2005 Presidential Address
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS “EVIDENCEBASED MANAGEMENT”?
DENISE M. ROUSSEAU Carnegie Mellon University
I explore the promise organization research offers for improved management practice and how, at present, it falls short. Using evidence-based medicine as an exemplar, I identify ways of closing the prevailing “research-practice gap”—the failure of organizations and managers to base practices on best available evidence. I close with guidance for researchers, educators, and managers for translating the principles governing human behavior and organizational processes into more effective management practice.
Evidence-based management means translating principles based on best evidence into organizational practices. Through evidence-based management, practicing managers develop into experts who make organizational decisions informed by social science and organizational research—part of the zeitgeist moving professional decisions away from personal preference and unsystematic experience toward those based on the best available scientific evidence (e.g., Barlow, 2004; DeAngelis, 2005; LemieuxCharles & Champagne, 2004; Rousseau, 2005; Walshe & Rundall, 2001). This links how managers make decisions to the continually expanding research base on cause-effect principles underlying human behavior and organizational actions. Here is what evidence-based management looks like. Let’s call this example, and true story, “Making Feedback People-Friendly.” The executive director of a health care system with twenty rural clinics notes that their performance differs tremendously across the array of metrics used. This variability has nothing to do with patient mix or employee characteristics. After interviewing clinic members who complain about the sheer number of metrics for which they are accountable (200 indicators sent This article is based on the address I gave at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Honolulu, Hawaii. Chuck Bantz, Andy Garman, Paul S. Goodman, Ricky Griffin, Bob Hinings, Paul Hirsch, Sharon McCarthy, Sara Rynes, Laurie Weingart, and John Zanardelli contributed ideas toward its development. 256
monthly, comparing each clinic to the 19 others), the director recalls a principle from a long-ago course in psychology: human decision makers can only process a limited amount of information at any one time. With input from clinic staff, a redesigned feedback system takes shape. The new system uses three performance categories— care quality, cost, and employee satisfaction—and provides a summary measure for each of the three. Over the next year, through provision of feedback in a more interpretable form, the health system’s performance improves across the board, with low-performing units showing the greatest improvement. In this example a principle (human beings can process only a limited amount of information) is translated into practice (provide feedback on a small set of critical performance indicators using terms people readily understand). Evidence-based management, as in the example above, derives principles from research evidence and translates them into practices that solve organizational problems. This isn’t always easy. Principles are credible only where the evidence is clear, and research findings can be tough for both researchers and practitioners to interpret. Moreover, practices that capitalize on a principle’s insights must suit the setting (e.g., who is to say that the particular performance indicators the executive director uses are pertinent to all units?). Evidence-based management, despite these challenges, promises more consistent attainment of organizational goals, including those affecting employees, stockhold-
ers, and the public in general. This is the promise that attracted me to organizational research at the beginning of my career— but it remains unfulfilled. THE GREAT...