How evidence-based management will change consulting
Many consultants who have a well-defined methodology claim there is evidence that it works. They might cite case studies or research to support their claim. However, in almost all cases the evidence provided is relatively weak or impossible to verify. This means we are largely buying a consulting product or intervention on the basis of the reputation of the consultant and the face-validity of their approach.
We have accepted this state of affairs as normal and acceptable. It is normal, but it’s not really acceptable. We should be getting better quality evidence, evidence we can verify, and use that evidence to inform our decision process.
Things may be about to change in management, just as they did in medicine. Medicine has long been more scientific than management, but not nearly as scientific as you might have thought. For almost all of the 20th century physicians selected treatments based on what they had learned over the years. This meant that different physicians might offer quite different treatments for the same condition. If you were lucky the treatment your physician chose was the best available one, if you were unlucky you got an inferior treatment.
It was only in 1990 that David Eddy set out the principles of evidence-based medicine in a journal article. In the past 25-odd years medicine has gradually been shifting to making decisions based on the best available evidence. It’s been a quiet and sometimes difficult revolution.
We may be able to bring this same revolution to business through evidence-based management. One of the best venues for introducing this will be to begin to hold consultants to higher standards. If we ask to review their evidence and do a critical appraisal of the quality of their evidence, then we will do a better job of separating out the best consultants from the weaker ones.
Some consultants are moving in this direction without being pushed. One of the leading global HR consultancies recently published an approach to assessing potential that was based on a thorough review of the best available evidence. We will see more work with that degree of rigour in the future.
Evidence-based approaches have their critics. For example, I worked with a company whose physiotherapists complained that an insistence on using evidence-based approaches prevented them from using tools they felt worked but on which no research had been done. In business the key word is “available”; we want the best available evidence. If we are short of time or budget or are moving into new territory there may not be much evidence at hand; but we commit to using the best that we can get our hands on in the time available to inform our judgement, and then to gather evidence as we go.
I am working with the Centre for Evidence-based Management in the Netherlands (CEBMa.org) to encourage vendors to ground their work in the best evidence. You can help me by asking vendors about the quality of their evidence and applying some critical judgement, not just accepting their word. If it’s a big project you might even ask the Centre to review the vendors claims. We can improve HR and management in general; let’s make it happen.