What's been happening to evidence-based practice?

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On a scale of zero (absolutely nothing) to 10 (HR has been revolutionised), I’d give it a three

Almost exactly two years ago HR magazine ran an article on evidence-based practice (EBP) by Katie Jacobs. When I read it I was gobsmacked. In a good way. But what made it so remarkable?

Even though the idea of EBP had been floating around the margins of HR for at least a decade this was the first practitioner-oriented piece to spell out what EBP actually involves. Second, it integrated the views of many key voices – both academics and HR professionals – which had not been done before. Third, and perhaps most important: It. Got. It. Right.

I don’t mean it was uncritical or that I personally agreed with every word. Rather it was a clear, comprehensive and above all accurate description of what EBP in any profession entails and how it can be done in HR.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked that a journalist can report accurately. However, the dozens of EBP articles by journalists, academics and members of the HR Blogerati I’d read up to that point completely missed important parts or included odd stuff and were essentially wrong.

EBP means deciding what to do by gathering the best available evidence or information. In HR this is drawn from four sources – professional expertise, organisational data, stakeholders’ values and scientific evidence – in order to identify both problems and potential solutions.

Crucially, the trustworthiness of the evidence is also assessed to determine how much weight it should be given. The basic goal of EBP is to make better-informed decisions. That’s it.

So what’s happened in the two years since this landmark article was published? On a scale of zero to 10, where zero is ‘absolutely nothing’ and 10 is ‘blimey HR has been revolutionised’, I’d give it a three.

I’ve had many more invitations to speak, give keynotes and write about EBP. The Center for Evidence-Based Management has had more enquiries from universities starting EBP courses. We have also provided training to HR teams in several organisations about conducting systematic reviews of evidence and incorporating this in making decisions.

HR professional bodies have got more active too. The CIPD ran a workshop on EBP for the first time at last year’s Annual Conference and Exhibition. It also published its first systematic review of scientific evidence in December last year (Could do Better? What Works in Performance Management), and in the same month published a positioning paper (In Search of the Best Available Evidence) supporting the basic principles of EBP. CIPD CEO Peter Cheese’s increasingly frequent use of the term ‘evidence-based’ in presentations suggests that EBP is gradually being adopted as a guiding framework for the organisation.

The CIPD’s US equivalent, the Society of Human Resource Management, has recently also begun to use the term ‘evidence-based’ more. Its collection of whitepapers (Science of HR Series: Promoting Evidence-Based HR) describe the research findings for various HR practices to provide a resource for HR practitioners who want to include scientific evidence in their decisions.

These are just some of the indications that something is shifting. But what does it really tell us about the development of EBP in HR? Keynotes often reflect what conference organisers consider to be the ‘hot’ topics. But it does mean more people are at least being exposed to the idea.

More important are the tangible shifts in what people and firms are doing. The few organisations that have invested in EBP training are certainly trying to change the way they do HR. HR professional bodies are not merely talking about EBP but providing practical resources for members to help them do it. Some universities are developing new courses,which means an increasing number of HR practitioners are entering the job able to practise in an evidence-based way.

In the two years since Katie Jacobs’ piece there have been changes. Only time will tell how significant they are. As I look ahead I feel uncharacteristically optimistic about the prospects for EBP in HR. Let’s just say, I’ve got a feeling.

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