24 April 2018

The rise of evidence-based decision-making: why HR needs to make friends with metrics


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Career development HR transformation Leadership and management


Forget ‘gut feelings’ – it’s time for HR professionals to turn to internal data and robust research as the foundation for their strategic interventions

Somewhat ironically, data about the surge in popularity of evidence-based HR is hard to come by. But with 89% of respondents to our 2018 trends survey saying they expect the use of evidence to influence their HR strategies ‘to some extent’ or ‘a lot’, it’s clear that it’s top of mind for an significant proportion of the UK’s HR community.

“Good HR has been empirically based for decades,” says Dave Ulrich, author and Rensis Likert professor of business at the University of Michigan. “In an HR world where there is an overwhelming abundance of information and ideas it is important to filter those ideas according to their impact; this requires analysis that focuses on the business more than on HR.”

Today’s push for evidence can be seen as an evolution of analytics-based HR practice in the context of persistent macro-economic complexity, and a quest for humanisation within HR itself. “There is a clear call now on HR professionals to use better evidence from a clear range of sources, and spend more time thinking that through,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD. The CIPD HR Outlook winter 2016-17 found that HR professionals are most likely to use their own experience, the experience of colleagues, and internally collected data as evidence for decisions – and are least likely to turn to external sources such as academics and scientific research.

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, has been writing and teaching about evidence-based practice for 20 years. He attributes the growing traction of evidence-based HR to a number of factors: “It’s partly about the growth of the Centre for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa), which we set up in 2011. It’s partly because we’ve been talking more about analytics in general, and professional bodies such as the CIPD and SHRM have picked up on it. And partly I think it’s because some people think this is a last-chance saloon for HR; some people have realised that they’ve tried following the fads ; why not take a more serious approach now?”

D’Souza agrees. “HR has always been under pressure from the organisation to provide its worth, and that always tends to create an activity bias – a need to be seen to be doing something – which can happen within any profession or organisation that’s under pressure for results. We’ve reached a point where we need to be more choiceful around the work that we’re doing, and the reasons for doing it.”

“You don’t need to get hung up on the evidence itself – it’s about putting the evidence front and centre of the decision-making process”

Part of the problem so far, says Briner, is a lack of understanding about what evidence-based practice actually means. “People tend to say, ‘yeah, we’re evidence-based because we look at the data’. But that’s not what it means: it’s about the practice of making decisions, not the evidence. People don’t need to get hung up on the evidence itself; it’s about putting the evidence front and centre of the decision-making process, and then doing something.”

He adds: “Even if you don’t have any evidence, you can still take an evidence-based approach to decision-making. You say: ‘this is what we know, this is what we don’t know’, and try to make a decision. Don’t beat yourself up; just follow the process, figure out what the solution might be, and then try it.”

Although Briner notes that many HR practitioners lack expertise in areas that are critical for evidence-based thinking – such as critical thinking and the ability to judge the quality of evidence – Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer at Benefex, says the profession is attracting a new type of HR person who is more data savvy.

“HR has historically been very reactive, and tied up in red tape. I think those perceptions have massively changed for the better, which means it’s started to attract a very different type of person. We are starting to see more people move into HR who think more like finance directors – who like to look at the evidence.”

But Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR and former HR director at the BBC, argues that HR has so far been “looking in the wrong place” in its drive to collect and create evidence. “We’ve tried really hard to emulate our finance brethren; to try to prove our worth in their language. I think we could do so much better by learning from marketing, who are so effective in getting key bits of impressive data and wrapping that in a compelling narrative.”

“I’m a big fan of generating your own evidence and using that to shape what you do next”

She adds: “We deal with human beings – wonderful, mercurial, messy human beings – and trying to provide clarity and certainty with human beings is quite tricky. But I do think we could make more use of marketing techniques, by building a story around key bits of data.”

Perry Timms, founder of PTHR and author of Transformational HR, is also an advocate for hunting for evidence in new places. “People default to look for empirical studies, data charts and books to validate everything,” he says. “But I’m a big fan of generating your own evidence and using that evidence to shape what you do next: evidence can mean that one company tries an experience, and they do it long enough and deeply enough to get enough insight that means they can replicate the project and its findings.”

Briner wants HR practitioners to be more open and transparent about their failings. “It distresses me to hear stories about stuff HR is doing that clearly isn’t working, but they are too scared or embarrassed to pull the plug,” he says. “One view is, if that a group of people is doing work and telling you it’s failing, it’s means they are a useless group of professionals. But I’d see it as a hallmark of being professional. You don’t just do stuff that isn’t working – you accept it isn’t working and you do something else.”

What’s clear is that, although evidence-based principles should form the basis of HR’s thought processes, it shouldn’t hold back the profession from action. “I worry that we could go too far in the push for evidence and we stop being active, and we become so reflective that we never do anything,” says Timms. “Equally, I don’t like it when people just jump on trends without thinking: is this right for where I am now, and the future of the people I’m helping? Both ends of that scale aren’t good. We need to be known for using more evidence, because we get accused very easily of being faddist and trendy.”

This article is an extract from Ciphr’s free white paper, From evidence to automation: eight trends that’ll shape the HR profession in 2018Download it here.