Evidence-based practice is about making better decisions, informing action that has the desired impact. An evidence-based approach to decision-making is based on a combination of using critical thinking and the best available evidence. It makes decision makers less reliant on anecdotes, received wisdom and personal experience – sources that are not trustworthy on their own. It’s important for HR practitioners to adopt this approach because of the huge impact management decisions have on the working lives of people in all sorts of organisations worldwide. Managers have an obligation to find the best evidence when making important decisions to strengthen the well-being of their workers as well as ensuring their organisation’s success.
This factsheet outlines the four sources of evidence considered key to effective evidence-based practice, before highlighting the importance of combining these to ensuring actions have the greatest chance of success. It outlines and refutes a number of misconceptions about evidence-based practice, before looking at literature which demonstrates the effectiveness of evidence-based practice. Finally, the factsheet explains the practical implications of applying evidence-based practice to real-life organisational scenarios.
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What is evidence-based practice?
At the heart of evidence-based practice is the idea that good decision-making is achieved through critical thinking and drawing on the best available evidence. Evidence-based practice leads to decisions and actions that are more likely to have the desired effect and are less reliant on anecdotes, received wisdom and personal experience – sources that are not trustworthy on their own. Evidence-based HR draws together published research and people analytics with professional expertise and stakeholder opinions.
Why is evidence-based practice important?
In their report Evidence-based management: the basic principles, Barends, Rousseau and Briner of the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) outline the challenge of biased and unreliable management decisions. They show that it’s common in decision-making for popular ideas of management, and personal experience which is highly susceptible to errors and bias, to be prioritised ahead of sound, critically-appraised evidence. The report’s authors argue that individuals at all levels of employment have a moral obligation to use the best available evidence when making important decisions.
Assessing the reliability and validity of evidence becomes ever more important as the mass of opinion and claims available continues to grow. As we discussed in our reports Cognition, decision and expertise and Our minds at work: the behavioural science of HR, because we have limited cognitive resource and time, our minds naturally use mental shortcuts or ‘heuristics’ to make decisions easier: our brains are far less able to multi-task than we generally expect. This opens us up to a number of types of bias. For example, the ‘availability heuristic’ means we judge the likelihood of an event based on how readily a memory of that event comes to mind. More specifically, ‘confirmation bias’ can lead recruiting managers to form an early opinion of a candidate, based on a personal characteristic that won’t affect their performance, and then look for examples that align with this positive or negative impression.
Received wisdom and the notion of ‘best practice’ also creates bias. One organisation may look to another as an example of sound practice and decision-making, often without critically evaluating the effectiveness of their actions. And while scientific literature on key issues in the field is vital, there’s a gap between this and the perceptions of practitioners, who are often unaware of the depth of research available.
However, even when looking at research, we can be naturally biased. As we argue in our positioning paper In search of the best available evidence, there's a tendency to ‘cherry-pick’ research that backs up one’s perspective or opinion and to ignore research that does not, even if it gives stronger evidence on cause-and-effect relationships. This bad habit is hard to avoid – it is even common among academic researchers. We thus need approaches that help us determine which research evidence we should trust.
The four sources of evidence
In Evidence-based management: the basic principles, Barends, Rousseau and Briner define evidence as information, facts or data supporting (or contradicting) a claim, hypothesis or assumption.
The issues above demonstrate the limitations of basing decisions on personal experience alone. It’s therefore important to consider other factors to facilitate decisions that will most benefit an organisation and its employees. encourage practitioners to find out what is known by analysing four key sources.
Scientific literature concerning management has become more readily available in recent years, particularly in academic journals. The importance of research from outside of management should also not be forgotten, since many issues managers face (communication, conflict, decision-making) are salient to other domains, such as psychology and sociology. As a result of this development, the ability of management to search for and appraise research for its relevance and trustworthiness is essential.
Organisational data must be considered because it allows us to understand issues which require a manager’s attention. This data can come externally from customers or clients (customer satisfaction, repeated business), or internally from employees (levels of job satisfaction, retention rates). There is also the comparison between ‘hard’ evidence, such as turnover rate and productivity levels, and ‘soft’ elements, like perceptions of culture and attitudes towards leadership. Gaining access to organisational data is key to determining causes of problems, solutions and how to implement solutions.
Expertise and judgement of practitioners, managers, consultants and business leaders is important to ensure effective decision-making. This professional knowledge differs from mere opinion as it is accumulated over time through reflection on outcomes of similar actions taken in similar contexts. Consequently, it reflects the specialised knowledge acquired through repeated experience of specialised activities.
Stakeholders, both internal (employees, managers, board members) and external (suppliers, investors, shareholders), may be affected by an organisation’s decisions and the consequences of these. Their values reflect what they deem important, which, in turn, affects how they respond to the decisions of an organisation. Therefore, gaining knowledge of their concerns provides a frame of reference form which to analyse evidence from other sources.
Combining the evidence
One extremely important element of evidence-based practices is bringing evidence from a number of sources together and subsequently facilitating informed decision-making. There are six ways – depicted in our infographic below - which will encourage this.
- Asking – translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question.
- Acquiring – systematically searching for and retrieving evidence.
- Appraising – critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence.
- Aggregating – weighing and pulling together the evidence.
- Applying – incorporating the evidence into a decision-making process.
- Assessing – evaluating the outcome of the decision taken so as to increase the likelihood.
