Evidence-based management (EBM), and particularly EB-HR, are already in danger of being consigned to the trash can of fads before they have even started. There are many different definitions of what EBM is supposed to be and plenty of people will happily jump on any passing bandwagon if they get the scent of a fast buck. So how might we distinguish between the real thing and the pretenders? Let us look at one attempt to provide some definition, the Conference Board E-B Human Research Report (E-0015-07-RR) and ask the questions: –
- Is EB-HR (as proposed by the Conference Board) old wine in new bottles or a completely new management paradigm?
- If it is genuinely meant to be a new paradigm then where has this fundamental shift in thinking come from?
According to this Report there are already -
“Practitioners of Evidence-Based Human Resources” who “ focus squarely on the impact of management practices on observable financial and organizational outcomes; and their decisions are guided by the best available evidence.”
If such practitioners really do exist, and we accept the Conference Board’s definition of EB-HR, there are still many crucial questions that need to be asked: –
- Who taught them how to become evidence-based?
- Where exactly do they get their evidence?
- Is it meaningful evidence, that is evidence of real value in terms of output, cost, revenue or quality, rather than inputs such as engagement surveys and number of training days?
- How did they use that evidence and what difference did it make to their HR decisions and policy making?
- Who exactly are these people?
Perhaps we can answer this last question by looking at the “Evidence-Based Human Resources Advisory Panel” (Appendix 1), which presumably comprises those they regard as being leading exponents of the art and science of EBM? One of these members is Jac Fitz-enz (Saratoga founder) whose work, according to the report -
“.. was revolutionary, applying basic formulae to everyday HR functions to measure their efficiency and effectiveness. His research sought to identify basic formulas for identifying the costs and benefits resulting from employee turnover, recruiting methods, training learning curves, etc.”
But it later admits that -
“Since Fitz-enz introduced measurement to the HR function in the 1980’s most of the focus has been primarily on measuring the efficiency of HR functions. This focus fails to address the more meaningful issues of how human capital creates value and how HR interventions serve as catalysts for improving business outcomes.”
Indeed Jac Fitz-enz did create a whole industry of measurement to keep HR departments busy, and PwC continue his work under the Saratoga brand today, despite the fact that it reveals nothing to its clients about human capital management or value creation. PwC probably do not bother to remind their HR clients either that they cannot be ‘efficiently’ doing things that add no value whatsoever (e.g. sending people on pointless training programmes).
Another member of the panel is Dave Ulrich who has used masses of his own academic data to support his theories but when the crucial question is asked, is this an evidence-based approach, the answer has to be no. This is best exemplified by one his own reports ‘Reporting on Employee Surveys’ (Ulrich, Smallwood, Creelman – 2007) in which Ulrich offers his basic proposition that -
“Companies with good employee survey results will in general outperform companies with poor results.”
That may well be ‘generally’ true but it is, at best, only a correlation and in the case of the failed GM it patently does not apply. Yet this does not stop Ulrich and his co-authors, in this simplistic report, declaring that this is not just a correlation but actually -
“there is research demonstrating engagement does cause higher performance”
This blatant attempt to pass off simplistic correlations as causal evidence brings conventional HR into disrepute and is as far away from EB-HR as it is possible to be. It marks out Ulrich, and those like-minded members of this panel, as non-evidence-based. Using retrospective data, out of context, to support HR practices in completely different contexts is a classic example of the failed, one-size-fits-all, HR policies that have been the stock-in-trade of HR departments around the world; blindly copying competence frameworks, talent management and employer branding based on a questionable belief system, not hard evidence that any of these initiatives work. This has left many senior HR people ‘up a creek without a paddle’ when trying to demonstrate their worth.
The real irony here of course is that the very practices that the Conference Board praised in the past (Fitz-enz et al) are exactly the same ones that have failed to gain credibility with a more questioning management and investment analysts. In view of this it is surprising to see that one of the ‘fathers’ of EBM, Jeffrey Pfeffer (see his book ‘Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense’) has allowed himself to be associated with this sort of company; especially when one of his own, founding ‘Principles of EBM‘ includes –
“5. Avoid basing decisions on untested but strongly held beliefs, what you have done in the past, or on uncritical “benchmarking” of what winners do.”
- perfectly describing Ulrich’s modus operandi.
As someone who has dedicated his entire career to people management I would be more than a bit miffed – and wonder why I had bothered – if I suddenly discovered that there is no connection between employee engagement and performance but, at the same time, I know only too well that any relationship that might exist is not simple but highly complex. Even if there were evidence that a causal relationship did exist, in a particular organisation at a particular point in time, it would not encourage me to advocate spending more time, money and energy on improving engagement per se if, as an evidence-based HR manager, I had unearthed much more pressing and more valuable management issues that needed to be resolved first.