Firms seek help from psychologists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

Corporations in Hong Kong are turning to professionals who can solve a range of problems from different angles

Organisational psychologists in Hong Kong are at the frontier of their profession because companies are now learning about their skills and are requiring their services at a growing rate. However, the rapidly changing work dynamics in Asia, and particularly in the mainland, mean they are facing uncharted territory.

Organisational psychology (also known as occupational, industrial and organisational, or I/O, work or personnel psychology) is well known in the United States and Europe, but it has only in the past decade, and especially in the past two to three years, made inroads into Hong Kong.

It is defined as the application or extension of psychological methods and principles to the solution of organisational and workplace problems. It looks at how people function in work environments, including recruitment and selection, training, appraisal, industrial relations, health and safety, technological and organisational change, ergonomics and job design.

In Hong Kong, these issues have traditionally been handled by human resources (HR) departments, but increasingly organisational psychologists are being employed internally, or as consultants, sometimes under the job title of management consultant or personnel or HR manager. Their services are applicable to most kinds of organisations, but it is usually large corporations, such as international financial institutions, that employ them.

Organisational psychology is different from other forms of personnel management in that it draws on a body of knowledge based on social experiments that have been carried out in controlled conditions. 'We help organisations by taking a grounded, solid theoretical research base and applying it to anything to do with people and change,' said Simon Lau, an organisational psychologist and vice-president of learning and development at Merrill Lynch.

'We rely on research that can be replicated and evidence to support why people behave the way they do. In traditional HR, sometimes policies can be implemented and training delivered without a clear understanding of behaviour or the psychology of people. Organisational psychology brings a discipline into the approach.'

The field was developed from tests run during the first and second world wars for officer selection. Draftees were assessed through the Army General Classification Test and specific skills and ability tests, and leadership potential tests.

From its beginnings primarily in assessment, organisational psychology today covers a wide range of areas in business.

Being a sub-section of psychology, students study the full spectrum of fields, including developmental, neurological, social and personality psychology, and child behaviour and statistics, at undergraduate level before specialising. The multifaceted approach this diverse education provides is another factor that differentiates it from other strands of work in psychology.

William Ng, an occupational psychologist with 30 years' experience in the business as a civil servant and lecturer and consultant, said organisational psychologists tried to look at problems from many angles.

'If you take the example of the long working hours in Hong Kong,' he said, 'organisational psychologists would look at the impact of long hours on people - not just good or bad - and all moderator variables that define that relationship, such as their type of profession, the nature of the job, amount of discretion in the job, their social support network, age of staff and background of staff. This is the help we would offer decision-makers at an organisation.'

Organisational psychology can also benefit employees. Personality, cognitive and aptitude tests can offer individuals self-awareness and help in the development of person-job fit matching.

'Younger GenerationY recruits tend to be concerned about whether an organisation is socially responsible when seeking employment, and they often hold values of integrity and teamwork,' Mr Lau said. 'These people will usually demonstrate high levels of job satisfaction and engagement when they are in the right job. The more alignment you have between employees and the company, the less likely people are to leave, and they'll be more inclined to talk positively to others about the organisation, so employees and the company benefit.'

At Merrill Lynch, Mr Lau's role covers a range of areas but primarily he is a consultant to various internal business units. He articulates the business strategy to staff and helps set up interventions to facilitate working towards business goals.

'If for example we're looking to enter new markets and service high-net-worth individuals, we need to work across borders between sales people, researchers who have information on stocks, product development people, who create instruments to help clients maximise returns, and operations people to execute transactions,' Mr Lau said. 'So I work with colleagues to set up interventions to help people work in teams, such as workshops on how to reach across borders, planning ahead, structuring clear e-mails for effective communications and so on.'

He also develops leadership programmes and coaches individuals that may need behavioural change, for example a research analyst who needs to communicate better with his team. He brings in external vendors to work as training consultants for specific business units and needs.

In Hong Kong, unlike in countries such as the US, where recruitment is the big issue, much of the work done by organisational psychologists revolves around leadership management. Paul van Katwyk, vice-president and managing director for greater China operations for management consultancy Personnel Decisions International, said mainly large local companies and multinationals approached the firm to help develop talent. He has a PhD in organisational psychology from the US, and has worked in Hong Kong for five years.

'We generally work with companies with more than 200 leaders, and in three key stages: defining what's required in terms of leadership success; assessing and evaluating the leadership talent the business already has; and developing the leadership capabilities that they need,' he said.

One of the reasons that talent management is a hot topic here is that in the past few years, Hong Kong companies have faced unprecedented organisational change.

'The amount of organisations facing restructuring and internal change is increasing in Hong Kong,' said Neil Cowieson, who runs Human Scope, a local human resources consultancy.

'Take the example of the Daimler-Chrysler merger in the US. On paper the deal looked great, but many said it was integrating two different business cultures that brought about the collapse. It's here organisational psychologists can help - letting companies see business changes from a people perspective. Hong Kong companies now face these kinds of issues.'

Hong Kong has never faced labour concerns, such as unionisation, mass unemployment, large scale layoffs and privatisation, as have Europe and the US, which is one reason why organisational psychology has been slow to develop here, but high employee turnover and competition through intellectual capital are now creating more of a demand for the skills of organisational psychologists.

A decade ago there were only a few expatriates working as organisational psychologists, but the number has increased since the launch of a master's degree in industrial-organisational psychology in 1997 at the Chinese University. Now five to seven local students graduate in the discipline every two years.

The course also includes a three-month internship, mostly in Hong Kong but sometimes in the mainland, with large corporations. Winton Au Wing-tung, associate professor in the department of psychology, said there was much more awareness of the profession here now than when the university launched the internship. 'Ten years ago we had to knock on people's doors and explain what organisational psychology is and how the interns could help their firm. But now our long-term partners want the interns as they are continually impressed by their solid training and analytical skills.'

The discipline set up its own professional body in 2000 under the Hong Kong Psychological Society called the Division of Industrial-Organisational Psychology (DIOP) alongside the educational and clinical psychology divisions. DIOP now has more than 60 members. About a quarter are academics with the rest being practitioners and a handful of students.