How can evidence-based HR be made easier? A new model

6 minute read

In today's fast-paced corporate world, HR leaders are constantly seeking innovative strategies to enhance decision-making and operational efficiency. Professor Rob Briner offers a practical guide to evidence-based HR and suggests how to make it easier to apply in HR

Rob Briner

An abstract representation of evidence-based HR

HR has turned a corner. It would now be difficult to find any HR practitioner who truly believes that the profession’s use of evidence and data is optimal and could not be improved in any way.

What’s changed in HR’s attitude towards evidence?

This shift in thinking towards making better-informed decisions is one of the most important changes in the profession over the past few decades.

When I first started writing and talking about Evidence-Based HR (EBHR) many reacted with more than a degree of defensiveness. It seemed that my argument – that HR could and needed to do better when it came to evidence-based decision-making – was viewed by most as just another attack on the profession and therefore an argument best ignored.

But now it feels like I’m pushing at an open door when I make exactly the same points.

A relatively new and collective understanding has emerged: that making better use of evidence both to understand business issues and identify which HR activities will help resolve those issues will improve HR’s effectiveness and increase our value to the business.

But it’s one thing to acknowledge that we should try to improve the way we do something and quite another to actually do it.

What has HR done to make better use of evidence?

HR has always used internal organisational data to help inform its decisions. But newer people analytics practices and approaches have enabled HR functions to use such data more effectively.

There are many definitions of people analytics. This, from Janet Marler & John Boudreau, is not untypical.

“An HR practice enabled by information technology that uses descriptive, visual and statistical analyses of data related to HR processes, human capital, organisational performance, and external economic benchmarks to establish business impact and enable data-driven decision-making.”

People analytics has become the dominant way in which HR tries to make better use of evidence. While definitions of people analytics do vary, the focus is mostly on one source (internal) and one type of data (quantitative).

There is no doubt that using people analytics helps but is it enough?  From an evidence-based practice perspective the answer is “no”. People analytics is important. It is essential.  It is necessary. But it is not sufficient.

Making better-informed decisions: The principles of evidence-based practice

The basic principles of evidence-based practice are derived from what we might naturally do when making any very important decision.Sometimes we want and need to make the best-informed decision we can at the time in order to maximise the chances of getting the outcomes we want and minimise the chances of getting the outcomes we do not want.

Consider an everyday example: designing and booking a family holiday. There are multiple stakeholders who want different things. There are usually plenty of different types of information, not all reliable, about locations, accommodation and activities. And there are budget, time and scheduling constraints.

When decisions are personally significant and the outcome very important we tend to do the following three things: we consult multiple data sources and types of information, we follow a structured process for gathering evidence, and we pay more attention to the most trustworthy information sources.

These three behaviours are directly reflected in the three principles of evidence-based practice:

  1. Incorporate multiple sources and types of evidence and information.
  2. Adopt a structured and explicit process of gathering and using evidence.
  3. Focus on the most trustworthy and relevant evidence rather than all the evidence.

It’s worth noting that these principles are not typically emphasised in definitions of or approaches to people analytics. However, they form the foundations of EBHR.

Why has HR not yet fully embraced Evidence-Based HR?

It’s certainly true, as the timeline suggests, that interest in EBHR has increased. Yet it is still relatively unusual to find an HR professional or HR function that has a strong awareness of what EBHR means and routinely applies it to their work.

EBHR timeline
Source: Rob Briner and CRF

Given the benefits EBHR could deliver for the HR function and the business its limited uptake is sometimes a little puzzling. Having discussed EBHR with many practitioners over many years I feel fairly certain that one of the main reasons why HR has not fully embraced EBHR is because of  six misconceptions about what it is and how you do it. 

Misconception 1: EBHR simply means using evidence: Not really. All HR practitioners always use evidence – and always have.  This is not the issue. The challenge is whether we are making optimal use of evidence. Evidence-based practice and its three principles described above have evolved precisely to help practitioners in many fields do this.

Misconception 2: It’s all about ‘hard’ data: Certainly not. To make well-informed decisions we need different types of evidence from multiple sources such as practitioners’ own professional expertise and the views and perspectives of stakeholders – including ethical perspectives. The strength and value of EBHR lies in combining types and sources of data.

Misconception 3: EBHR is the same as people analytics: As discussed earlier, people analytics has something in common with EBHR in that it uses data to make better-informed decisions. However, it is also fundamentally different in several respects. In a sense, people analytics is a key part of EBHR but it is not the same as EBHR.

