How many of the things you plan to do today are based on sound theory? If you work in HR you might be running an assessment centre, organising an employee survey or developing a competence policy. Each one of these is working to an implicit theory – the theory of employee assessment says you will make better selections; satisfied employees perform better; competence development means effectiveness. You might have assumed that someone, somewhere must have tested these theories out at some time, and that the practices you are following are already validated by evidence. You could pause to check whether these theories exist and what evidence they are based on. Alternatively, you could come up with a different theory yourself. I call this the Alternative Theory Theory. It states that for every theory that tries to explain human behaviour there is an equally plausible alternative that adopts exactly the opposite perspective. Let’s try it out.
The most obvious contender is the employee-customer-profit chain theory. It predicts that if you have engaged and satisfied employees they will look after the customer better and you will make more profit. This theory, based on false correlations between employee engagement and company performance, led to the exponential growth in employee surveys over the last 20 years. The obvious alternative theory is that good companies with good business models, providing customers with what they want at the right price, will be nicer places to work and employees will be more satisfied working there. This theory predicts that unless and until you get your business model right you might be wasting time and effort on trying to engage your workforce in a poorly managed business.
How about the theory of management education?* The theory goes something like this, I think – management education has to be taught by management academics and the best management academics are those who do lots of research and write lots of papers, peer reviewed by other academics, none of whom has actually proven themselves to be great managers with clear evidence. Actually, that does not sound like much of a theory at all does it? OK here’s an alternative theory. If you are a very ambitious manager you need the best CV to further your career. The best CV’s have the best business schools on them and I know they are the best because ..…. hmmm, no I don’t like where this theory is heading either.
Let’s have another go at explaining why managers go to business schools. Here’s a better alternative theory. It does not matter what you learn, if anything, from your business school as long as everyone else regards it as one of the best business schools. That means image is more important than substance so business schools play whatever games they have to in order to come top of the league tables of business schools. So the league tables are based on measures such as “faculty with doctorates”, presumably because there is a theory somewhere that having a doctorate not only makes you a better teacher but also, presumably, that you teach managers how to perform better? I would be very interested to see the evidence that backs up that theory. Or you can see “salary increase” or “career progression” as indicators of how good the business school is. Hmmm, this is already starting to sound like another one of my favourite Alternative Theories, the Circular Argument Theory.
The problem with circular arguments is that eventually you disappear up your own orifice. In fact Harvard’s traditional ‘case method’ of teaching was such a glaring example of the Circular Argument Theory that they have abandoned it. Funnily enough though, they are still No.1 in the latest 2013 US News ‘Best Business School Rankings’ where no mention is made of Harvard’s break with its past and, as yet, unproven future. Harvard itself makes no mention of whether Evidence-Based Management is on its new curriculum either.
Last but not least, what about the theory of why CEOs employ HR people? The obvious theory is simply that they need HR but that does not explain why they need HR. There are at least two alternatives. One is that it makes the CEO look like he or she gives a damn about their people. Another is that they employ HR departments purely to keep them out of court. A third, which gets a bit closer to the truth, is that managing people well takes a lot of thought and consideration and is damned hard work, so they would rather get someone else to do it for them. My personal choice of Alternative Theory is the simplest of all and is the one that explains absolutely everything – CEOs simply don’t have a clue why they employ HR. That is because the business school they attended never presented any evidence as to HR’s real value. Oh dear, we’re back to the Circular Argument Theory. So who is going to help us all break out of this pernicious cycle with some evidence? Hmmm.
*PS. If anyone knows of an evidence-based theory of management education could they please let me know where I can find it?