Whether it's drawing up or applying policies, developing managers, or supporting employees, people professionals are often involved in solving complex organisational problems. We need to understand ‘what works’ in people management, but choosing reliable, trustworthy solutions can be a challenge, as there are fads, outdated wisdom and quick fixes to distract us.
This challenge affects all professions and has led to evidence-based practice. The aim is to cut through the 'noise' of opinions to make better informed decisions and help organisations achieve their goals. But how evidence-based is the people profession? And how do we put ourselves on the road to being more evidence-based?
Why do we need to be evidence-based?
Fads, half-truths and information overload
Within the people profession, we face a barrage of often contradictory insights and wild claims about what works in organisations and what doesn't. In addition, every couple of years, large international consulting firms promote a new, cutting edge model or solution that promises to empower your employees and boost your organisation's performance. Especially in a 'post-truth' era:
"We're assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumor, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting."1
As a result, we use mental shortcuts to make decisions.2, 3, 4 These are not just mentally efficient, but necessary to stop our brains from overloading. However, they also mean we are highly prone to biases. Common biases include:
- authority bias: the tendency to overvalue the opinion of a person or organisation that is seen as an authority
- conformity bias: the tendency to conform to others in a group, also referred to as 'group think' or 'herd behaviour'
- confirmation bias: looking to confirm existing beliefs when assessing new information
- patternicity or the illusion of causality: the tendency to see patterns and assume causal relations by connecting the dots even when there is just random 'noise'.
Outdated insights and so-called best practices
People professionals are often not aware that there is an abundance of scientific evidence available on topics/issues that they encounter in their daily practice5. As a result, people practices in organisations are too often based on tradition, outdated insights or untested 'best practices'.
Drawing on 'best practice' may seem sensible, as we can learn from organisations who face similar issues. However, whereas 'best practice' in medicine means a practice has been shown effective through a large number of rigorous scientific studies, in people management it usually just means 'widely used'. Accepting any practice because it is widely used – without critically evaluating whether the practice is effective and, if so, whether it is also likely to work in a different context – is not a reliable route to effective organisational outcomes.
Likewise, adopting a practice because it was taught to us when we last studied or because it is the way we have always done it, is not a good strategy. Received wisdom may be outdated and new insights may have emerged. Thousands of research articles are published annually on topics that are relevant to people professionals and we should be checking these for new findings and to update our professional knowledge.
Because of confirmation bias, we are inclined to selectively search for information that supports what we want to think, paying less attention to contrary information. In the extreme, 'inconvenient' evidence is wilfully ignored and only evidence that supports our stance is presented: this practice is referred to as 'cherry-picking'. Cherry-picking evidence can make us look smart and well informed, but it is misleading and can have serious negative consequences – risks and opportunities can be overlooked and damaging practices encouraged.
How does evience-based practice help?
At the CIPD, we believe that being evidence-based is an important step for the people profession, and our Profession Map describes a vision of a profession that is principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes-driven.
The benefits of evidenced-based practice for the people profession are potentially huge. It can lead to the following outcomes:
- Decisions that are based on the best information, rather than outdated received wisdom, short-term fads or biased thinking. Evidence-based practice allows people professionals to check proposals robustly, reducing the risk of spending time and money on ineffective practices.
- A stronger body of knowledge and a more trusted profession. A 'true' profession has a formal body of knowledge which is shared across members in the profession group and acts as a common frame of reference in discussions and debates. An evidence-based profession is a stronger profession.
- Greater gravitas for people professionals, increasing their influence with other business leaders and enabling a more positive impact in work. Ultimately, any discipline or specialism that wants to retain status as a respected profession must be evidence-based. For example, a recent study found that leaders who explicitly take an evidence-based approach when making decisions are more trusted by employees.
What is evidence-based practice?
Being evidence-based does not simply mean backing up one's opinion with a piece of research or data – it is a particular approach to using evidence to inform judgements. 'Evidence' is information, facts or data supporting (or contradicting) a claim, assumption or hypothesis. In HR and management, we get evidence from four main sources (the more of these we can use, the better):
- Professional expertise: the judgement of practitioners, such as colleagues, managers, employees or leaders.
- Scientific literature: published studies on topics relevant to people professionals, such as characteristics of effective teams, recruitment and selection techniques, or predictors of staff turnover, for example. These include surveys, randomized controlled trials, qualitative case studies and meta-analyses.
- Evidence from the organisation: this could be financial data, performance indicators (for example, the number of sales, costs) but also customer or employee feedback.
- Evidence from stakeholders: groups or individuals inside or outside the organisation whose interests affect or are affected by a decision; for example, internal stakeholders may include employees; external stakeholders may include suppliers or investors.
In identifying, analysing and prioritising evidence, we should be:
- conscientious: make a real effort to gather and use evidence from multiple sources – for example, not just relying on professional expertise
- explicit: take a systematic, step-by-step approach that is transparent and reproducible. Avoid cherry-picking and show how you found and assessed your evidence
- judicious: critically appraise the available evidence so that you can focus only on that which is most reliable and trustworthy.
