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 that people professionals to adopt this approach because of the huge impact management decisions have on the working lives and wellbeing of people in all sorts of organisations worldwide.

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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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 important to consider other factors that will most benefit an organisation and its employees. Decision-makers should find out what is known by analysing four key sources.

  • Scientific literature on management has become more readily available in recent years, particularly in academic journals. Other topics, such as psychology and sociology, also apply to many issues facing managers. Their ability to search for and appraise research for its relevance and trustworthiness is essential.

  • Organisational data must be examined as it highlights issues needing 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’s 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 implementing solutions.

  • Expertise and judgement of practitioners, managers, consultants and business leaders is important to ensure effective decision-making. This professional knowledge differs from opinion as it’s accumulated over time through reflection on outcomes of similar actions taken in similar contexts. It reflects 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 their consequences. Their values reflect what they deem important, which in turn affects how they respond to the organisation’s decisions. Acquiring knowledge of their concerns provides a frame of reference for analysing evidence.

One very important element of evidence-based practice is collating evidence from different sources. There are six ways – depicted in our infographic below – which will encourage this.

  1. Asking – translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question.
  2. Acquiring – systematically searching for and retrieving evidence.
  3. Appraising – critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence.
  4. Aggregating – weighing and pulling together the evidence.
  5. Applying – incorporating the evidence into a decision-making process.
  6. Assessing – evaluating the outcome of the decision taken so as to increase the likelihood.

Through these six steps, practitioners can ensure the quality of evidence is not ignored are able to evaluate the trustworthiness of evidence available. Appraisal varies depending on the source of evidence, but generally involves the same questions:

  1. Where and how is evidence gathered?
  2. Is it the best evidence available?
  3. Is it sufficient to reach a conclusion?
  4. Might it be biased in a particular direction? If so, why?

There are some misconceptions and barriers which prevent the uptake of an evidence-based approach. 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.

Briner 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.

CEBMa research indicates that an evidence-based approach is more effective in various ways than less structured decision-making processes which often favour personal experience over sound research:

  • 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 through a combination of critically-appraised evidence from multiple sources yield more effective outcomes than those based on a single source of evidence.

These points reinforce the value in adopting a critical mindset – questioning assumptions and trustworthiness – with the goal of answering the question ‘Is this the best available evidence?’

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Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) 

ScienceForWork - Evidence-based management 

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.

Journal articles

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.

ROUSSEAU, D. (2020) Making evidence based-decisions in an uncertain world. Organizational Dynamics. Vol 49, Issue 1, January-March. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 96.

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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