Interview Wednesday: Denise Rousseau, enthusiastic champion of evidence-based management (and university professor).
Today we talk with Denise Rousseau, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and self-described inter-galactic champion of evidence-based management. She's active in the Academy of Management and is one of the organizers behind Evidencebased-Management.com. (I've written before about Denise's efforts: In 2007, I discussed her article Is There Such a Thing as Evidence-Based Management? [get the pdf here] and later, about meetups of the Evidence-based Management Collaborative.)
The Five Questions.
#1. What got you interested in evidence?
After 30 years of research and teaching MBAs, I came to realize how little our own MBAs really understood about management research findings, and even worse, how seldom they used research findings in their decision making. Well, that is not quite right, my finance colleagues have students and alums who use financial research findings, ditto for my operations research colleagues. It is management students (HR, strategy, organizational behavior) who didn't know and don't use research findings.
Then, horror of horrors, as Academy of Management president, I started getting emails from AOM members who were less academic research-oriented, complaining about how our journals were no help in their teaching or consulting. My first reaction was to feel bad for them, since AOM wasn't being useful to them in terms of professional updating. And then I stopped and thought about it further. In my own teaching, I periodically have to update and alter what I teach, because new findings make the old obsolete. Why weren't other people feeling the same need? Then it hit me: What if our educators and consultants aren't using the evidence in their work? Inquiry led me to the realization that both in the classroom and professional practice, lots of people with doctorates in fields related to management were ignoring current evidence, or acting on hunches and impressions that bore no connection to the huge, rich evidence base we have in social science and management. (Long answer, but that's how I got started.)
What types of evidence do you work with most often (medical, business research, statistics, social science, etc.)?
Business and social science research, quantitative, qualitative, meta-analyses, etc. Depends on what the issue or the problem requires.
What is your involvement with evidence: applying it, advocating its use, researching/developing it, synthesizing/explaining/translating it, communicating it?
I try to do all of the above. Applying in my own life as I teach from an evidence-based perspective, consult and advise based on evidence from science as well as facts of the organizational setting itself. Research is still my great love, but if it is seldom used, even the most wonderful research has less value than it would otherwise.
I now do more work trying to integrate different literatures - to understand what the core findings are, and am writing more translation pieces. The latter is the absolute hardest, as writing for colleagues is more of an in-group language, and plain English is not my forte....but I am working on it!
Where do you go looking for evidence, and what types of sources do you prefer? (formally published stuff such as journals, or something less formalized?)
I am a big library-search engine data base user - sometimes I think I’m a reference librarian at heart. Once I start searching a) I always find useful things related to the question I am pursuing, and b) come across fascinating other things I want to know about in the process (this is a huge distraction sometimes, otherwise a very fulfilling discovery)! So I like ABI/Inform best, along with psychological research databases.
#2. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10= ‘It’s crystal clear.’ and 1=’We have no idea why things are happening.’, how would you describe the overall “state of the evidence” in your primary field?
I am trained as an industrial psychologist, and I think in what we have studied for the most part we are "8".
The field is cumulative, and we know a lot about a) motivation, b) selection, c) performance (especially individual), and d) employment relationships, including the psychological contract.
Which of these situations is most common in your field?
a) Much of the evidence we need doesn’t yet exist.
b) People don't know about the evidence that is available.
c) People don't understand the evidence well enough to apply it.
d) People don’t follow the evidence because it's not the expectation.
"B". People just don't know - and for the most part, academics don't teach behavioral evidence to management students. Instead we use cases, pop theory, and give them little opportunity to practice applying research findings.
#3. Imagine a world where people can get the evidence they need, and exchange it easily and transparently. What barriers do you believe are preventing that world from becoming a reality?
Access is a huge problem, complicated by journals and proprietary data bases seeking to profit by restricting access. In my ideal world, not only would a literate college-educated person know about using evidence in their professional work, but they also would have been trained in accessing it while in University so that upon graduation they could stay updated (and their University would give them electronic library privileges as alums, so they could easily do this).
Alums would form communities of practice to help each other keep up-to-date, and more attention would be given to professional and exec updating on what the science says as pertains to professional practice. It would be a normal part of developing expertise over the course of a career. Now we are producing too many confident amateurs who don't know what they don't know, and they have the degree to prove it.
Where do you see technology making things better?
Accessibility, improved searching strategies, relational databases, update alerts when new content in an area is put on the web.
#4. How do you prefer to share evidence with people, and explain it to them? Do you have a systematic way of doing it, or is there a format that you follow?
In all honesty, I follow the template of Julia Child's approach to mastering the art of French cooking: State the general principle (what is sauce?), the forms it comes in (Hollandaise, Bernaise...), and what should you watch for when you make it and what to do if a problem turns up. Julia was a master behaviorist, I am convinced.
So in terms of evidence, I’ve found that focusing on core principles, simple statement of what the finding is (set specific goals to improve performance). Then discuss conditions of use (procedural knowledge, like how many goals can be set at one time, 5 or fewer, per cognitive limits on attention) and contingencies (What if it doesn't work? Well, the effect of goals depends on the people have accepted them. Did you set goals in a way that is legitimate and credible to the people involved?).
What mistakes do you see people making when they explain evidence?
Too much backstory (the five theories that came before this one, the theoretical controversies that remain) - and not enough about what's in it for the end user.
#5. What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d like to be remembered for helping managers and people in organizations make better, more thoughtful, more ethical decisions.
What makes you hopeful?
I have more and more students and alums who just assume that evidence is what a good manager incorporates into his or her thinking and actions. Like, if you aren't using evidence, can you really be a responsible decision maker/professional?
Chime in. Would you like to be interviewed, or do you have someone to recommend? Drop me a note at tracy AT evidencesoup DOT com.