evidence based approach to hr

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop based on metrics, evidence-based HR, and change management. The session was a lot of fun, because we were able to tie the three topics together in a variety of ways to help reiterate not only why each of them matters, but how each of them can really build value when used in conjunction with one another. HR is often using anecdotal information (if any at all), conjecture, and pure hope to make decisions, but we can do better. Today I want to go a little deeper than my post last week on “keeping up with the Joneses,” focusing more heavily on the evidence-based HR piece.

If you’re not familiar with evidence-based HR, here’s a primer:

Evidence-based human resources is the practice of identifying solutions and approaches that have a strong empirical basis.

In other words, we don’t just use gut instinct, an interesting anecdote, or anyone’s opinion to make our point. We use data and other solid evidence to support our decisions at every possible turn. But where does that evidence come from?

Sources for Evidence-Based Decisions

Here is a list of sources I offered the audience as credible options for finding research materials:

  • Management journals (scholar.google.com)
  • HBR
  • SHRM Foundation
  • Deloitte/Bersin
  • i4cp
  • CEB
  • ATD
  • CIPD

If you just do a quick Google search for one of these organizations and the topic you need to research, you’ll more often than not find something to help make your case. I actually had participants do this during the session, focusing on areas like recognition’s impact on productivity (definite linkage), using talent pools for faster hiring (no data we could find), and other relevant HR activities.

Be careful not to just grab a story of a company that is doing neat things and grabbing headlines, because that’s not enough to warrant good evidence. You want to find information from a study or some other data-backed approach that helps to lend credibility to your eventual decision. If it’s just a neat anecdote, then you’re really not improving the process any more than just making a decision based on gut instinct.

Making an Evidence-Based HR Decision

There are six key steps to making an evidence-based decision in the workplace.

  1. Asking: translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question
  2. Acquiring: systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence
  3. Appraising: critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence
  4. Aggregating: weighing and pulling together the evidence
  5. Applying: incorporating the evidence into the decision-making process
  6. Assessing: evaluating the outcome of the decision taken

Using this approach can help you to not only leverage evidence, but think critically about how valuable the evidence might be relative to other sources of data and information about your problem. Instead of going with the normal approach of “Bob said this worked at his last company,” we can use more credible sources of information to frame and resolve the issue.

Examples of Evidence-Based HR

Seeing this practice in action is the most powerful way to really “get” the value it can offer. I originally was turned off by the idea of having to research everything HR does on a daily basis, but in reality we make relatively few key decisions like those an evidence-based approach to HR would help with. For instance, New York spent more than $75 million on teachers to help increase student performance and teacher satisfaction. The result? No improvement. There is already data available that could have shown that this kind of approach has not yet been proven to deliver strong results (this examination of multiple studies still came away inconclusive, or “cautiously optimistic,” calling for additional research). Despite the lack of evidence, someone went ahead with the program anyway.

Here are a few examples of how it works in practice.

  • Selection Techniques-Your hiring managers are often used to creating high pressure interview situations to “see how candidates will respond.” They also like using tools like application data and GPA to filter out candidates. You find research that demonstrates the validity of their methods is in some cases no better than performing a coin flip to make a hiring decision, helping to sway them into using more structured methods and assessments for hiring decisions.
  • Employee Recognition-One of your managers is resistant to using recognition because “everyone can’t get a trophy” and she doesn’t want to “coddle” her workers. You find some existing research that points to the value of recognition not just in increasing worker satisfaction, but in increasing productivity as well, helping the manager to see the benefit to her and the team by improving her recognition skills and practices.
  • Performance Management-One of the trends in the US is “disposing” of the traditional approach and taking a different avenue for rating and assessing performance. You want to make this move with your company because you feel like your existing process is not adding organizational value. There isn’t much data, if any, available to support the different approach, but there is some data showing that collaborative environments support better teamwork and cultures than those focused on forced ranking and distribution of employees.

Leveraging research can drive immense value across the board, even for organizations outside the private sector. For instance, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, which repairs military aircraft for the US Air Force, used new research methods to speed repair processes for C-5 aircraft, allowing reductions in working capital of approximately $50 million (source: Deloitte).

