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The evidence is clear

Evidence-based management puts science back into the art of management, say Vincent Cassar and Frank Bezzina.

Management is one of mankind’s oldest practices in organised social units. With time, management evolved to become both an art and a science. However, this evolution meant that the artistic portion has often manifested itself as the do-as-you-feel-best attitude at the expense of management’s reliance on scientific rigor.

The revered management thinker Peter Drucker, who has left his mark on the evolution of management, proposes that: “Management means… the substitution of thought for brawn and muscle, of knowledge of folklore and superstition…” Albert Einstein seemingly concurs with his claim that, “a man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be”. However, a cursory review of some best management sellers and guru tips casts doubts on the real scientific foundation of these works and whether the prescribed formulas make any sense for managers in today’s complex realities of organisational life.

In the early 1990s, David Sackett and Gordon Guyatt, two physicians at McMasters University in Canada, challenged traditional teaching of medicine to students by reporting on their bedside teaching technique. Although the medical community of the time was colder than lukewarm towards this new paradigm of medical education, evidence-based medicine eventually became the teaching norm in medical schools in Canada, the US and to a certain extent in the UK.

Evidence-based approaches followed suit in other fields like policy development, environmental studies and industrial chemistry. However, in management education, the revolution of how and why managers adopt specific practices as opposed to others remains mostly an art in the rawest form and subject to misconceptions, cognitive biases and personal preferences for methods that seem to work only in the eyes of the beholder.

There are signs to suggest that this may be changing. Management leaders have long expressed a need to steer management practice back to its scientific roots by looking at the world in a more systematic fashion. This shift leaves room for one’s creative expression complementing that expression grounded in facts.

Denise Rousseau from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and former president of the American Academy of Management, is a leading figure in this movement. She defines evidence-based management as the systematic, evidence-informed practice of management, incorporating scientific knowledge in the content and process of making decisions.

Decisions lie at the core of this definition: decisions cost money, time and resources and are an important foundation for managers’ learning. The implication is resounding. Putting back the evidence-based component in the management education curriculum is likely to pave the way for better managers who can face tomorrow’s dilemmas scientifically, relying on sound facts rather than simply on the latest bestseller fads.

Evidence is information. Ensuring that information is reliable and valid is the challenge of every manager who acknowledges that there is little use for unreliable or invalid information in decision-making. Managers have four sources of information that they can rely on in decision-making: scientific research findings, organisational data and facts, professional experience and a knowledge of stakeholders’ values. Evidence-based management provides the tools to critically assess, evaluate and extract the best quality information from these sources intent on reducing the uncertainties around any quality decision. Relying on old or time-tested formulas is not necessarily the best approach and neither is there any guarantee for managers that such reliance works again in the future.

Understanding managers’ decision-making process helps us appreciate evidence-based management’s application in the workplace. Complexity and time impact simultaneously on managers’ decision-making. Complexity draws from managers’ dependence on a broad spectrum of information, data and evidence from different sources in order to ensure the quality of a decision. However, preassumptions of how managers view the world may prevent them from going all the length to capture all possible evidence to ensure the best decision output. By contrast, time limits managers from searching for the best evidence and appreciating the uniqueness of specific situations that demand one course of action over another.

Various studies on bad decision-making suggest that the interplay of complexity and time keeps shaping most decisions, pushing managers to rely, to a larger extent, on unfounded beliefs, fads and ideas made popular by management gurus. It is unsurprising that managers often succumb to these pressures and decide erratically with poor outcomes, wasted resources, and limited understanding of why things go wrong. Because markets are increasingly dynamic and complex, managers’ decisions bear bigger and deeper implications, justifying evidence-based in today’s managers’ way of thinking.

Decisions cost money, time and resources and are an important foundation for managers’ learning

Managers who rely on evidence are critical thinkers who see the big picture composed of a multitude of facts. Evidence-based management is a way of thinking, rendering the manager the thinker in the practitioner. Evidence relying managers adopt many techniques to evaluate information prior to making the decision, without resorting to imitation or relying on copycat practices from other companies. This notion concurs with William Redfield’s 1912 maxim: the then first US Secretary of Commerce said that, “efficiency means keen self-criticism.”

Managers need to move out of the office to the shop floor and challenge all that is sacred or fixed. Managers in today’s competitive world recognise six-month-old practices are ancient, justifying the questioning of the status quo in everything they see.

Indeed, any development programme related to evidence-based management will always combine four fundamental activities that are relevant to management’s everyday judgement and decision-making. First is the use of the best scientific findings; the second relates to managers gathering and attending to organisational facts and metrics in a systematic fashion to increase information reliability and usefulness; the third is the ongoing use of critical, reflective judgement and decision aids in order to reduce bias and improve decision quality; and finally a consideration of ethical issues including the short- and long-term impact of decisions on stakeholders.

The Department of Management at the University of Malta recognises the importance of evidence-based management in today’s management world. It is currently developing the first postgraduate certificate in evidence-based management and effective decision-making with international input for Malta’s future managers. This programme will span a comprehensive spectrum of principles, tools and methods underlying evidence-based management, presented in six specialised study units: principles of evidence-based management, systematic approaches to evidence-based management, statistical mis/ conceptions in decision-making processes, cognitive biases in decision making, stakeholder analysis of their values and concerns, and tools and practices to enhance evidence-based decision processes.

The University of Malta is administering this programme in collaboration with the Centre for Evidence-Based Management based in Amsterdam. The Centre for Evidence-Based Management supports prominent Universities like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, NY University, University of Toronto, University of Bath and the Free University of Amsterdam among others.

Rousseau’s statement from The Oxford Handbook of Evidence-Based Management (Oxford University Press, 2012) offers an apt conclusion: “Not everyone is motivated to use evidence. Some people fail to learn new things because they don’t want to make the effort. Non-evidence-based practice tends to be the norm for decisions regarding managing people, structuring work, and developing business strategy… Ironically it is poor performers who are most likely to overestimate their expertise. Evidence-based management is for practitioners… willing to invest time and effort to expand their knowledge, expertise, and personal depth. Evidence-based management equips those prepared to work at it with an exciting and productive professional career over the course of ever-deeper experience and substantive learning.”

Dr Vincent Cassar PhD (Lond) is senior lecturer in the Department of Management, FEMA, University of Malta. Dr Frank Bezzina PhD (Melit) is senior lecturer and Head of Department of Management, FEMA, University of Malta.

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