Decision-Making

Do you use evidence to make decisions?

Do you base your management decisions based on the best available evidence?  I know that when I was in management, I often relied on the information readily available to me, financial data, marketing research data, competitive analyses.  But I didn’t really use the research available from academic sources on best practices.

So why does this matter?  Academics have been calling for practitioners to use Evidence Based Management (EBMgt.) for over 50 years. The idea is that if you use rigourously tested evidence on best practices completed by unbiased researchers (i.e. university professors), that you can improve organizational performance.

But does EBMgt. actually improve organizational performance? Trish Reay (University of Alberta), Whitney Berta (University of Toronto), and Melanie Kohn (University of Toronto) decided to find out.  In an article in Academy of Management Perspectives (Nov 2009), they conducted a literature review to determine whether there existed a literature on EBMgt., what quality of evidence exists to support EBMgt., and whether EBMgt. improves performance.

While they found that a significant literature existed on EBMgt., over half of the articles were based on opinion and not evidence.  They also found that there was virtually no research showing that EBMgt. improved organizational performance.

So why don’t practitioners use the research available to them?  The EBMgt. literature in medicine has identified a process known as Knowledge Translation (KT), which takes the knowledge from a researcher’s context to that of a practitioner.  This is a complex process, largely because researchers and practitioners see problems from a very different lens.  Any practitioner who has tried reading academic journal articles knows about that great divide. Seen from an organizational change perspective, any change in behaviour will require significant organizational effort.

While there are a great number of useless academic journal articles out there, there are many useful studies that never get translated into the real world. There seems to be a major gap in the dissemination and communication of useful research. How do we translate useful research into plain language?  How do we make sure that potential users of this information can find it?

In the meantime, the larger question is, does EBMgt. improve organizational performance?  To date, we don’t know the answer to that question.  The answer seems to have obvious surface validity.  If you use the best evidence available, you will usually get better results.  However, my experience tells me that it isn’t as simple as that.  The impact of organizational context, implementation and knowledge translation all have the potential to moderate the impact of best practices.

Suffice it to say, understanding best research evidence is probably a good idea when making expensive and risky decisions. Not to make the decision, but to provide context, and more information to make informed judgments.

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