Evidence Soup
How to find, use, and explain evidence.

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Friday, 28 August 2009

Is the evidence-based management movement dead?

I hope not, but there are many obstacles. Richard Puyt explored this question today on his blog Evidence-Based Management | Skeptical Thinking. He observes that "in management we are still in the middle ages of science, where the alchemists still try to make gold from lead. And by alchemists I mean all types of managers (managers, consultants, coaches, interim-managers, project managers, etc.). One of the reasons why managers still make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, gut feeling or a whim is the fact that management is not a profession.... Management is still treated as a 'skill' and if you have a better story than the next guy, you just found yourself a new career." Puyt makes some good points, concluding that "The Evidence Based Management movement is still there, but progress is really slow. Most developments are exchanged in closed communities and you really have to make an effort to dig up new information and stay in the loop of recent developments."

Here's my quick take on this: The Evidence Soup Guide to Keeping the Evidence-Based Movement Alive.

Part I. How to kill the EBM movement. If people do these things, we'll be writing an obituary:

  1. Frown on new evidence. Develop an environment where people are discouraged from challenging tradition, scrutinizing old habits, or asking tough questions. 
  2. Oversimplify things that are tremendously complicated. Insist on clearly delineating which decisions are evidence-based, and which are not. Doggedly pursue a set of formal rules for determining precisely whose actions are evidence-based, and whose are not.
  3. Make evidence exclusive. Behave as if certain insiders (or groups) are the keepers of the evidence, and the rest of us (outsiders) had better sit up straight and pay attention.

Part II. How to pump more life into the EBM movement. Here's how we can nudge EBM into the mainstream:

  1. Avoid painting all fuzzy stuff with the same brush. Resist the urge to divide the world into two distinct hemispheres: One where all things are evidence-based, and one where people are just plain wrong. It's not that simple, and we should know better.
  2. Accept that we often lack good evidence. It's better to openly acknowledge where solid evidence is missing than to pretend. It sends the wrong message when we try to force-fit or stretch uninteresting evidence where there is none.
  3. Set a good example. Encourage people to do things that are evidence-guided (or evidence-informed) every day, to the best of their ability. Create a corporate culture where its okay to ask intelligent questions that challenge authority, myth, and tradition.
  4. Use smarter technology. Find better ways to distribute more good evidence to more people. Make evidence easier to interpret so people can appreciate its value and apply it more easily.


I've been think about the health of the movement in response to your post and I'm still surprised by the lack of EBMgmt discussions and how the movement does not seem to be gaining much traction. I re-looked at the Rousseau - Learmonth and the Van De Van, Johnson - McKelvey discussions for potential reasons why. (both are in Academy of Management vol31 #4, 2006). Here's my take after reading them:
(1) Cognitive, Translation and Synthesis Problems One, just like the example Rousseau gave in her Presidential Address, there are too many different concerns and issues floating about. We need the field to be more organized so people can get a better cognitive handle on what's important. Also, I'm not sure peer review is the best strategy. When I did my dissertation, doing something exciting took a back seat to doing something bounded and do-able. I can't imagine someone whose publishing for tenure doing anything more than incremental and that does not translate well for cognitive translation reasons. We need a synthesis strategy.
Possible response - A EBMgmt wiki See my 7-31 post on scientific publishing at howardjohnson.edublogs.org
(2) Belief problems - Henry Mintzberg believes that managers are trained by experience and MBA programs should be shut down. (3-26-09 Harvard Business Ideacast) He says that universities are good for that scientific management stuff, but implies that science is only a small part (it's mostly tacit stuff). All my previously mentioned discussions noted that managers and consultant do not read the scientific literature. Part of the problem is communication (see #1), but part is current management paradigms that include little science.
Possible response - Far be it from me to suggest how to deal with paradigm change.
(3) Philosophical Problems - If EBMmgt is to succeed, it must be presented as a post-positivist formulation. Taken at face value, it seems positivist; and positivism has been so thoroughly critiqued that I could see where many people would dismiss it out of hand. Part of my thing is trying to be post-positivist, without throwing out the baby with the bath water. Rousseau tries to mollify Learmonth's concern that touches on this area, she sees some issue, but I don't see understanding. A positivist outlook will only lead you in circles.
Possible response - It's much like your previous post, you need "both and" thinking, not "either or" thinking. EBMgmt must be an art and a science. This is how I understand the validity issue that I've mentioned to you before. I use Messick's validity as a model for post-positivist science. It's also important because measurement is the heart of science.
I would love your thoughts

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