A Proposal to Bridge the Gap Between Organizational Theory and Practice

Image credits to Ian Schneider.

Image credits to Ian Schneider.

“Harvard Business School doesn’t give a shit about Harvard Business Review.”

Referring to the separation between academic business schools and the business world, a graduate student in frustration with her field blurted this out as we were chatting at the Happiness & Well-Being San Diego pre-conference (a large academic psychology conference).

She told me she had ten years in strategy consulting before pursuing her PhD in Organizational Behavior at the prestigious Wharton Business School. I asked what brought her to San Diego at an academic psychology conference since she’s a business student and practitioner.

“I’m sick of the business world. I needed to getaway and better my happiness and well-being.”

The Plan A

In the summer of 2013, I was introduced to Industrial-Organizational Psychology (I-O Psych): the psychology of bettering people in organizations. I-O psychologists in a nutshell help people be happier, healthier, and fulfilled at work.

Courtesy to SIOP.

Courtesy to SIOP.

It’s predicted to be the fastest growing career field until 2018. And given that 1) we spend about half of our waking hours at work, and 2) employee engagement hasn’t gotten any better the past 15 years, this projected career growth makes sense.

After finding out about I-O psych, I quickly realized the field is a game-changing opportunity to make a large impact in people’s lives. Since then, I decided to pursue my career in I-O and made it my goal to get admitted into a I-O Psych PhD program in 2017.

Then Along Came Org Design

My carefully-laid out career plans changed, of course.

Thanks to the remarkable work pioneered by Undercurrent and the many communities pioneering this field, I’m enamored by organizational design since finding out about it.

I haven’t stopped learning, thinking, and writing about it since.

I would guess many different people in this space would define org design differently, but if we were to summarize it, org design is about preparing organizations to be responsive, adaptive, and capable for today’s rapidly changing world.

Credits to Dave Gray.

Credits to Dave Gray.

Our world’s current reality is disruptive innovation (like Uber dominating the taxi industry overnight) and complexity (due to a constant exponential increase in technology, information, and interconnectedness). We are in a digital era. And org designers argue that our traditional way of running organizations is meant for a 20th century Industrial Age, not today’s realities.

Orgs that dominate these exact challenges tend to be less bureaucratic, hierarchical, and command-and-control, and more responsive, agile, and adaptive. Google, Tesla, and Netflix are well-known examples, but lesser-known organizational operating methodologies such as Holacracy, Spotify’s agile squads, Beta Orgs, and self-organizing teams are also helping companies be agile and responsive.

I blame org design for being a very fascinating, sexy field that has thwarted my carefully-laid out career plans to pursue I-O psych. But really, to The Ready and NOBL whom have given me the opportunity to work with you, and to August, Nature of Work, Incandescent, OpenNest and many others whom have put their writing out there for me to learn from, I thank you.

The Gap Between Theory and Practice

Both org academic and practitioner communities are striving to make work better. But I’ve noticed that both communities are very far apart.

Most org designers I’ve met haven’t heard of I-O psychology (and I don’t blame them). And my hunch is that us I-O psychologists aren’t aware of org design and how necessary of a movement it is.

Despite how true our Wharton graduate student’s opinion is on how HBS doesn’t care about HBR, let’s hopefully agree that org theory and org practice are pretty damn far apart. Even if consultants know there are communities of organizational academics out there, some don’t even give a crap about them.

What could be a factor of this theory-practice gap is the classic ivory tower problem: academics are simply way too far from the real world. Perhaps it’s less a gap between business schools and business and more a gap between academia and practice overall. Though I-O psychologists claim we’re a scientific-practitioner field, we may still be far from it being a practice.

Maybe the gap exists because org design’s thinking is too far in the future while academia has a tough time keeping up with today.

Or because the “Industrial” in “I-O” because it reeks of 20th century Taylorism to 21st century organizational designers.

Who knows.

Bridging the Gap

Picture credits to SEG.

Picture credits to SEG.

I’ve quoted this in my last piece, but it’s so on point that I’ll quote it again. Co-Founder at Thoughtful Org and former member of Zappos’ Holacracy implementation team Alexis GonzalesBlack sums up a good point about org design:

“There’s this whole other nut to crack in self-organization which is: how do you take care of people? And how do you make sure that people have really healthy ways to connect and to form identities and to be a part of something larger when we’re asking them to manage themselves?”

Your organizational operating model’s success is indicated by one thing: how much your people thrive from it. Alexis isn’t the first to say this, either. Though us org designers say may we’re human-centric, clearly the mainstream would argue the opposite.

Maybe I’m trying way too hard to pull my two interests together, but I can’t help but think:

  • If a hefty amount of org design theory is aimed to bring out the “next stage of human consciousness”, shouldn’t we actually work with experts in human behavior? If we can be doing a better job of helping people, why shouldn’t we work with people experts?
  • If we’re all about basing our thinking on complexity science, why not we work with actual scientists?

And on the flip side:

  • If I-O psychology claims our field is a scientific-practitioner model, why don’t more practitioners know of our field?
  • And if we want the real world to take our research and movement seriously, shouldn’t we spend more time in the real world?

As an incoming college grad, I have so much more to experience to gain in both realms. But I know I’m not the first to say this: To further our mission of making work and the future of it better, we must lessen the gap between academia and the business world.

3 Starting Points to Build the Bridge

1. Organization design firms should hire at least one behavioral scientist.

Most consulting firms formulate theory, do interviews, sends out surveys, and evaluate how successful their consultations are. But to do all this objectively, you need trained scientists.

Scientists who can develop your theory, conduct unbiased interviews, crunch complicated statistical analyses, tap into past organizational research, and use data to evaluate the success of client projects. Scientists who have training from their PhD/M.S./M.A. in industrial-organizational psychology, organizational behavior, positive psychology, social psychology, and organizational science.

Firms could start small by working with a behavioral scientist on a freelance or internship basis. SYPartners is taking a step in this direction by hiring a behavioral research intern.

2. Graduate school programs should bring in practitioners to show them what the practitioner world really looks like.

A lot of I-O psychology and org behavior graduate programs do a great job of equipping its students with practical skills, but I think we could take it a step further and equip our students with entrepreneurial skills.

Students shouldn’t just be bombarded with forwarded emails of summer internship opportunities. Have org designers give workshops on why students should blog and how they could consult with their future clients. Introduce them to folks in communities whom are currently involved in the business world.

3. We should start attending the same events.

I recently attended Responsive Org’s San Francisco Un-conference and it was fantastic (it was great to see a couple of grad students there, too).

There are tons of I-O/OB academic conferences and tons of org design conferences. We need to start attending the same events. Perhaps graduate students and professors could start attending these meet-ups and practitioners could start attending academic conferences.

And maybe one day, we could have a single conference for both communities.

. . .

As an incoming graduate, I feel some clarity that I want to help solve a specific problem in my career: bridging the organizational theory-practice gap. Now it’s time to get the right skills and experience. (I got some work to do.)

Academic or practitioner, our purpose of making the future of work better will be best served when we work together. Let’s make that happen.

. . .

I’m grateful to have dipped my feet wet in org design with writing and freelance opportunities, and am humbled to have been hinted towards very rad post-grad opportunities. I’m still finalizing what I want my full-time gig to be after I graduate in June.

If your organization wants to help bridge this gap, lets get in touch.

I originally published this on Medium