Whatever EBM is or isn’t, in the absence of any universally accepted definition, it is safe to say it should be about improving outcomes, results and value. While none of those words are explicitly mentioned in the title of this new discipline we should assume that ‘evidence based’ means improved performance and ‘management’ is the means to this desirable end. However, management practices have to be applied in the real world rather than academic theory.
Academic research and studies might have a very important part to play in EBM but the evidence-based manager will be acutely aware of the difference between evidence-based HR theory and evidence-based HR practice. In order to highlight the difference let us look at one particular study sponsored by the Work Foundation – “People and the Bottom Line” (Report 448 – P Tamkin, M Cowling, W Hunt; Institute of Employment Studies, 2008). This is a 222 page report which concludes (page xvi) that its findings: -
“demonstrate that organisations that adopt an integrated range of HR practices, captured by the 4A model*, are likely to perform better on key indicators like profit and sales growth”.
(* their own model)
So is this an example of EB-HR Practice, EB-HR Theory, both or neither?
The answer is very simple – causality is everything to the EB manager (they want to know what works) and this research fails this most basic of tests because it was based on a questionnaire after the ‘HR practices’ had already happened – it was an ex post survey. Yet to be a true EB-HR study it would have had to be ex ante; that is, HR practices would have to have been specifically designed to have a direct, causal influence on existing Baseline measures of ‘key indicators like profit and sales growth’ before any questionnaires were sent out. This most obvious, founding principle of EBM – gather your Baseline data first – seems to have completely eluded the writers of this report
Then there is the ancillary question of when, if ever, does a report like this actually change management practice? If an employer read this report, and decided that the ‘4A Model’ had something to offer, they might try to put the model into practice, for example, by looking at Table 1 on page xv – “The Key 12 Measures” where they would spot -
“Ability – 4. Proportion of workforce that have a current personal development plan”
- and probably then give every employee a personal development plan (assuming they knew what an effective PDP looked like and were skilled enough in producing one).
Or they could go to page xvi and look at “Table 2 – Key processes” showing -
“Ability 1. The organisation evaluates development in a systematic way”
- without any guidelines from the authors that ‘systematic evaluation’ has to start with a Baseline measure – thereby encouraging more management activity rather than evidence-based practice.
The paradigm for this sort of pseudo-science is riddled with flaws but the oddest feature of all is this – why would a company already using HR practices be willing to let a quasi-academic body tell them whether their practices are working or not? Either management trusts its own practices (in which case they don’t need approval) or they don’t (so why are they doing them in the first place?) The world of non-evidence-based-HR can seem quite bizarre at times but the reasons why such odd behaviour persists is quite plain when you look at the motives behind the protagonists.
Governments around the world still generally subscribe to the notion that all education and training is ‘good’. The key sponsors of this particular research include government departments responsible for business and enterprise (BERR), Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) the University for Industry (UfI) and Skills for Business as well as the UK-government funded Investors in People. Most of these owe their very existence to such simplistic concepts that equate ‘good’ people management with good performance. This explains the following admission in the report (p.5): -
“Inevitably there are compromises between what ideally we might wish to measure and what is possible. For example:
Qualifications are used as a proxy for skill, and a broad brush one at that. Not all investments in education are considered equal in the labour market e.g. arts degrees have much lower returns than science degrees.” **
- and explains why the report is obsessed with asking questions such as: -
“How many of your managers are educated to degree level?”
So if the report is not about EB practice can we at least assume that it is on firmer ground, theoretically at least, with its methodology for statistical analysis ? Apparently not – their conclusion on page xvi also states that: -
“Whilst this research was not intended to demonstrate causality, it has laid the ground for future work that could do so by providing a tested set of measures that were both acceptable to employers and shown to relate to performance.”
In essence, they infer that their statistical analyses point to a correlation between HR practices and performance. They then hold out the forlorn hope that enough correlations will eventually demonstrate causation. Well, there might just be a strong correlation between the number of academic studies purporting to show that HR practices affect performance and the number of HR practices in use. However, a better explanation might simply be that this is just a circular argument – researchers choose companies that are performing and assume it must be something to do with HR practices, because if it isn’t then they are out of a job – otherwise known as you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.
So what did you expect from non-evidence-based academics, researchers and politicians – integrity?
** compare with ‘New Report Smashes Skills Gap Theory’