Evidence-based practice is well-established in medicine, law enforcement, and policy, but not management. When it can improve the quality and outcomes of decision-making, why hasn't evidence-based management been widely adopted?
Rob Briner, co-founder of the Center for Evidence-Based Management, was invited by Professor Neil Walshe to speak to Executive MBA graduate students at the University of San Francisco and share thoughts on how students, professors, and business executives can overcome the barriers to this practice.
With over 20 years of experience in organizational and applied psychology, Briner recalls seeing a lot of evidence-based practice and it struck him that it also applies to management and organizational behavior. “Clinical psychologists are trained on where to find, analyze, and interpret the research. One of the problems is that managers don’t get the evidence and most of them have no idea that there is management evidence available for them to use.”
The Center for Evidence-Based Management (EBM), a nonprofit organization, aims to bridge the gap between scientific research and management practice, promote evidence-based management through education and consultation, and to further the use and focus on research findings in management education.
Spreading his ideas through teaching, Briner explained that when he initially started in this field many managers defensively responded. Over time, he learned to pinpoint the issues at hand to help them figure out how to better fix the problems through evidence. “I don’t want to tell managers what they should do, I want to help them figure out how to make their tactics better. It’s more of a pull approach than push. We pull the research, look at it and together learn what we’ve gleaned from it and do rapid assessment evaluations, instead of pushing certain tactics.”
One challenge is that managers simply do not know that this information is available to them. Both Briner and Professor Walshe agreed that much of the management research that is published needs to be easily accessible so it can become more widely used.
Professor Walshe said, “We’re telling the students that it’s not just intuition. We’re giving them the skills to find the literature and analyze it and understand it. We are giving them really applicable strategies for managers to use. These students are not going to be academics, most of them. They’re going to be managers, leaders, practitioners of management. They’re often people who are already in full-time employment. Their role in life is as an employee or a manager, and EBM is practitioner’s skills.”
Similar to USF, EBM is not concerned with teaching business leaders how to be managers but instead with teaching people how to think, how to think critically, and where to find the evidenced information to inform themselves.
A question that comes to Briner’s mind when explaining EBM is what kind of a professional do you want to be? “Evidence-based practice, to me, is about being a certain kind of professional who admits when they don’t know things, who constantly updates their knowledge, are always trying to learn, admit when they screwed up, and are always trying to improve their managerial skills,” Briner says. “It’s not about hiding mistakes. In my view it’s allowing us all to be better professionals. It allows you to identify management fads as well, it’s a fad-buster; and for a manager it’s important to have tools to decipher whether what a certain consultant is telling them to do is actually going to work or if it’s just the “latest thing.”
Professor Walshe expressed that EBM is a great equalizer. “There is no magic process that academics have that managers can’t use. It’s all transferable skills. The sustainability of the concept of the business school depends on recognizing that there may be flaws in how we do things. We need to keep evolving our approach, based on evidence, and that way we make ourselves relevant. EBM is empowering education because it’s always current.”
Briner stated that business schools have difficult questions to ask themselves in the next ten years. But he also encouraged the management students to always ask one simple question: Why? “Ask why a lot. Maybe just do it in your head, because it tends to upset people, but asking why all the time is very important.”
Encouraging student engagement, Professor Walshe ended with, “Asking why is so powerful. We have to create classrooms that tolerate the question 'why?' because if you can’t ask why we’re learning a particular business model, it’s usually because there’s no evidence to support it.”