In previous posts we have considered the appeal by a variety of scholars to be more evidence-based in management. The idea is that management practice should be grounded in a stable body of generalisable knowledge, which should then ensure that managers in organisations can take up ‘best practice’ and aspire to better outcomes for the staff and organisations they manage.
This is a noble aspiration, particularly if it works against the dominance of fads and fashion in management, where managers may adopt a particular practice mainly because managers in other organisations in their particular field are doing so. But what is the evidence for thinking that there is such a stable body of knowledge?In a thorough piece of research published in the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2009, Reay, Berta and Kohn attempt to make an assessment of the robustness of the evidence base for evidence-based management. They did so by retrieving and reading all scholarly management articles published electronically through to 2008, searching on the words ‘evidence-based management’, ‘evidence-based decision-making’, ‘best practice’, ‘best evidence’ and ten other phrases, and then sorting them according to the quality of the evidence found. In all 169 articles were assessed according to six grades of evidence with 1, the highest and six the lowest. As far as the authors were concerned the highest level of evidence is generated by randomised control trials (RCTs) with a large sample, while the lowest level of evidence is merely the respected opinion of expert committee or authorities.
There were no articles rated at level one, i.e. the highest level of evidence and only 19 at level 2. Nearly 70% of articles were judged to be at the two lowest levels of evidence, being based either on the author’s opinion backed up by anecdote, or evidence generated through self-report and descriptive studies.
In posing the question ‘is there evidence that employing evidence-based management will improve organisational performance?’ the authors give a short answer: ‘No’.
“There is really not sufficient evidence on which to base managerial changes, any more than we would encourage physicians to change their practice based on opinions and anecdotes.’
This is not to say that the authors have given up hope, however. They believe that a handful of the articles do give good local examples of management practices, and growing awareness amongst managers of the need for such evidence to inform practice in future.
Although the authors could in no way be considered critical of the managerialist project, their conclusions are very similar to scholars who are, such as Ralph Stacey and Rakesh Khurana. Within the terms of the debate which considers management a science,where the highest form of evidence is considered to be an RCT, and where the closest parallel is thought to be medicine, there is little evidential basis for the overwhelming majority of practices which are recommended by hundreds of management books and thousands of management journal articles.
One way of coming at this would be to conclude that it is just a matter of time before sufficient numbers of researchers generating the highest level of evidence will eventually produce a stable body of knowledge which would inform key areas of management and leadership so that the quality of management could improve exponentially. Another conclusion that one might draw is that, after so many decades and with so much research, it is unlikely that management is a science and will ever produce a sufficiently stable body of knowledge, if by science we mean an approach governed by linear cause and effect and producing generalisable rules applicable in any context and at any time. The reason there are no large-scale RCTs to underpin management practice is because there are simply too many variables involved in the management of organisations to make them an appropriate research technique. The parallel with medicine is simply inapposite.
If we thought that management was best described by drawing on the non-linear complexity sciences, which would mean privileging both stability and instability, context and a specific history of interactions between engaged agents, then we might find ourselves looking for different sorts of evidence, as well as different things to generalise about. We would pursue different enquiries about the practice of management in organisations and would not be so disappointed in accepting that management is not medicine.