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Evidence-Based HR: Are We Kidding Ourselves?

Science Sepia

Metrics. Big data. Analytics. If you work in HR and haven’t heard these words over and over again in the last few years then you probably work for ‘Underground Bunkers R Us’. The rest of us have heard again and again that the next big thing in HR is learning how to better capture and use the information we are all awash in to make our work more evidence-based, measurable and targeted.

In a recent article series for Personnel Today, Paul Kearns sets the bar even higher, making the case for putting HR on the same professional footing as medicine in Part 1 ‘It is Time to Build HR into a True Profession’:

“It [HR] is a highly skilled job that requires the same level of training and dedication as the most qualified and experienced brain surgeons.”

“If HR is to achieve the requisite level of professionalism, it has to become as scientific as it can be, and that requires methods based on the best evidence available.”

Paging Doctor HR?

I have argued on this very blog (here too) for the idea that HR should become more evidence-based. I do not take that back, and I unquestionably agree with Mr Kearns when he says: “The ‘best HR practice’ of copying what everyone else is doing can now be seen for what it always was, a mindless rush towards catastrophe.” But is it conceivable that our profession might ever emulate medicine? I must part ways with Mr. Kearns on this point. As I wrote in a recent post, HR has arrived at an uncomfortable place. We tell the world that we want to be seen as strategic and valued contributors to organizational success, goals and profit, but research (and I would venture to guess our own anecdotal experience) tells us that many people working in the field are here because they want to support individual growth and development.  There exists a vast ocean between this current state and the one that Mr Kearns envisions, in which HR are data-minded, evidence-based, managerial scientists.  Is this even within the realm of possibility?

Set Up For Failure

No. It’s not. And I think it’s obvious that we set ourselves up for failure by asserting that to become a ‘true profession’ we must meet the standards of medicine. A nice fantasy? Sure, for some people. But it’s also impossible. HR is not a science. It will never be a science, unless we change the definition of science. To strive for the adoption of a more analytical, research-informed approach is advisable, admirable and progressive. But to think that the end point of that striving lies in the realm of medicine, or other scientific fields, is utter farce. Even if we were able to impose rigor around HR terminology, it is impossibility that we might widely employ empirical analysis and properly quantify the results of such analysis- all integral to the practice of true science.

I had a bunch of definitions of science in here to further refute this idea, but I just deleted them because honestly, I’d rather tackle the more reasonable question of whether HR could become a truly evidence-based profession. Is this a realistic aspiration? I think there is significant room for us to rely more on research and data to inform our body of knowledge and everyday actions, but as far as reaching the point where we can say that our practice is truly evidence-based…it’s a stretch. And I say that because of the simple fact that humans and organizations are incredibly complex, and arguably not subject to universal theories. How can we credibly propose to gather evidence on which to base our practice if that evidence is relevant only to such limited, parochial application? If we cannot test those concepts and reproduce results in a variety of situations or organizations, then what use are the theories based on such evidence?

Bleak Future?

Mr Kearns offers a bleak view of HR’s future lacking this certainty, saying:

“If HR professionalism does not mean certainty of management then it has no more meaning than the toss of a coin, and no modern economy can afford to treat its most valuable capital, its people, with the capricious mindset of a gambler.”

Harsh words, but not unfair. How do we offer value when we cannot guarantee outcome? I admit it’s a challenge for which we have yet to find a definitive answer. And yet, I might suggest that Mr Kearns offers a false dichotomy here. Certainty is a rare thing in the business world most of us work within, and it’s opposite is not gambling. I’d like to think that we are slowly (admittedly too slowly) moving towards a more rigorous, data-based model of HR. That means that many of us will find ourselves at points along a spectrum when it comes to the grounding of our recommendations and programs in data or research. But by suggesting that all HR that falls short of this lofty standard is equivalent to the roll of a dice, we do those progressing along that spectrum a deep disservice. What do you think? Should we aspire to be HR scientists? Is the goal of being a more evidence-based profession even a possibility?

Image credit: By Stephane Gaudry via Wikimedia Commons

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Jane
    Have you seen the debate on the HR Director’s Club LinkedIn on this? I have included a link to your blog.
    Noel O’Reilly, Personnel Today and XpertHR

    http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=3737952&type=member&item=243140991&commentID=140665868&report%2Esuccess=8ULbKyXO6NDvmoK7o030UNOYGZKrvdhBhypZ_w8EpQrrQI-BBjkmxwkEOwBjLE28YyDIxcyEO7_TA_giuRN#commentID_140665868

    May 29, 2013
  2. Paul Kearns #

    Hi Jane, I was pointed to your post about my book (or at least the linked articles) – which I think is a very intelligent, balanced, critique raising all the right issues and challenges. If I can just respond to one though to demonstrate that I don’t believe I have ever taken a simplistic approach – the issue of management certainty – I go to great pains to address your concerns very early on – below are two short extracts.

