Is HR evidence based? Seriously, are you kidding me?
The hype surrounding Workforce analytics, metrics and Big Data in HR has really increased over the last 12 months. Every conference, article, blog and strategic initiative is filled with buzz words around data and fact-based HR. So much so that Workforce analytics now is in danger of overselling itself. To outsiders it may appear that HR is becoming more evidence-based in its approach. Unfortunately this is not the case.
When I completed my master in psychology 10 years ago I read a book called “Evidence-Based Practices in Mental Health” by Norcross, Beutler and Levant. It is a great book, which argues for a more evidence-based approach for psychology. Because to be frank, it really isn’t that evidence based. Take an example. If a person has mild depression there are many potential approaches to take. Lets take just a few; therapy (cognitive), medication (ex. Prozac), therapy (behavioral), meditation, physical exercise, therapy (psychodynamic), mindfulness therapy, self-help books and many more. You would think – and hope – that the advise and subsequent treatment this person would get would be based upon evidence. What works. For example, there is a lot of evidence which suggests that everything else being equal that cognitive behavioral therapy is significantly more effective than both medication and psychodynamic therapy for treating mild depression on its own. But if a patient happens to stumble upon a therapist who focus primarily on psychodynamic therapy – that’s what the patient will get. Psychology is a lot of things, but evidence based it is not.
With HR it is the same. The options we chose and our design of solutions are not based upon evidence but instead on intuition, personal preferences and habits. And often not the right ones. This is very problematic and with HR there is the added problem that we still don’t even know what works (in medicine and health care some evidence is available). What works and what works best are two questions w cannot answer.
Why is HR not more evidence based? I think there are four reasons;
- We don’t share data. There is too little data and evidence out there. Some is being produced but very little shared. A study from 2006 published in American Psychologist, showed that almost three-quarters of researchers who had published a paper in a high-impact psychology journal had not shared their data. This is not just an issue at universities. When I see Google and other leading companies in Workforce Analytics talk about great findings they never share their data. At conference when speakers talk about their great internal studies they never share data. And frankly it is not that sensitive. It really isn’t. I hope they don’t share because they wrongly believe their data is sensitive rather than the studies are really not that good. We must produce better evidence.
- Lack of the right competencies. Working with EB-HR mean that you have to understand what evidence is and how to get it. Many in HR wrongly believe that evidence means 100% certainty or proof of something. That is not correct. Evidence is always about probabilities and assumptions. Always. Even in natural science. Also, it is also not just about quantitative data but also includes more fluffy things such as qualitative data (my favorite) and experience. But too few Being able to design and implement a executive leadership program using an evidence based approach is something too few in HR can do.
- Lack of the right mindset. As with EB-mental health, many in HR don’t really know why this is important. “We have a talent program, it works, people are happy about it and talents are staying at the company, why should we used another approach to our program?”. While it may sound tempting to think like this – and most in HR do – it is missing the point completely. HR must – as any other support function or organization – be as effective and efficient as possible. The only way it is possible to tell if HR is that is to measure and use evidence to improve. The only way!
- We can get away with not being evidence based. Our primary stakeholders (managers, employees and shareholders) do not demand us to be evidence based. We can many times get away with presenting a talent management program with little or no proof that this is the best way to develop talents.
BUT it is not all bad. I think there are many small movements which suggests that the interest is evidence-based HR is growing, our knowledge of what works in HR is also improving, we have the technology to help us find facts, our basic data is better and there are more people with a broader mindset entering HR. Perhaps things will change. But for now please don’t pretend that HR is evidence-based, because it is not.