Evidence-based management (EBM) is inherently a critical discipline; in every sense of the word. The perspective it adopts is that of an unapologetic, ‘doubting Thomas’ – until you see convincing evidence you will not be convinced. This presents those who want to become evidence-based managers with a problem – your valid challenges to management ‘orthodoxy’ will often be condemned as a negative attitude by those who prefer intuition and the feelgood factor to proper evidence. As a direct consequence several ‘sacred cows’ have slipped insidiously into mainstream, HR management thinking without sufficient challenge.
There is quite a long list of these shibboleths but some of the worst culprits include ‘diversity’, ‘employee engagement’, ‘leadership development’ and probably most ubiquitous of all – ‘learning’. All of these sound like laudable aims that can only bring positive benefits, and let us hope that most of the time they do, but the evidence-based manager will check out the hypothesis and the expected benefits first, in a specific context, before subscribing to any such concept.
A perfect example of this dilemma has surfaced in a recent publication from Business in the Community – ‘Building the Café Culture Movement’ Cafe culture BITC_BIS_REPORT_07101 – which is endorsed by John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. So should your organisation aim to become a ‘Café Culture’? If you are a Chief Executive you might want the PR benefits that come with being associated with the words ‘lifelong learning’, ‘community’ and ‘big society’ but would you also want to be associated with the double-think and fuzzy logic with which this document is infected?
In the introduction John Hayes puts the case for “the social and cultural benefits of learning” and invokes Ruskin’s quote that “industry without art is brutality” to imply that learning is more of an art and one that businesses do not master. Yet in trying to get more businesses on board he falls back on claiming that the “benefits of that investment (come) in the shape of a more productive, engaged workforce, reduced operational costs and an enhanced corporate reputation in their communities” (which presumably means more sales?). So what are you promoting here John – art or business results? Let’s look at the evidence presented.
This ‘case study’ reminds me of when Microsoft was booming and every conference was using them as an example of wonderful people management policies. Google has a fantastic product, and a similar, virtual-monopoly so there is an assumption here that its people management practices must also be fantastic, without any obvious connection made between the two. But if you are a business that lives on tight margins will increasing your own ‘Googliness’ (I kid you not – read it for yourself) bring the benefits that John Hayes suggests stem from being a Café Culture?
Apparently one of the problems here was that 25% of the workforce had a literacy need (perhaps you should sort that problem out first John?) but whether this improved or not is not mentioned, only more business benefits which appear to be stemming from doing some obvious things like managing staff turnover, absenteeism and complaints but inferring that this is evidence of a Café Culture.
Similar activities to Merseytravel and similar benefits claimed but little indication that a new ‘Café Culture’ existed or had anything to do with it.
Fletchers Bakery and Marshalls Brookfoot
Without wanting to be unkind, the last 2 case studies show just how desperate ‘big society politicians’ are to ‘prove’ the concept – the vague testimonials offered by these two businesses, without any solid evidence of business benefits on offer, completely undermines the whole document
The main criticism of this whole initiative is that the aim seems to be the process of creating a ‘culture’ instead of value maximisation; a goal that evidence-based managers never lose sight of, almost regardless of the process by which it is achieved. It should be emphasised here though that while evidence-based managers are more concerned with ends than means they are at least as safe, legal and ethical as anyone else, if not more so. On that point it is worth mentioning that Microsoft is one of the organisations (page 11) that “have already pledged to create learning cultures in their workplaces”. If they do, will one of the benefits for the ‘big society’ be an end to the lawsuits that have resulted in Microsoft being fined for abusing its monopoly position for many years?
Perhaps the CEO’s of the other ‘pledgees’, including Barclays and McDonalds, should reconsider whether a Café Culture really will enhance their “corporate reputation in their communities”? Or would they be better off providing convincing evidence that their learning culture brings real and significant benefits to all of their stakeholders?
For personal development linked to this topic visit the Consummate Professional Series