories of meta-analytic findings but the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ) tends to publish them very rarely. It is entirely debatable as to which discipline puts more focus on relevance, but one need only read the titles of articles in Harvard Business Review and Personnel Psychology to recognize that management scholars are typically more willing to market their ideas to executive audiences in such a way as to make them accessible.

To the extent that training in theoretical rigor constitutes a competitive advantage, it would be worth emphasizing this in I–O programs through formal classes, exposure to OB scholars via invited speakers, or attendance at management conferences. Given the recent requirements to emphasize theoretical contributions in major I–O journal outlets like JAP (Kozlowski, 2009), greater emphasis on theoretical rigor likely constitutes a necessary skill even if I–O students do not wish to compete for jobs in management programs. We believe that the increasingly complicated methodologies seen in recent AMJ articles reflect a similar trend among OB scholars to learn from and adopt the best practices of I–O psychology. In the future, there will likely be an increased demand for mastery of both types of rigor, but we believe that some of these differences will continue to persist albeit to a lesser degree.

Would Additional Training Provide a Competitive Advantage?

The authors suggest that additional training in accounting, marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship is needed to make up for competitive disadvantages faced by I–O graduates. We do not disagree that a broader understanding of business would benefit I–O graduate students, but a wide-scale certification program potentially requiring multiple years of training would only serve to undermine the competitiveness of I–O graduates. Not only would this represent an opportunity cost (in terms of lost income), but it would also make training in OB programs more appealing for individuals whose ultimate goal is to teach in a business school setting, because they could avoid spending unnecessary additional years in training. Unless I–O programs could convince business school deans that their graduate students were more qualified than those produced by the business schools themselves (and we feel that this is unlikely), I–O graduates with additional training would be more qualified but not necessarily more employable. In fact, a certification program would only serve to emphasize the distinctiveness of I–O and OB scholarship and training. Such distinctiveness is only worthwhile if it is valued by those making the hiring and promotion decisions in business schools. Consequently, and a bit ironically, it may be the I–O scholars who need to be “salespeople” of the value of their training distinctiveness and value to management departments. However, I–O scholars should be wary of overselling or using alienating rhetoric, as individuals in management programs may be more inclined to demand that recruiting be limited to other management program graduates rather than embracing I–O researchers as peers. The fact that the Academy of Management has no equivalent to the SIOP Guidelines (SIOP, 1999) should be a sufficient signal that an overemphasis on legalistic checklists and standardization of training would strike management scholars as strange and unnecessary. In addition, codifying the need for additional training would be perceived as an implicit acknowledgement that training in current I–O PhD programs was somehow inferior. Consequently, the perceived value of an I–O degree would be diminished. On the basis of these potential downsides, we believe that the core recommendation of Byrne et al. to require mandatory additional training may inadvertently decrease the demand for I–O graduates in the broader academic workplace.

Potential Avenues for the Future

Although we agree with Byrne et al. that postdoctoral experiences provide excellent opportunities to expand one's thinking to include new perspectives and to increase one's skill set, this is most beneficial when the additional training comes in a different discipline. If an I–O graduate's objective is to move to a business school, there is little competitive advantage to be gained by having that student take additional I–O training at another institution. The point of such training should be to broaden understanding, leverage one's own skills, and acquire new skills. That said, resources are not always available to provide the opportunity for such efforts. So what can be done to provide the types of experiences needed to foster greater creativity and collaboration? As mentioned earlier, we believe that I–O and OB programs should encourage both students and faculty to attend conferences other than just the one from their primary field. At the same time, academic institutions should encourage more intellectual exchanges across departments via informal research presentations or joint seminars in topics common to both disciplines. We believe that this would foster a greater sense of community across the disciplines. Programs particularly concerned about deficits in their own training could mandate that their students take courses in other related disciplines as part of their degree requirements. Actively attempting to create complementary course offerings could not only save resources but also provide the opportunities to learn a wider skill set from a more diverse group of faculty.

That said, we do not agree it is desirable to blend the I–O and OB until they are undistinguishable from one another. As we noted earlier, both disciplines have particular approaches and strengths that can be valued based on their own merits. I–O and OB can learn a great deal from one another, but attempts to create generalist graduate students may inadvertently lead to graduates who master nothing and find it difficult to advance their own disciplines. Consequently, we encourage programs to foster a mutual respect between I–O and OB scholars. There is no need to promote the idea that an adversarial relationship exists between the disciplines and that efforts must be made to out-compete the other. In general, training in I–O and OB is more similar than different, but it must also be remembered that there is tremendous variety in training both within I–O and within OB, and that this is a good thing. Attempting to mandate a uniform training protocol in I–O is likely to be counterproductive for a variety of reasons, and the potential for loss of intellectual diversity resulting from increasingly regulated programs is too large to ignore. A better solution would be to promote a greater understanding between the disciplines and a renewed emphasis on rigor (empirical and theoretical) and relevance in each.