Psychology in Action

Humanitarian work in psychology at North Carolina State University’s IOTech4D Lab

How industrial-organizational psychology can be applied to reduce poverty and support sustainable development through the intersections of work, psychology, information technology and global development.

By Ann-Marie Clayton and Lori Foster Thompson, PhD

2012 members of the IOTech4D Lab at North Carolina State UniversityReducing global poverty: What’s I-O psychology got to do with it? A lot. So much, in fact, that our lab at North Carolina State University is fundamentally devoted to using industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology to enrich and improve work carried out for, with, and by people living in lower-income settings, for the purpose of addressing some of the most pressing economic, social and environmental challenges facing the world today. The purpose of this article is to: describe I-O psychology’s role in meeting global development challenges; introduce an emerging subdiscipline known as humanitarian work psychology; and illustrate how the IOTech4D lab at North Carolina State University is working to advance human welfare through research at the intersection of work, psychology, technology and global development.

The centrality of work to global development

The United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight imperatives established at the turn of the century and agreed upon by countries and development institutions worldwide. They include aspirations such as reducing extreme poverty by half, providing universal access to primary education and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS by the year 2015.

The truth is, reducing global poverty is a lot of work. Literally. MDG attainment requires work on the part of aid professionals, it requires work on the part of volunteers and it requires work on the part of local community members, particularly as capacity building efforts focus on workforce development. Beyond individual efforts, it also necessitates teamwork. Poverty reduction and socioeconomic development require individuals and organizations to collaborate effectively within and across agencies and institutions.

As the 2015 deadline for the MDGs approaches, discussions about what the “post-2015 agenda” will entail are underway. Jeffrey Sachs, who served U.N. Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon as special advisor on the MDGs, emphasizes the prominent role that the environment will play in the new set of goals which will follow the MDGs. Sachs (2012) notes, “In a world already undergoing dangerous climate change and other serious environmental ills, there is also widespread understanding that worldwide environmental objectives need a higher profile alongside the poverty-reduction objectives” (p. 2206). Accordingly, U.N. member states have agreed to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the MDGs and take center stage in the post-2015 development agenda.

As this transition takes place, work remains at the fore. According to Sachs (2012), sustainable development embraces the “triple bottom line” view of human well-being, which simultaneously places emphasis on social inclusion, environmental sustainability and economic well-being. It entails ensuring that all citizens of this world have the opportunity to reach their potential, that they make an effective transition from school to skills to the labor market and that private companies, large and small, are actively engaged in efforts to accomplish the SDGs. The centrality of work to the SDGs is illustrated by a 2011 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), titled “Skills for Green Jobs” (Strietska-Ilina, Hofmann, Durán Haro, & Jeon, 2011). This report points out that the transition to a greener economy creates opportunities for new jobs. It also, however, triggers the disappearance of old “brown” jobs — an issue which is intricately linked to poverty and socioeconomic development. According to the ILO report, “ Developing countries bear least responsibility for climate change but are hit hardest by its consequences. The alteration of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, droughts, floods and other consequences of climate change and environmental degradation all have grave repercussions for traditional ways of life and livelihood. In countries heavily dependent on farming, fishing and traditional crafts, such as wood carving, people deprived of these sources of income rapidly fall below the poverty line. Consequently these communities have an urgent need for adaptation skills; however, so far skills development strategies are rarely included in national adaptation plans” (Strietska-Ilina et al., 2011, p. 167).

In short, work plays a central role in the accomplishment of the MDGs and the forthcoming SDGs. To reduce poverty and promote human and environmental well-being, such work needs to be performed in a meaningful, productive, just and inclusive manner.

Humanitarian work psychology (HWP)

It is in the preceding context that the field of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, the science of work, interfaces with efforts to promote human and global development. I-O psychology entails evidence-based practice — research and the application of empirical findings to real-world problems. It covers a wide variety of topics pertaining to work and organizational behavior which are relevant to improving poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability initiatives. Its focus areas include but are not limited to work and occupational analysis, entrepreneurship, selection and staffing, training, survey research, leadership, team dynamics, motivation, work satisfaction and performance evaluation.

