Updated: Aug 28, 2020
In Laurence J. Peter’s 1969 book, The Peter Principle, he made the observation that people in a hierarchy are promoted until they can no longer perform the job competently. The book was of course, written as satire, however, satire contains at least a kernel of truth. If you land a job promotion, it will often come with duties that are at first foreign to you and there will be a grace period where your questions are answered by other organizational members with this understanding. You will most likely have a dip in your performance for a period of time, but the expectation is that you will eventually attain the knowledge and skill to perform the job at an acceptable or better level. Failure to do this will certainly lead others to assume that you have thus reached your lowest level of incompetence and promotions will cease. You may even be demoted.
If managerial competence rests largely on the quality of the decisions that managers make, i.e. possessing correct mental models of cause and effect, then it stands to reason that the quality of those decisions is influenced by the knowledge that the manager possesses. In fact, managerial competence is likely the most important determinant of sustainable competitive advantage for organizations, and competence is displayed by making decisions that lead to the desired outcomes (Holcomb, Holmes, Connelly, 2009; Rousseau, 2018). Therefore, it is wise to figure out how to make decisions that will actually lead to the desired effect.
You may have heard the term evidence-based decision making, but never stopped to think if it was something that applies to the everyday work world, and if it does, if it is something that is important. The fact is that it is important if you want to be viewed as a competent manager. What follows are a few suggestions that will help move you along that learning curve:
1. Consider the source of your information.
The world will gladly provide you with information, but how much of it is based on actually testing people’s pet theories against data that are methodically gathered as part of a sound research design? That guy sitting next to you, the one you consider to be a bit “out to lunch,” can write a business book with a catchy title and get it sold these days. Just because a person’s book is on the best-seller list does not mean that you should blindly accept what they are selling. Do they offer studies that demonstrate that their recommendations are valid? Or do they spin a few entertaining anecdotes in the hope that you will not dig deeper and find cases where the courses of action did not work?
This is not to say that those who are the “stars” of the profession are not correct. They may have done their due diligence and are basing their claims on research that has been conducted by the broader scientific community. Examine their work closely and make sure that they are providing citations and references for their sources and whether those sources are legitimate. If they are referencing some motivational speaker as their source of facts, you can safely move on from that piece of information. (Unless they are using it as an example to drive home a point that they are making.)
2. Look at the source of funding for any studies that provide information supporting a particular viewpoint.
If you have not seen Ben Goldacre’s TED Talks on ths topic, you owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes watching at least one of them. Since he is a medical doctor, pharmaceutical firms stand to gain if they can convince him to use their products. If they fund studies that show that their product does what they claim, then all is good, right? Not really. What if they have taken the effort to bury any studies that contradicted their claims? This is difficult to detect, even for someone trained in spotting this sort of deception, since those studies are never published. Just be wary of the research that is funded by those with the most to gain.
3. Now that you know the type of (mis)information to avoid, how do you go about actually finding information that is valid? Here are a few ideas:
Academic management journals are a source where you know that the articles have been reviewed by the researchers’ peers in the topic area. However, most managers do not have the time to navigate the byzantine system of journals in order to pore over dozens or hundreds of these articles and try to wade through the arcane jargon just to get a nugget of wisdom. (Except those managers who have gone through a doctoral program and learned how to quickly do this.)
Another drawback of attempting to use these articles is access. While a search of Google scholar will yield results that provide article pdfs on occasion, many of the complete articles are hidden behind paywalls (unless you are a proficient navigator of the deep web).
Fortunately, more journals are moving to an online open access format. One example is located at www.business-research.org and it is searchable so that one may find topics germane to the interest at hand. However, these are academic articles and thus the readability problem still presents a barrier. In addition to this, the reader will have to figure out how to apply the knowledge that is covered in a given article. If you do decide to go the academic article route, you may want to search for review articles and meta-analytic pieces that cover a broad swath of previously written articles.
Handbooks, which are comprised of chapters on selected topics written by scholars and experts in the field, can also be a good source of knowledge. The cost for a handbook from one of the major academic publishers can be prohibitive, however. The current edition of the Handbook of Industrial Organizational Psychology published by the American Psychological Association (APA) is $695 for non-members and $521 for members. The major academic publishers are Oxford University Press, Wiley/Blackwell, Elsevier, Emerald, and SAGE. Books and articles from these publishers can be regarded as valid sources of information. There are certainly others that publish high quality offerings, these are just the major ones. If you look at non-academic publishers, you have to be careful that “Handbook” is more than just a single author’s opinion on a subject. Once again, performing due diligence in assessing the source will pay off in the end.