    (p4) “The purpose of a Professional is to ensure they offer the highest probability of the highest value solution to their customer’s needs.”

    (p9) “One aspect of probability theory that might appear counter-intuitive is its prediction that, regardless of how many times you toss the coin, it will never alter its chances of being a head or a tail on the next toss. On the 1 millionth toss there is still only a 50:50 chance of it being a tail or a head because coin tossing is a totally random action with only two possible outcomes. That is all well and good when there are only two possible outcomes but what about more complex situations, with many more possible outcomes and many more variables? This is the world the HR Professional faces and they can only cope with it if they adapt probability theory, and the bell curve, to the infinite complexity of the human race.”

    From this premise the book aims to provide practical, Professional solutions through adaptations of existing management tools to address the organizational complexity we all face. In that regard you might like to visit http://www.hrmaturity.com where you should feel at home with those of a similar mind.

    all the best

    Paul

    May 29, 2013
    • Hi Paul, I’m delighted and flattered that you read and commented on my blog post – thank you. The excerpts you’ve provided are intriguing, and certainly do address some of the concerns I’ve outlined in my post. I intend to explore these ideas further on your website (and maybe through your book too). Perhaps a follow-up post is in order… Thanks again for responding!

      May 29, 2013
  3. Charlie Vivian #

    The reason that medicine is in such a mess is because it has forgotten that humans are subjects who interact with their environment, rather than mere objects, to whom things happen.

    HR is in grave danger of making the same mistake, and removing the “h” from HR

    May 30, 2013
    • Er, right…well then, you may not want to read my recent post about how we have enough “people persons’ working in HR then :) http://wp.me/p2NjPk-a5 Thanks for reading and commenting!

      June 2, 2013
      • Charlie Vivian #

        I think this might be an ‘either/or’ view when you need a ‘both/and.’

        Covey captures this in his book, seven habits, telling the story of the goose that laid the golden egg. He outlines how businesses have become completely focussed on the golden egg, forgetting it’s the goose that produces it. If the goose doesn’t produce, then cook it. But you have to look after your profits AND your goose, not one or the other.

        June 3, 2013
  4. Having spent three years in healthcare, I found that it was a balance of art and science, and I believe that to be the case with HR as well. You and I have shared complexity theories before, and HR is about as complex as it can be. I will say, however, that too often HR sees “best practice” as evidence-based and they are not even remotely related.

    June 3, 2013
  5. If you’re interested, Paul’s third and final article on professional HR has been published on Personnel Today – see link below. Re your comment Charlie (Hi – we know each other!) I understand that evidence based practice is relatively new in medicine and doctors and nurses are finding their way with it, so it’s not an exact science in either field, HR or medicine?

    http://goo.gl/CeX4W

    June 4, 2013
    • Charlie Vivian #

      Hi Noel

      The problem is that medicine has adopted a dualistic model. In other words, it sees the body and soul (psyche) as separate things. Medicine is geared up to treat the body, without realising that evidence is now compelling that it is individual beliefs that are key determinants of symptom level, disability and incapacity. When you treat humans like objects, it’s bad news!

      My original contribution to this thread was because Jane seemed to be advocating we remove the human from HR. This seemed to mirror the cartoonist, Dilbert’s observation that, “You can’t spell ‘who cares’ without HR.” His cartoons are depressingly close to the mark!

      June 4, 2013
  6. A short reaction from an HR analytics professional: I don’t call HR analytics a science, I call it ‘decision support’! And believe me, having been in exec HR roles for many years, HR analytics really are an incredible addition to the profession and HR needs to skill up (or even better: add ‘data people’ to the team)! With HR people only, the profession won’t get far enough. HR urgently need to move from descriptive analytics (classical HR reporting) to predictive analytics (correlation, causation, prediction). Medicine’s evidence based is clinical testing. Forget it, in HR! HR’s evidence based is mechanical (not clinical), using the machine to build decision support. However, agreeing with all of you: man or machine? Both! Art or ‘science’? Both!

    June 17, 2013
  7. I like lоoking аt your site. Apprecіate it!

    December 10, 2013

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