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a subdiscipline within I-O psychology known as humanitarian work psychology (HWP). HWP is the synthesis of I-O psychology with deliberate and organized efforts to enhance human welfare (Global Organisation for Humanitarian Work Psychology, 2013). It involves the application of I-O psychology to humanitarian work, which includes a focus on aid and development workers’ well-being and job performance. It is also entails science and practice aimed at making work-in-general more humanitarian — for example, by promoting what the ILO calls “decent work,” which entails safe conditions, adequate wages, workers’ rights, social dialogue and social protection (Carr et al., 2013; Strietska-Ilina et al., 2011). In effect, I-O psychology as a discipline is broadening its science and practice to include a more deliberate focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. HWP supports and promotes this expansion.

Clearly, some I-O psychologists have been doing what is now called HWP for years (e.g., Franco, Bennett, Kanfer, & Stubblebine, 2004). Until recently, however, such efforts were typically discrete and disconnected from one another, conducted in the absence of a broader community of like-minded others “doing pro-social I-O.” HWP provides organization to these efforts, enabling a collective, proactive, strategic agenda to increase I-O psychology’s visibility and impact in the global development arena. To facilitate this goal, the Global Organisation for HWP (GOHWP) was formed in July of 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. GOHWP has 105 members from 22 countries (at time of writing), and recognizes there are likely many I-O psychologists and humanitarian professionals worldwide who share its goals and values. Its membership is diverse in occupation and country of origin, but the common desire to enhance human welfare through work is what unites GOHWP members.

Signs of HWP’s influence and reach can be found in the form of books, articles, conference presentations, research studies, applied projects, list serves and university courses devoted to the topic. For example, in 2012, an edited volume, Humanitarian Work Psychology, was published (Carr, MacLachlan, & Furnham, 2012). The following year, another volume emerged, titled Using I-O Psychology for the Greater Good (Olson-Buchanan, Bryan, & Thompson, 2013). The world’s first graduate courses in HWP were taught in 2010 at the Universities of Bologna and Barcelona, through the European Master in Work, Organizational, and Personnel Psychology (WOP-P), a postgraduate university program supported by the European Commission through the Erasmus Mundus Program. Additionally, conference presentations devoted to HWP have been delivered at major conventions sponsored by the International Association of Applied Psychology, the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology, the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology (APA Div. 14), as well as at non-I-O psychology meetings, such as the 2013 Aid and International Development Forum. Increasingly, I-O psychologists have also been contributing to the programs and goals of the United Nations by working through NGOs with consultative status to the U.N. (e.g., Scott, 2011), and by working directly for organizations such as the U.N.’s Global Compact (Carr, 2010) and the ILO (Carr, 2012).

The IOTech4D lab

The groundswell of interest in HWP among students, academicians and practitioners is supported by labs devoted to this topic, both north and south of the equator. North Carolina State University’s IOTech4D lab is one such example. The IOTech4D lab is housed within the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Department of Psychology. It focuses on how I-O psychology and information technology can be combined to improve work that is carried out for the purpose of global development.

The lab’s name, IOTech4D, reflects its core areas of emphasis. IO stands for industrial-organizational psychology. The lab uses scientific methods to answer the types of questions that for-profit and non-profit work organizations care about, such as how to select the best job applicants, how to train employees, how to evaluate job performance, how to motivate the workforce, how to promote effective teamwork and how to reduce turnover. Tech stands for technology. The lab also focuses on how information and communication technologies help and hinder workers. 4D has a double meaning. First, it stands for “for development.” IOTech4D research addresses how I-O psychology and information technology can be combined to improve work that is carried out for the purpose of global development. Second, it represents the four dimensions of the lab: Work, Psychology, Technology and Global Development. Thus, IOTech4D bridges the worlds of I-O psychology, HWP and Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD). As members of this lab, we are interested in enhancing the science and practice of I-O psychology and HWP through an understanding and use of information and communication technologies. At the same time, we focus on using principles from the organizational sciences to improve efforts within the field of ICTD.

