Bringing science to HR
Some years ago when I was employed by a large HR consultancy, I remember energetically preaching about the importance of research, learning and development, and evidence-based approaches to meeting our client needs.
At the time, for a variety of reasons – some of which may have been very legitimate – these ideas only achieved modest traction.
However, times are changing and I believe that industry and clients’ views are quickly turning around.
Increasingly, we are reading the importance of using the best of what science and practice have to offer, and to apply learnings to pressing HR and organisational development issues.
To be fair, part of the problem has been the relative inaccessibility of research to HR practitioners, for three main reasons:
- Dissemination of research
Barring a few exceptions, HR-relevant research is not disseminated in the popular press, and gets read by perhaps only three or four pairs of eyes who stumble upon them by chance through specialised search engines. It is a crying shame, as lots of ground-breaking research goes unnoticed or spends longer than necessary in obscurity.
- Language and format used
Most academic papers are written with an academic audience in mind. When I was in graduate school, we had a running joke (which I’m sure is repeated on thousands of campuses around the world) that “the thicker the dissertation, the fastest it gets published”. When reading papers these days, I don’t see much change on this front. A full discussion of academic incentives for publishing studies is beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say, papers are often inaccessible in their language and thickness, and are therefore not often referred to by the HR community.
- Hypotheses tested
Finally, the research questions posed by academics seem so far removed from HR practitioners’ real-world concerns that they are perceived to be lacking in practical applications.
Of course, there must be a place for fundamental research that eventually leads to practical applications. The same holds true for so-called “pure sciences” where fundamental research outcomes precede applications by decades.
However, I do believe business and society as a whole would benefit tremendously from increased collaboration and formal associations with academia. Of course, there are questions around research funding and vested interests, but there are ways to minimise the risks.
As a member of SIOP, I have access to a wide range of academic and business sources.
I strongly believe in “kaizen”- the notion of continuous improvement – and more often than not, I will research whatever topic or research question my company or client needs to address using specialised databases, and aim to find the latest meta-analyses available.
Meta-analysis is a statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies.
The basic principle behind meta-analyses is that there is a common truth behind all conceptually-similar scientific studies, but which has been measured with a certain error within individual studies.
The aim is to use approaches from statistics to pool the results of individual studies and reduce error.
Meta-analyses have the capacity to compare and contrast results from different studies and identify patterns among their results.
A key benefit of this approach is the aggregation of information which leads to a higher statistical power and more robust estimate than would be possible from any individual study.
As long as the meta-analysis is well conducted, this helps cut through the noise and answer pressing HR questions, such as:
- What best predicts leadership potential?
- Why do standard performance management measures not work?
- What drivers are consistently linked to employee engagement?
It also answers many other questions which pundits have a thousand answers for that are unfortunately often based on idiosyncratic experiences with little systematic research.
Once I’ve canvassed the literature (including what the best of business literature has to offer), I still need to “translate” what is often indecipherable and complicated jargon into simple-to- understand and easy-to-use conclusions.
This is where the process of “vulgarisation” comes into play. It comprises of half-translation, and half-marketing.
My father, who was an educator, used to say that if you can explain the most difficult concept to a five-year-old, you’ve truly mastered the topic.
This is an important and tricky step, as the last thing you want to do is interpret beyond the data.
Adding value to the business
As the market rightfully becomes more demanding, I believe larger HR consultancies should have a research and development function to constantly remain a step ahead of their clients’ body of knowledge and practice.
Clients expect expertise and consultancies beyond those of “best practices”, and the provision of fact-based and market-tested insights and solutions.
As an HR practitioner dedicated to evidence-based decisions, I believe that one of the most important tasks on our hands is to convince the business of the importance of drawing upon this immense resource.
Being real advocates and evangelists of the “kaizen” approach can yield tremendous value to business.
Stephane Michaud is host of HRM Asia's The Academic View forum. He regularly contributes articles and discussion on the ways science can help HR become even more effective in its role.