And finally, the aim is to increase the likelihood of achieving outcomes of interest (for example, increased performance or wellbeing). Evidence-based professionals make better informed decisions by looking at the balance of probabilities, indications and sometimes tentative conclusions. Proof or guarantees are impossible to find.
For more information on what evidence-based practice is and the six practical steps in applying it, see our accompanying guide.
How evidence-based is the people profession?
The principles and practices of evidence-based decision-making were first developed in the early 1990s in medicine. Since then, they have successfully been applied in a range of professions, including architecture, agriculture, crime and justice, education, international development, nutrition and social welfare, as well as management.
Compared to these other professions, it's fair to say that evidence-based practice is still in its infancy in HR and management. For example, one survey of practising people managers suggests that the majority only seldomly consult scientific literature to make decisions (Figure 1), preferring instead to use sources such as personal experience, intuition and (potentially outdated) knowledge from formal education (see Figure 2).
Nevertheless, engagement with robust evidence in HR and related fields has been on the rise in recent years. This can be seen in the increase in systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which contribute to our understanding of HR by aggregating and summarising the body of research on specific topics (see Figure 3).
How can we start to become more evidence-based in practice?
It may seem daunting at first, and you may find yourself asking: “How do I build evidence-based capacity if I’m not a qualified researcher?” But evidence-based practice is not about trying to turn practitioners into researchers. Rather, it’s about bringing together complementary evidence from different sources, including research and practice. People professionals looking to make evidence-based decisions in practice can begin by following the practical steps in our guide, which are explained with examples and useful questions to ask.
Becoming an evidence-based profession is a challenging aspiration, but people professionals can begin with smaller steps. To help you on your journey, a potential maturity model might look like the one below (Figure 4).
- Read research: Cultivate a habit of reading about research in areas of interest. Practitioners can make a good start in being evidence-based through reading core textbooks6 and certain journals that focus on summarising research.7 Popular science books also summarise and discuss the body of research in a practical way and are available on a growing number of themes (for example, psychological bias,8 inclusion and diversity,9 effective meetings10 and performance feedback).11 They won’t cover all topics of interest and, even if written by leading experts, can miss out relevant high-quality research. However, they can be a valuable starting point to ‘prime the pump of your decision-making’.12
- Collect and analyse organisational data: Developing analytical capability should be a long-term aim for the people profession. To make good decisions, we need a clear understanding of what makes the organisation effective and successful, and that means investing in effective systems of collecting information, including data quality and analytical capability. A more immediate aim should be that all HR leaders should have some operational knowledge of data analytics – enough to become ‘savvy consumers’ of research. They should be able to ask probing questions and make the case for the resources needed for robust measures. To read more about the criteria for robust measures (validity and reliability), see our evidence review on people performance.
- Review published evidence: Conduct or commission short evidence reviews of the scientific literature to inform key decisions. The body of scientific literature is a hugely rich vein of evidence and you can usually expect to find high-quality relevant studies that will usefully inform your decisions. Searching and reviewing literature in a systematic way enables you to be confident you have coverage of the important studies and have not been biased in interpreting them. The CIPD’s Evidence review hub covers a range of HR and L&D topics but employers can also commission their own.
- Pilot new practices: In line with the call to ‘turn the office into a lab’,13 you can pilot and evaluate new interventions through trials, applying the same principles of what makes rigorous cause-and-impact research. You should include before-and-after measures, preferably have a control or comparison group and ideally randomise treatment or control groups to reduce bias. Control groups (denying some people access to an intervention) are sometimes felt to be inappropriate; a way round this is via a lagged roll-out, so that people on a waiting list provide a temporary control that gives you enough time to run the trial. But as for all evidence, doing what you can in evaluation is better than nothing.
- Share your knowledge: Contribute to the body of knowledge by sharing your research insights at events or in publications. Sponsoring and helping publish robust research is a way leaders in the profession can be highly influential over the long term.
- Critical thinking: From start to end, all the above activities should be underpinned by critical thinking – that is, by questioning assumptions and carefully considering what the knowledge gap is and what evidence is needed.
In representing expertise to stakeholders and leading on their specialisms, people professionals can – and should – prioritise the most trustworthy evidence available. The gains in making better decisions on the ground, strengthening the body of knowledge and becoming more trusted and influential are surely worthwhile.
To realise the vision of a people profession that’s genuinely evidence-based, we need to move forward on two fronts:
- We need to make sure that the body of professional knowledge is evidence-based – the CIPD’s Evidence review hub is one way in which we are doing this.
- People professionals need to develop knowledge and capability in evidence-based practice – resources such as the CIPD Profession map and courses from the CIPD and CEBMa can help.
Becoming a profession worthy of the label ‘evidence-based’ is a long road. We need to chip away over time to see real progress. HR, learning and development, and organisational development are newer to evidence-based practice than other professions, but we can take inspiration from them, for whom it has also been a long road, and be ambitious.
About the authors
This thought leadership piece was written by Jonny Gifford and Jake Young of the CIPD and Eric Barends of the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa).
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