Evidence-Based HR: Are We Kidding Ourselves?
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?
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