Large, well-known universities often have centers dedicated to the study and dissemination of research findings to interested parties. One example of this is Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (http://cahrs.ilr.cornell.edu/Home.aspx). Centers like this partner with industry to produce research that is summarized and converted to a form that is more readable than what might appear in an academic journal. Another example is the Sanger Leadership Center at the University of Michigan ( https://sanger.umich.edu/about/ ). Finding and using a center that is relevant to your area of work can be helpful in accessing research that is targeted toward the working professional.
The practitioner journal is yet another source for valid information. There are a number of these, the most widely known being Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/ , Sloan Management Review https://sloanreview.mit.edu/ , and the California Management Review https://cmr.berkeley.edu/. The articles that appear in these sources are usually derived from peer reviewed research and are written in accessible language. I have heard academics say that they have landed consulting gigs simply by rewriting their research articles in an understandable manner and having it published in one of these journals. These sources will generally allow you to access a few articles per month at no cost. If you do not wish to purchase a subscription, your local library may be able to provide access. In fact, a library card may also provide you with access to other business research databases as well. Local colleges and universities may also have libraries that are open to everyone and access to their research databases is allowed if you do so on their property[P1] (not easy during pandemic times though). If you are an alumnus of a nearby institution and are a member of the alumni association there, you may have rights to the library and possibly remote access. Librarians are usually more than happy to help guide you.
Professional and Trade Associations
Finally, your professional association or trade association may be a source for narrowly focused “how to” articles. I cannot comment on the degree to which these articles are vetted by the staff of these organizations; they should respond if you inquire though. For example, The Society for Human Resource Management provides a collection of how to guides that can be downloaded by individual users. They also provide fee-based online education in HR Management as well as review courses for their certifications. However, if you rely on their published magazine for information, be sure that the information there has some basis in evidence versus being solely managerial opinion (Gill, 2018). Other examples of professional associations include the Association for Supply Chain Management and the Association of Change Management Professionals. Whatever your area of practice, there is most likely at least one association that provides some level of expertise enhancement for its members.
Blogs and Such
Anyone who wants to do so can write a blog and they range from those who have very little knowledge of their subject to accomplished scholars and professionals. Assess their credentials and whether or not they cite their sources of information. If the source is reliable, you can pick up some of the leading current thoughts in your area.
4. Accept the fact that you will never know all there is to know about a topic. However, if you approach this systematically and build your knowledge base as well as your access to resources, you will be well on your way to being able to practice evidence-based management. Have some system whereby you categorize your web page bookmarks as well as a system for cataloging any articles that you have downloaded. Of course, if you have print materials, it is helpful to arrange your bookshelf so that you can easily and quickly find any needed documents.
The sources of information that I have thus far listed are those that are in print form, whether electronic or actual print, and possibly in video form as well. The other sources from which one may draw to make decisions are experience, the organization itself, and stakeholders (Barends, Rousseau, & Briner, 2014). These are most certainly important in evidence-based decision making, but the exploration of the topic is beyond the scope of this blog. I will state though, that learning through interactions with others who possess greater knowledge and experience is a relatively fast way to gain the experience yourself. This leads me to suggestion 5.
5. Hire advisors who are knowledgeable in the area that you wish to learn. While there are numerous consulting and advising firms dedicated to assist organizations with various challenges that they face, if you are reading this, you have found the web pages of the Society of Evidence Based Organizational Consulting and thus you have access to a panel of advisors that will be happy to assist you in discovering the ways in which you can tackle your people and organizational challenges https://www.seboc.com/consultingservices. In response to the observation that many of the methods currently used to manage people dependent operations are based on rather outdated management techniques from the past, and the observation that there are consultants who use untested methods, SEBOC was formed as an alternative to which practitioners can go for help.
Organizations that enlist the help of the SEBOC advisors benefit not only from the direct
assistance that is provided, but by the fact that each of the members is able to teach others in the organization how to perform the work after the engagement ends.
Barends E, Rousseau D, Briner R. (2014). Evidence-Based Management: The Basic Principles. Amsterdam: Center for Evidence-Based Management.
Gill C. (2018). Don’t know, don’t care: An exploration of evidence based knowledge and practice in human resource management. Human Resource Management Review 28, 2018, 103-115.
Holcomb T, Holmes M, Connelly B. (2009). Making the most of what you have: Managerial ability as a source of resource value creation. Strategic Management Journal. 30, 457 – 458.
Rousseau D. (2018). Making evidence-based organizational decisions in an uncertain world. Organizational Dynamics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2018.05.001 49 (1), 135 – 146.