Wednesday 21 November 2007

Evidence based management

I was a bit more critical of Philip Stiles' article on global HR than I'd intended, probably because I had just been listening to some mp3 files sent out by the CIPD after the September conference, including one on Phil Rosenzweig on the Halo Effect. And I thought that some of the challenges aired by Rosenzweig applied to Stiles' research.

Rosenzweig emphasises the need for decisions to be based not just research, but good research, which as he explains in his blog , posting on his experience at the CIPD, must be: "well designed, with solid data, and appropriate inferences drawn from the data".

So commenting on in-company research conducted by First Direct (HSBC), he questions whether engagement leads to business performance, or the other way around, and indeed challenges the value of engagement itself: "Engagement is surely important, but by itself is likely to be of little value". Based upon this, he then questions the value of celebrating personal events like births and weddings if this is at the expense of making tough decisions in a business.

Mmm. Well, my belief is that engagement does have tremendous value, and I know that there is engagement research which indicates causation not merely correlation. But I'm not sure I could ever prove this fact to the level of confidence that Rosenzweig requires.

Of course, Rosenzweig isn't alone in emphasising the value of research based decision making. Jeffrey Pfeffer published a book on the subject, Hard Facts, last year. And see this website.
The Academy of Management Journal's October edition also emphasises the need for this research to come from academic rather than just practitioner periodicals.

Also, a few weeks ago, People Management featured an interview with Rob Briner, who is fairly well known for his view that there is no medical or psychological meaning behind stress, and has more recently been talking extensively about evidence based management.

Briner lists empowerment, TQM, excellence, downsizing, emotional intelligence, business process re-engineering, and what he describes as his current favourite, talent management as fads developed due to lack of clear research evidence. Unfortunately he doesn't provide any evidence for this inference. To me, these are all part of my current tool bag, and I use them when the need arises. Yes, these were probably all over hyped when they were introduced but there were good reasons for these peaks in activity too - companies need to be able to identify and apply new thinking that can provide them with competitive advantage, and organisations that have applied these techniques effectively have and do gain advantages from using them.

In fact, Briner does note that "evidence is only one of many factors, such as past experience and organisational data, that should also shape decisions". I agree these other factors are important - and I do agree that research evidence has its place. But I'd also add intuition and imagination to this list.

So if I favour a more rounded approach to people management to pure evidence-based management, why do I post so frequently on the latest research findings (Watson Wyatt , Towers Perrin and IBM etc)? I'll admit this is is partly because doing this draws a lot of traffic to my blog. More importantly, it allows me to describe my own views and the extent to which they agree or differ from the research findings. And this to me is the real benefit of research - it provides the basis for conversations within organisation about what it is that executives within those organisations believe, and what they're going to do.

And most research studies, even the most informal, and even if there are findings that can be challenged, are usually based upon a central nub of 'truth'. On this, I'd agree with Rob Briner who states that: "You need to look at the picture emerging from the cumulative body of research". When many pieces of research say the same thing, for example that engagement does inform performance, this is enough for me.

You may also be interesting in reviewing my comments on HCM as a decision science (here and here). And I also recommend Lancaster lecturer Anthony Hesketh's challenge of scientism.


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