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On Evidence-based Management

I don’t think you’ll find many managers who will disavow the notion that evidence should be used as the basis for decision-making, even if they routinely fail to do so.

This discussion in management circles has mostly followed that among medical professionals where “evidence based medicine” has been a hot topic for some time now. In medicine, the definition implies the use of the latest and best available scientific evidence (typically having an epidemiological and biostatistical basis) when making decisions about the care of individual patients. The implication is that doctors need to keep up to date with the latest developments in healthcare and bio-medical science, rather than merely rely on what they were taught is med school or have learned during their clinical practice. It also means that the clinical problem – rather than established habits and protocols – should determine the type of evidence that is needed.

Of course, saying we believe in something is often not indicative of the way in which we actual behave. The late management theorist Chris Argyris distinguished between the “theories we espouse” versus the “theories we use.” The latter (he used the term "theory-in-use") represents the set of beliefs that actually guide our actions as opposed to our stated beliefs ("espoused theory"). This contradiction, according to Argyris, is not apparent to most of us. The reasoning processes tend to be largely unconscious.

Leaving aside this concern, let’s examine what is usually meant by the phrase EBM in the management context. It normally implies that we:

  • Use different sources of evidence

  • Carefully assess the quality of the evidence

  • Use evidence to identify problems before trying to implement solutions.

Of course, as with most terms, its application is not that straight-forward. Indeed, unless the following conditions are met, EBM can prove somewhat elusive:

  • The issue is clear

  • The data is reliable,

  • The context is structured

In most management situations, it is doubtful if these pre-conditions exist – hence the skepticism in some quarters as to its wider and systematic applicability.

My own view is that seeking the best available evidence to inform a decision is a must even though we should always strive to triangulate sources and carefully scrutinize the quality of available evidence. So, whilst I’m not a proponent of “gut feeling” and intuition on its own, I feel that there is still a place for sensing and feeling grounded in our expertise and experience. As long as it is supplementary.

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