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Balancing Science and Practice: Reflections From the Current and Past Presidents of METRO

Comila Shahani-Denning

The goal of the Local I-O Group Relations Committee is to create a strong connection between SIOP and locally operated I-O groups and focuses on strengthening and connecting local I-O communities around the globe (https://0-www-siop-org.library.alliant.edu/Membership/SIOP-Committees/Committee-Descriptions).  Many local I-O groups are self-run and entirely staffed by volunteers who typically hold full-time jobs. Managing programming by selecting speakers and topics that balance science and practice while ensuring member engagement is sometimes as demanding as another full-time job!

METRO (New York Metropolitan Association of Applied Psychology), fondly known as the “grandma of all local I-O groups” (https://0-www-siop-org.library.alliant.edu/Membership/Local-I-O-Groups), predating SIOP, has often been featured in past TIP articles. METRO is also well-known for consistently putting forth an engaging and informative speaker series that offers best practices in both I-O industry and academic research. As any president of a professional organization can attest to, developing a speaker panel can be one of the most challenging, exciting, yet daunting tasks. Presidents for METRO serve a 4-year term, starting as secretary, then moving on to treasurer, vice president, and finally president. METRO has a robust membership pool that possesses varied interests and professional backgrounds, and encouraging involvement across the diverse audience (students, academics, independent practitioners, consultants, internal, I-O, as well as HR) is critical to maintaining member engagement. As soon as I started on the executive board as secretary, I began to think about a potential speaker/topic panel. Not only was I thinking about how to best balance the focus of science versus practice and the level of audience engagement, but also how to attract the best speakers without bankrupting METRO. Although METRO does not typically pay a speaker fee, we offer to pay travel and lodging expenses for out-of-town speakers. As I moved through the executive board positions, SIOP conferences (2017, 2018, 2019) were an invaluable resource as attending a wide range of sessions maximized my exposure to potential speakers and topics. I started building a speaker list at that time. I also spoke with potential speakers at SIOP to ask if they had plans to visit NY in order to slot them in (thus minimizing the cost to METRO). As president, there was nothing more exciting than a speaker presentation that was so oversubscribed that we had to scramble to find extra seating or have audience questions prompting thoughtful discussions that significantly exceeded the time allotted for the event. During my term as president, COVID-19 struck, and we had to quickly move to virtual meetings. I was lucky enough to have two wonderful speakers, both well-known to the I-O academic and applied community, who presented virtually. Whereas Kristen Shockley had already been scheduled to speak, Richard Landers graciously agreed to do a virtual presentation in May. Notwithstanding the pandemic, those were some of best attended sessions at METRO during my tenure on the board.

For this article, I reached out to METRO presidents over the past 5 years to discuss member engagement strategies. Katherine Bittner, president when I was secretary, discussed how she carefully considered the needs of the METRO audience. Over the 3 years prior to serving as president, she assessed which speakers at METRO generated the most attendance, received the most questions from the audience, and were the most engaging and charismatic presenters. She selected both applied practitioners and academicians to present on topics such as leadership, teams, selection, assessment, and coaching. When selecting applied practitioners, she invited psychologists who were steeped in the latest research, and when selecting academicians, she included psychologists who also practiced with clients in the real world. Doing so ensured that the audience (whether academicians or practitioners) would learn both new research and cutting-edge techniques (Bittner, personal communication). Rania Vasilatos received suggestions from others on the executive board and considered current trends in the fields, the science–practice balance, and logistics (travel, expenses, etc.) (Vasilatos, personal communication).

Anthony Boyce described similar strategies. He considered both “Eminent I-Os” (e.g., top academic publishers, current/past SIOP presidents), “influencer” practitioners, as well as up-and-coming academic I-Os publishing innovative work with both academic and practical implications (Boyce, personal communication). Boyce stated that his operating assumption was that I-O researchers focusing heavily on more basic academic/theoretical work would be less interesting broadly across METRO membership. He also focused on senior internal/external practitioners with visible brands at SIOP and recent presentations on innovative topics. Boyce described his approach when choosing speakers to balance presentations along the academic-to-practitioner continuum (e.g., strong academic research requiring net new science to strong practitioner perspectives involving synthesizing new ideas but less rigorous science) in roughly equal measures AND balancing across topics falling roughly into the one-third assessment and selection, one-third leadership and development, and one-third broader I-O topics (e.g., surveys, well-being, OD, emerging technologies). He emphasized the importance of building and maintaining a trusted network of engaging speakers who could pinch hit for those tough-to-fill spots or last-minute cancellations but could always be counted on to deliver an interesting and informative product.

Christina Fleck identified and prioritized events based on two criteria: (a) trending topic areas and (b) variety in topics and speaker backgrounds (Fleck, personal communication). She considered the topic areas that were identified by METRO’s End of Year Survey from the year prior and SIOP’s Top Workplace Trends, which led to topics like employee sentiment and assessments. The reason for these criteria was to ensure members were learning more about areas they were interested in and critical to the field from speakers who provided different experiences and perspectives. Jared Weintraub, current president, also heavily relied on the end of year survey from members. He utilized both the annual survey and personal research to ascertain what topics were relevant and trending and in which members were interested (Weintraub, personal communication). He complemented these efforts with practical thinking about METRO members who could be good speakers, who were in his professional network, and ideally local because the organization is "NY METRO." Additionally, he tried to balance the number of academic researchers versus applied practitioners with varied backgrounds. 

Although audience engagement was a primary focus area for all the presidents cited in this article, other common themes expressed include the need to balance scholarly research with cutting-edge applied practices and the importance of having speakers from varied backgrounds and at different career-life stages. Running a local group takes significant effort, and presidents are constantly thinking about the most effective way to utilize resources to maximize member engagement. Although there are different methods and approaches to success, all presidents are actively weighing these factors to assist in fostering a thriving professional group.

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