Understanding Evidence Based Management better

I’ve been hearing and reading a fair amount about this concept of evidence based practise for a while now. You are most likely familiar with the idea when it comes to medicine or government policy. Most medicine and policy decisions are informed by the evidence base. If a particular medicine proves to treat certain illnesses in clinical trials then it’s more than likely going to be made available to the public en masse. You can take that same approach and apply it to behavioural science and even further with areas like HR.

One of the areas of L&D where we’ve seen evidence based practise used effectively is in the study of ‘learning styles’ and their use in training / education design. What the research has proven time and again is that using learning styles as a design methodology for training / education is flawed at best and completely ineffective as a delivery methodology. Which is great because it forces us as L&Ders to really ensure we understand human  learning processes and design learning interventions that are in line with natural processes rather than discredited and useless theories.

Another area where we can see evidence based practise in, er, practise is online retail and online learning environments. Research is able to inform with amazing clarity and accuracy which forms of design / UX and UI are effective and which are not.

So step in the applicability of evidence based practise to the wider world of HR / L&D and we start to understand that we could use this practise to inform interventions that are actually effective.

From what I’ve understood about Evidence Based Management so far is that it relies on research and evidence to inform exactly what is effective and what is not. Right, that makes complete sense to me. So, for example, we are able to know that NLP, MBTI, learning styles, employee engagement initiatives, learning and development all have weak evidence bases. Now, before my fellow L&Ders get all defensive about this, it is well worth you taking your time to understand why they have a weak evidence base.

What this means in the broader Evidence Based Management piece is if Consultant A suggests Intervention A, then they should be doing so with a decent evidence base that Intervention A will work. Now there’s a whole piece there about the education of HR / L&D professionals better understanding what to look and ask for when it comes to that evidence base. But I need to keep this moving along.

So far, I’m in agreement with the approach, what it can inform us, and what that means for the interventions we choose to implement.

Where I come unstuck is when Evidence Based Management approach can’t provide an answer for a solution that is effective. What do I mean? I mean this:

Company A what’s to implement Intervention A, but the evidence base for it is either weak or non-existent.  They learn that Company B had a similar issue, and used Intervention B which had a positive organisational impact. Company A decide to go for using Intervention B. However, and this is a big however, Intervention B could only have worked for Company B because the culture and many other factors were aligned for that intervention to have worked. The research and evidence base may suggest it is effective, but that’s because the context of Company B helped make it work.

No two companies are the same. I know that Evidence Based Management doesn’t suggest blindly following examples and blindly following best practise solutions. What it doesn’t help with, though, is in offering solutions that can be effective.

Taking this further, what I’ve seen so far is Evidence Based Management help us understand what doesn’t work. That is really helpful and like I said, forces us as professionals and practitioners to examine what we’re doing and why. What I haven’t seen with this approach, yet, are models and theories that are effective that can work independent of culture and other organisational factors. The promise of Evidence Based Management is that it can potentially offer solutions that akin to medicinal solutions. I’m yet to see that in evidence.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Evidence Based Management better”

  1. Sukh, as always you’re thinking and exploring really interesting areas of our professional practice. I think this is one in particular that we need to be paying attention to and debating more widely.

    In my view, evidence based practice informs the degree of confidence you can have about your recommended approach. Where good quality evidence exists for a type of intervention across a broad population (i.e. it works in range of organisational cultures, industries etc), then you can come to an informed decision about how to proceed.

    I wouldn’t describe Intervention B as having particularly good evidence for it in the situation you describe. That’s what an evidence based practitioner is supposed to do: assess the evidence for or against a particular approach to a particular problem or situation. However, if Intervention B had been used in Companies B, C, D, E and F, those companies were relatively diverse and had all achieved positive outcomes, then I’d give it more consideration. If Intervention B had been used in a randomised controlled trial in a broad range of organisations and achieved significant results I’d have even more confidence.

    Evidence based practice in HR and management is years, perhaps decades, behind evidence based medicine. The problem is, while you can be reasonably sure that in medicine there is a sufficient quantity of good quality evidence for common, and sometimes even uncommon, conditions, that’s not likely to be the case for a management or HR approach. This is not to say evidence doesn’t exist at all, it’s just that the literature tends to abound with case studies and small cohort studies and very rarely controlled trials of any description (although I’d be happy to be demonstrated wrong on that score).

    What then, should an evidence based practitioner do? The process is straightforward: define the problem/situation/question; gather the best evidence available; critically appraise the evidence for its validity and reach a conclusion about the best approach; implement; evaluate the outcome.

    The barriers I see to wider adoption of evidence based practice in a business context occur when there is little or no good quality evidence for one approach or another – which seems to usually be the case. In that situation you have no option but to learn by doing. But even then, there are ways to approach that situation that are more evidence focussed. The first step is to acknowledge that you have no idea whether a particular approach will have a beneficial effect, no effect or even a harmful effect. So you need to test your approach against reality in a way that can inform you about what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t take much to run a controlled trial and its something we do far too infrequently.

    I sense that advocates of evidence based practice in HR and management are frustrated that, where there is good quality evidence for the effectiveness or otherwise of an approach, the evidence is being ignored. It’s not even being sought after. What I’d like to see is somewhat less about pointing to approaches that don’t work or where there’s a lack of evidence to highlighting approaches do work and under what conditions. Even doctors, especially doctors, needed support and convincing in the early days of evidence based medicine. I’d submit that both researchers and practitioners need to work more closely together to start getting that good quality evidence to help us make positive decisions and move the whole profession forward.

    1. Hi Owen, and thanks for the comment to this. Sorry I took so long in responding, holidays and life and that.

      Having re-read the Basic Principles of Evidence Based Management, I don’t think I’m wrong in my assertions I made in my blog post. Your comment is really helpful in developing the understanding of what we should be looking for, and how we can become more aligned to evidence-based practise.

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