Through these six steps, evidence-based practice enables practitioners to ensure the quality of evidence is not ignored, as is often the case in decision-making processes. Practitioners are able to evaluate the trustworthiness of evidence available. Appraisal varies depending on the source of evidence, but generally involves the same questions:
- Where and how is evidence gathered?
- Is it the best evidence available?
- Is it sufficient to reach a conclusion?
- Might it be biased in a particular direction? If so, why?
Misconceptions in evidence-based practice decision-making
There are some misconceptions and barriers which prevent the uptake of an evidence-based approach to management. However, each can be rebuffed:
Evidence-based practice ignores practitioner’s professional experience: This simply contradicts the above arguments. Evidence-based practice does not prioritise one source of evidence over any other. Rather, accumulating evidence from the four sources discussed is most important.
Evidence-based practice is all about numbers and statistics: while critical and statistical thinking is important, the process is not exclusively about numbers and quantitative methods.
Managers need to make decisions quickly and don’t have time for evidence-based practice: Even quick decisions require the most robust and trustworthy evidence.
The unique nature of each organisation means evidence from scientific literature does not apply: Different organisations tend to face similar issues and respond in similar ways.
Rob Briner, Scientific Director of CEBMa, argues that barriers exist in both academic and organisational spheres. He claims that students are often taught to learn theories, which may be questionable. Instead, they should be taught to think critically and for themselves, while questioning the quality of information. In organisations, political and career incentives may once again encourage sticking with the status quo, or current processes, which may not be effective.
Evidence of evidence-based practice effectiveness
CEBMa research indicates that an evidence-based approach is indeed more effective than less structured decision-making processes, which often favour personal experience over sound research, in various ways:
Risk assessments based on the accumulated experience of many people are generally more accurate than those based on one person’s experience, ensuring forecasts are made independently before being combined.
Judgements based on hard data and statistics are more accurate than those based on individual experience.
Knowledge from scientific literature is more accurate than expert opinions.
Decisions made as a result of a combination of critically appraised evidence from multiple sources yields more effective outcomes than those based on a single source of evidence.
As a result of such benefits, the importance of adopting a critical mindset is highlighted – questioning assumptions and trustworthiness – with the ultimate goal of answering the question 'Is this the best available evidence?'
How to conduct evidence-based practice
Our new Profession Map has at its core the concepts of being principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes driven. This recognises the importance of using the four forms of evidence in a principled manner to develop positive outcomes for stakeholders. As evidence is often of varying degrees of quality, it’s important that HR professionals consider if and how they might wish incorporate the different types of evidence into their work.
Evidence-based practice is a useful concept for understanding whether practices in HR lead to the desired outcomes, and whether these practices are being used to the best effect. An example of evidence-based practice in use could be the decision to implement a performance management system. In this example, performance management data from the business, scientific evidence, insights from key stakeholders, and professional (HR) expertise are used to develop the best performance management system for the specific organisational context. Examples of evidence for and against forms of performance management is illustrated in our report Could do better? Assessing what works in performance management.
Pietro Marenco of ScienceForWork states that much research on evidence-based practice has focused on what it is and why it is needed, rather than how to do it. However, a more practical approach has been encouraged in recent years, with practitioners in organisations being trained on the principles and know-how to make evidence-based decisions. A three-day training course on evidence-based management, the first of its kind, took place in Belgium in 2017 and focused on applying the theory of the evidence-based approach to real-life management decisions.
Listen to our podcast Evidence-based practice for HR: beyond fads and fiction which features Eric Barends (Managing Director for the Center for Evidence-Based Management), Jonny Gifford (Senior Adviser, CIPD) and Nichola Stallwood (Head of Organisational Development & Training at the Zoological Society of London), discussing what evidence-based practice is, why it matters, and how to apply it at work.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
BARENDS, E. and ROUSSEAU, D. (2018) Evidence-based management: how to use evidence to make better organizational decisions. Kogan Page: London
RANDELL, G. and TOPLIS, J. (2014) Towards organizational fitness: a guide to diagnosis and treatment. London: Gower.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
BRINER, R. (2019) The basics of evidence-based practice. People + Strategy. Vol 42, No 1. pp16-21.
LAGUNA, L., POELL, R. and MEERMAN, M. (2019) Practitioner research for the professionalization of human resources practice: empirical data from the Netherlands. Human Resource Development International. Vol 22, No 1. pp68-90. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 84.
SEVERSON, E. (2019) Real-life EBM: what it feels like to lead evidence-based HR. People + Strategy. Vol 42, No 1. pp22-27.
WRIGHT, P.M. and ULRICH, M.D. (2017) A road well traveled: the past, present, and future journey of strategic human resource management. The Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behaviour. Vol 4. pp45-65.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was written by Jake Young.
Jake Young: Research Associate
Jake joined the CIPD in 2018, having completed a master’s degree in Social Science Research Methods at the University of Nottingham. He also holds an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Sociology.
Jake’s research interests concern aspects of Diversity and Inclusion, such as inequality, gender and identity in the workplace. Jake is currently involved in the development of a research project examining what works in creating interventions designed to promote diversity in the workplace.
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Episode 148: Fads, anecdotes, fake news and gut instinct aren't reliable tools for HR practitioners. In this episode we explore evidence-based practice and discuss what it is, how it works, and why it's important for people professionals.