Misconception 4: EBHR takes too much time: How much time is it worth investing in making a better- informed decision? Suppose you’re planning to spend a really big chunk of your budget on a leadership development programme or a bundle of wellbeing initiatives?  If you believe there may be an important business issue which HR can help resolve, shouldn’t you and your team be reasonably confident that you’ve identified the most important issues and selected practices or interventions that are most likely to help?

If you are concerned that EBHR is taking too much time then there’s an easy solution.  Decide how much time you want to or are able to invest in the process – which depends on the importance of the issue – and then just stop when you run out of time and make your decision. Crucially, the goal of EBHR is to make a better-informed not a perfect decision.

Misconception 5: EBHR stops us from innovating and experimenting: One objection to EBHR I often hear is that EBHR gets in the way of innovation and experiments. This is not the case. To be useful, innovations and experiments need to be based on existing evidence.  We can only innovate with a good understanding of what has already been tried, what works and what doesn’t and why. Similarly, experiments are only effective if they are guided by evidence about the impact of previous interventions and why trying something new is likely to work.

Misconception 6: EBHR is just too hard: If we compare what we usually do now in relation to functioning now with full-blown comprehensive examples of EBHR it can be overwhelming.  We may, for example, be aware that we can’t easily access all the sources of evidence or we don’t have the right capabilities within our team to pull the evidence together and thoroughly evaluate its trustworthiness.

But, again, the good news is that EBHR is not about making perfect HR decisions but better-informed decisions. Even if we can only access some sources of evidence or if our ability to evaluate evidence is limited we are still more likely to get the outcomes we want if we follow the principles of EBHR outlined above as much as we are able to right now.

Making EBHR more doable

The Corporate Research Forum is on a mission to make HR more effective. The most important way of achieving this is to make EBHR more accessible and easier to do.

In our 2023 report, Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR, we define it as:

…a process which delivers better-informed and hence more accurate answers to two fundamental questions: first, which are the most important problems (or opportunities) facing the organisation which are relevant to HR activities? Second, which solutions (or interventions) are most likely to help? In other words, what’s going on and what can we do about it? These questions are answered through a combination of using the best available evidence and critical thinking.

EBHR is more doable if we focus on its three basic principles listed earlier.

Sources of evidence framework
Source: Rob Briner and CRF

EBHR Principle 1 - Incorporate multiple sources and types of evidence and information:  Decisions are better-informed if we use evidence from more sources and of more types. Here are four broad categories of evidence with examples of the types of evidence which we may gather from each.

Does this mean we always need to use all four sources of evidence? Or always need to use every type? Not at all. More sources is usually better as it allows us to triangulate and cross-check the information we are gathering. Also, what evidence is best for answering any question depends on the question itself.

EBHR Principle 2: Adopt a structured and explicit process of gathering and using evidence.  This means understanding the issue beforeidentifying a solution and taking a structured approach to collecting the evidence we need to answer our questions.

The EBHR process in our new model sets out the steps in this process.

EBHR framework
Source: Rob Briner and CRF

In this model we:

  • Always start a business issue
  • Ask and gather evidence to answer questions to identify that issue and, if identified
  • Ask and gather evidence to answer questions to identify interventions
  • Implement and plan evaluation

Does this mean we need to meticulously follow every single step?  No. Remember that the principle is about adopting a structured approach.  As long as we follow some of the structure and are aware of the structure we are following we will make a better-informed decision.  Bearing this in mind helps make EBHR more doable.

However, one part of the process we should never skip is to make sure we have a reasonable understanding of the business issue before we start thinking about solutions or interventions.

EBHR Principle 3: Focus on the most trustworthy and relevant evidence rather than all the evidence  

Once we start looking, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the quantity of evidence and data available. This is one thing that can make EBHR seem very much not doable. However, the good news is that we should not be using all the available evidence in any case.

Much of the available evidence may be unreliable and misleading and incorporating it into our decision-making will lead to poorly- rather than well-informed decisions.

Looking at all the evidence we have and focusing only on the most trustworthy and relevant not only makes EBHR more doable but is also necessary to make the best use of evidence.

Next steps in doing more EBHR

As a profession there are still gaps in our understanding and use of EBHR. To narrow these gaps two things need to happen.

First, we need to know more about what EBHR means and how it can be done. Our new model and the three principles upon which it is based make EBHR more accessible and more doable. There is additional support and more resources on our EBHR Knowledge Hub

Second, when we do understand more we need to incorporate EBHR into our own practice when opportunities arise. The more we do EBHR the more we will learn about how to do it. And, through doing it, the more value we, our function and the profession will add to the business.

Rob Briner, pictured below, is associate director of research, Corporate Research Forum and professor of organizational psychology, Queen Mary University of London

Rob Briner

Published 31 January 2024
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