Evidence-based HR management is the only way forward

For as long as I can remember – 30 years in HR – there have always been regular surveys and studies purporting to tell us how effective HR is and what impact it is having.

In his five years as assistant director-general at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Duncan Brown used significant amounts of members’ subscriptions to commission numerous academic studies, only to conclude that HR was an unfathomable ‘black box’.

Even as recently as November 2007, having left to join consultancy PwC, he was still exhorting new CIPD chief executive Jackie Orme to put ‘demonstrating business impact’ at the top of her list of priorities – a clear admission that during his tenure, the CIPD never achieved this goal. Brown also added that “The CIPD needs to address the shortage of quality senior HR executive development programmes” – a classic case of do what I say, not what I actually did.

Body of evidence

One very obvious point that seems to have eluded all those who commission such studies is that they are inherently self-defeating. If these studies had ever convinced anyone in the past, they would no longer be necessary now. Furthermore, the definition of a ‘quality senior HR’ executive should mean those who come with convincing evidence of their impact.

This leads us to exactly where we need to be in HR management – we have to become evidence-based. Not as an academic exercise after the event, but as a complete change in the way HR directors think and see the world. Evidence-based HR management is about a healthily sceptical attitude to what works and what doesn’t. The leading proponents of this exciting development are Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton at Stanford University, and their book Hard Facts should be a mandatory read for the next generation of aspiring HR executives. They show how all managers “…are trapped by their beliefs and ideologies. Their observations are contaminated by what they expect to see”. This appears to describe conventional HR studies perfectly.

Any HR director who wants to put clear and convincing evidence at the heart of everything they do will first have to find themselves a development programme that adopts that approach. They will learn very quickly not to believe anything that 20:20 hindsight studies tell them. Evidence means collecting data and facts that apply directly to your own organisation, in its own context, now.

So what convincing evidence do you have that your leadership programme, competence frameworks, and engagement surveys are having any impact at all? Keeping your chief executive happy might look like you have produced convincing evidence, but it isn’t. We only have to look at the disaster that is the ‘credit crunch’ to realise that even intelligent bankers can get it seriously wrong.

Realistic statistics

I have never been convinced by academic studies that tell us that HR boosts profits – simply because I have never found a finance director or chief executive who could explain to me what the connection was. In effect, their knowledge of HR’s impact still amounts to nothing more than a complete act of faith, not evidence. So this is not just a challenge for the HR community – evidence-based management is as much an issue for every other management discipline.

No doubt Jackie Orme will have to suffer the exhortations of many other counsellors and advisers in her early days running the CIPD, but my advice, if she might care to listen, is to ignore everything her predecessors tell her – she can hardly do any worse than they did. Instead, she should put evidence-based HR management right at the top of her agenda, and get the CIPD to start running senior HR executive programmes as soon as possible.

Paul Kearns is director of HR consultancy PWL


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