IOTech4D lab members come from a variety of backgrounds. They hold degrees in business administration, economics, international development, sociology and psychology. The lab also hosts visiting scholars from abroad who spend one-to-two semesters thinking, learning and working with us. Most recently, we had the privilege of working with a PhD candidate from the University of Ghana’s Department of Psychology, who spent the 2012-2013 academic year with the lab.

The IOTech4D lab’s mission is to improve human welfare through research at the intersection of work, psychology, information technology and global development. Three example projects, described next, illustrate what this looks like in operational terms.

Lori Foster Thompson (right) with Inusah Abdul-Nasiru, IOTech4D’s 2012-13 Visiting Scholar from the University of GhanaFirst, the lab is engaged in a program of research centered on the topic of online volunteerism. The business world has long recognized that personnel do not always have to be physically present at a work site in order to contribute their expertise to a project. The Internet provides ready avenues for remote collaboration and assistance. The same principle can be applied to international aid and development work, as evidenced by online volunteerism portals, such as the United Nations UNV Online Volunteering service. The trend toward online volunteerism is significant because it opens up volunteerism opportunities to a wide variety of people, including highly skilled individuals whose circumstances might preclude travel to an aid site abroad — for example, a stay-at-home mom, a retiree caring for an ailing spouse, a person with physical mobility challenges or an employee who cannot afford to take extended time away from work. By expanding the prospective labor pool, online volunteerism can increase the chances of identifying individuals with just the right mix of skills needed for an aid and development project, including advanced professional skills that may not otherwise be readily available on site. The IOTech4D lab is engaged in several research projects on this topic. Most recently, we presented a paper at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s annual 2013 conference, which focused on what motivates people to engage in online volunteerism. The study, which included a sample of respondents from the United States and India, tested whether the factors that motivate online volunteerism depend on the cultural orientation of the would-be volunteer. Also coming from the lab is a stream of research on corporate support for employee online volunteerism, which examines whether organizational support for online volunteerism can be used as an effective tool for recruiting top talent.

Second, the IOTech4D lab is working on a series of projects on the topic of “voluntourism.” Humanitarian aid work often entails short-term assignments completed by volunteers traveling abroad to lower-income regions of the world. Volunteers come from a variety of sources. For example, work organizations and church groups sponsor short-term volunteer trips. Universities also support volunteerism, often in the form of “Alternative Spring Break” assignments. During these trips, students visit various locations to engage in short-term volunteer aid relief during university holidays. Sometimes referred to as “volunteer tourism” or simply “voluntourism,” short-term volunteer work abroad has engendered controversy over the years (e.g., Atkins & Thompson, 2012; Guttentag, 2009; Illich, 1968). Critics argue that such volunteers often do more harm than good, citing a host of problems including cultural missteps and poor performance on the part of volunteers working at aid sites. Proponents maintain that short-term volunteer assignments have the potential to simultaneously develop impoverished communities as well as the volunteers working in them, offering service learning opportunities to broaden the perspectives of those lending a helping hand. While opinions on this emotionally-charged topic abound, data are scarce. The IOTech4D lab is working on research projects designed to define, measure and improve short-term volunteer effectiveness. We are also investigating and testing the personal attributes (knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics) that lead to effectiveness during short-term volunteerism abroad. Finally, we are examining how mobile technologies (e.g., mobile phones) can play a role in assessing and providing performance feedback to short-term volunteers in the field. Specifically, we are working to design a program made for mobile devices that provides immediate feedback on volunteer performance. By first determining what makes an effective volunteer, then reducing the time between performance and feedback, volunteers and the communities they serve can get the most out of the efforts. Recent travels to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have helped the lab lay the groundwork for this project.

