Evidence-Based Management – We’re doing it now, but let’s do it better!

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Why are people talking about evidence-based management like it’s something we aren’t already doing? Well there’s a reason for that.

To slightly paraphrase the intro to american television series Numb3rs “We all use evidence every day”.

Really we do. We use data and statistics with KPI’s, we use information from those that work within our organisations or have some sort of relationship with the organisation such as customers. We also use our own experiences, our own formulated views based on what we have seen work or fail in the past. All of this, to a degree, can be considered evidence.

But are we using the best available evidence?

Some HR practitioners I’ve spoken with about evidence-based HR have this look on their face as if I’m stating the bleeding obvious when I explain how I believe HR practitioners should operate using a more evidence-based approach. They have this look because they feel an evidence-based approach is how they have always operated, and that it is common sense to “keep” operating this way in any case.

There is truth in some of that, of course, but the understanding, the perception that this is what they are doing and have always done, also needs to be challenged.

It needs to be challenged because it’s recognised that people like to make decisions based on their own thoughts and experiences even though the scientific research shows that this type of process for decision-making is generally ‘fraught with biases’ to use a phrase I’ve read during my own research and learning on evidence-based management.

It’s probably helpful here that I explain that an EB approach focuses on considering evidence from all or some of the following four sources;-

  • Scientific evidence: this is classified as findings from published scientific research
  • Organizational evidence: data, facts and figures gathered from the organization
  • Experiential evidence: the professional experience and judgement of practitioners
  • Stakeholder evidence: the values and concerns of people who may be affected by the decision.

So when people say “we’ve always used evidence” they typically mean they’ve used some evidence, probably experiential evidence and organizational evidence, usually to support an idea they want to see succeed, than to use the best available evidence.

So here’s an example.

How many of us who claim to be evidence-based practitioners still consider such information as the following during an assessment process for recruitment;-

  1. candidates experience in a previous job role,
  2. candidates non-work related interests or;
  3. the length of time candidates have spent in education

Lots of us, me too. Our professional experience and judgement (experiential evidence) has influenced us to believe that we’ve selected good candidates through considering some of these areas as criterion for identifying the best candidate. We’ve probably honed our framing, technique and approach to ensure our questions around these areas are relevant.

For me personally, I can also recall many more ideal candidates that I’ve appointed when considering at least one of these factors, than the number of those who might not have been appropriate recruits. I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I have been more successful considering one of these factors than not considering one of these factors.

But here’s the thing.

Scientific evidence, such as this article (the source of which is considered ‘published scientific research’ in EBP) refutes the level of usefulness of considering these areas, despite these factors being popular amongst HR professionals when assessing a job applicant.

I want to revisit this statement I made in an earlier paragraph;- I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I have been more successful considering this information than not considering this information.

A basic question I should pose myself to challenge this statement;- If I always ask questions to consider at least one of these factors and I never assess candidates without considering at least one of these factors, then how do I know, how have I convinced myself, that these are valid areas to consider?

Another point to challenge myself;- where these elements (experience in a previous job role, interests and length of time in academia) have been the deciding factors between two candidates, have I ever evaluated whether the candidate who wasn’t selected, might have been the right choice, if I had considered more useful selection criteria?

My point is, the tried and trusted evidence that I’m usually confident is backing up my thoughts, is based on experiential evidence only, something that hasn’t been critically evaluated and probably wasn’t the best available evidence.

There are lots of unknowns and as has been explained to me ‘evidence isn’t answers‘ but by fully analysing our practices, some of which we take for granted in HR and might assume are successful, we are not necessarily always making the best decisions.

Of course, our own experience is important, but being an evidence-based practitioner has to be about applying ‘weight’ to the evidence, acknowledging that other evidence is likely to be available that will help us make better decisions, and that, crucially, decisions we’ve made and continue to make that we think are ‘good’ could, possibly or probably, be better.

Decisions we’ve made, when fully critically analysed, might even have been poor decisions if we are really honest with ourselves.

We have to challenge ourselves to be better, in order to make better decisions.

So yes we all use evidence every day – but to make the best possible decisions, to truly add sustained value and credibility to the work we do we must seek out the best available evidence, and embed it into our daily routine.

For more information on evidence-based management, I suggest you visit the website of the Centre for Evidence-Based Management and the Science For Work website. I also suggest you follow Professor Rob Briner on Twitter.

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