While many of us aren’t working hands-on with aircraft, we still have the company’s largest budget item, its people, under our purview. Isn’t it time we started treating them like the valuable assets they are, managing them to the best of our abilities with the most relevant research and information available?

If you’re from outside the US and unfamiliar with the term, “keeping up with the Joneses” is a term that focuses on everyone’s desire to compare themselves with their peers, even when it’s emotionally unhealthy. Instead of focusing on our own strengths, we look at what others have or can do, and we want that instead. There’s a business version of this, and we’ve all been guilty of it at one point or another. For example:

  • We hear success stories and try to mimic what other companies do. For the last ten years I’ve heard more “we want a culture like Zappos” stories than anything else, even if that request has taken a dip in recent years. The problem is people aren’t willing to put their money on the line to make it happen.
  • We find a cool trend and jump on it, hoping for some mythical results. This always reminds me of the goofy “Google interview questions” like how many manhole covers in a city or how many elephants fit in an refrigerator. The questions didn’t predict success on the job, and Google ultimately moved away from them as a selection tool (thank goodness).
  • We get word about some new “best practice” through the news, and everyone wants to try it out. This is where I put unlimited paid time off. It’s a hot topic, but there isn’t anything to show how it really helps to improve the workplace other than anecdotal evidence here or there.

Getting Serious about Talent Practices

A few years ago, someone presented locally on HR metrics. The speaker prescribed specific metrics to everyone in the room, telling them that they needed to be capturing data because these were the “most important” measures. The problem? Some attendees were from staffing firms, others were in manufacturing, and still others were in professional services organizations. The truth is there is no “right” number of metrics, especially for such a diverse group. I haven’t forgotten that kind of peanut-butter-spread approach to advice on measurement, and that’s one reason I am going to be working to fix that this year with some of my speaking opportunities.

This week I’m delivering a workshop to an audience of HR leaders around two key topics: measurement and change. As I’ve been creating the slides and activities, one of the messages I’m striving to get across is that we need to be more of an evidence-based practice. That term goes back to roots in the healthcare community, as evidence-based medicine. The purpose is finding a course of action that is based not on gut instinct or hopeful results, but on some sound and proven science.

Imagine going to the doctor with an illness and getting five different recommendations for cures. You’d be a bit annoyed and unsure about how to proceed, right? But this is what we see daily in the HR profession. If you bring up a problem for discussion, you’ll get those same five different cure ideas from your peers, often based on a personal experience, a story of a friend, or something similar. Don’t worry, I’ve been guilty of this as well.

But this year I’m really focusing on being more intentional about my recommendations. I’m going to be focusing more on finding and uncovering evidence to support my approach. I’m actually going to be interviewing an author soon for the podcast on science-based principles of selling as a way to explore how to influence others. The two topics are connected, because he went through the same thing within the selling profession, taking advice of numerous “gurus” or basing practices on personal experience instead of an approach proven by science.

Best Practices? Maybe

I’ll leave you with this: by the time something becomes a “best practice,” the companies that used it often have moved to something else. The Google interview questions I mentioned above are just one example. One of the challenges of being an early adopter is that I see all of the newest and “best” talent and learning practices. I hear about what’s hot and what’s not. But the thing that never goes out of style is gathering data, making a decision based on that information, and then collecting feedback on results to adjust your direction or stay the course in the future.

Create your own book of best practices that fit your organization and its people. That’s the only set of practices that really matter.

art

Art

A reader recently emailed to ask me if I thought HR was more of an art or a science. My quick answer was “both.” Projects, programs, and strategies all (should be) based on solid numbers and facts. Otherwise, why do them at all? However, the more day-to-day interactions that most of us are familiar with seems to be more of an art. When you’re flying by the seat of your pants and making quick decisions based on your gut instincts, there’s not much science involved.

This is a large snippet of a post called HR is an art, but you should act like a scientist from Renegade HR. I read it a while back, but I came across it a few days ago and thought it was appropriate. Continue reading