The third and final example of work being conducted in the IOTech4D lab moves away from the topic of volunteerism and focuses instead on local workforce development. This program of applied research, which we call Work-AID (Work-Analytics for International Development), is a work in progress, being conducted in conjunction with the Aidmatrix Foundation. High rates of unemployment affect regions and countries around the world. At the same time, there are employers with serious worker shortages. Just as people in this world go hungry while unused food goes to waste, jobs remain unfilled while people’s talents go underutilized or underdeveloped. Work-AID examines how work analysis data, psychometric testing and supply chain management technology can be combined to meet this challenge. As stated in the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report, “Jobs are instrumental to achieving economic and social development. Beyond their critical importance for individual well-being, they lie at the heart of many broader societal objectives, such as poverty reduction, economy-wide productivity growth, and social cohesion. The development payoffs from jobs include acquiring skills, empowering women, and stabilizing post-conflict societies. Jobs that contribute to these broader goals are valuable not only for those who hold them but for society as a whole” (World Bank, 2012, p. xiii).

Scientifically valid information about work, workers and work contexts undergirds Work-AID, which aims to utilize the benefits of existing work analysis data in the United States and certain European countries, improve upon those data, contextualize them to reflect local realities and export them to new settings where human capital information is limited, such as low-income countries in developing regions of the world. Suppose, for example, that a region wishes to develop a certain sector — perhaps a green, sustainable sector such as renewable energy generation. Preparing a local workforce with the skills needed to excel in the sector requires a clear understanding of the requisite jobs and occupations (e.g., wind energy engineers, solar thermal installers and technicians) and what they entail. Pre-existing databases and supplementary scientific methods can be used to identify the tasks and duties most important to each job or occupation, given the realities of the region at hand. This process, known as work analysis, also identifies the “KSAOs” — knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (e.g., personality, interests) needed to perform each job or occupation successfully. Directly or indirectly assessing the population’s KSAOs provides a picture of available human resources. Together data pertaining to (a) work requirements and (b) human capital can facilitate powerful analyses — a series of comparisons or “gap analyses” that can prove useful on several different levels. For example, a detailed account of the gaps between a region’s current and target talent profile can help drive educational (community college, university) curricula for the purpose of regional workforce development. An examination of gaps between individual talent profiles and job requirements can direct people to occupations that play to their strengths, and can point them to training that best prepares them for a particular job or occupation. Finally, gaps between one occupation and another can also be studied. Skill-similarity creates an understanding of where workers (e.g., those in “brown” occupations whose jobs are becoming obsolete) can go outside of their industry. Fueled with high-quality, scientifically derived data, these gap analyses can be facilitated through supply chain management technology which can readily connect people to the work opportunities that require their particular blend of talents. This is what Work-AID is all about.

In sum, the IOTech4D lab uses I-O psychology to improve human welfare through research at the intersections of work, psychology, information technology and global development. The three preceding examples illustrate how. It is important to note, however, that the IOTech4D lab is just one example of what HWP looks like in action. Other hubs of HWP activity exist throughout the world, each with a unique but complementary approach to using I-O psychology for the greater good. A notable example is Massey University’s Poverty Research Group, which focuses on the application of I-O psychology to topics such as aid organization fundraising and development education; teamwork and partnership for disaster relief and capacity development; and the nexus between migration and development (Massey University, 2013).


In conclusion, work is central to poverty reduction and sustainable development. The psychology of work therefore has a role to play as youth unemployment reaches troublesome rates, as humanity faces environmental sustainability crises and as the U.N.’s MDGs transition to SDGs. Advances in humanitarian work psychology, supported by research hubs such as North Carolina State University’s IOTech4D lab, can facilitate data-driven decision making and evidence-based practice as the world strives to improve living and working conditions for current and future generations.


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