Whether or not evidence-based management is a good idea, the gap between academics and practitioners means that it is often hard to find research that managers can actually use, argues Graham Martin.
Evidence-based medicine has transformed the work of clinicians since the 1980s and 1990s. Day-to-day clinical practice is now driven by standards, procedures and protocols based on research about what works well, what is safe and what is cost-effective. In recent years, healthcare managers have begun to feel the effects of a similar movement.
The logic of evidence-based medicine is increasingly being applied to management: if there isn’t good evidence that doing something will work effectively and do more good than harm, then why waste scarce public resources doing it?
Much effort has been invested in advancing the evidence-based management agenda, with new training, new skills and competencies, and even whole new programmes of research - such as the NIHR’s Service Delivery and Organisation programme - to support it.
Management is, of course, different from medicine, and management research tends not to provide “gold standards” for practice in the way that randomised clinical trials do. Yet even if it does not often provide simple solutions to management problems, there is surely much to be learnt from good-quality research on policy and management.
Research evidence may not provide definitive answers, but it can at least give an indication of which options are more likely to work. Good research on management, then, can only be a boon to managers.
Yet in practice, it is often not so straightforward. For a start, management research is surprisingly hard to get at. In medicine, evidence-based protocols and procedures abound. In management, much research never finds its way out of esoteric academic journals read only by other academics. Furthermore, a lot of management research seems rich in specialised language and theoretical ideas, but scant in practical lessons.
So why is it that management research is often so inconsequential for practising managers? A recent study of the views and behaviour of research commissioners and management academics in which I was involved sheds some light on this question. We found a fundamental mismatch between what commissioners in government and the NHS want to get out of the research they fund, and the kind of research that academics want to do.
Commissioners told us how hard it was to get the research products they were paying for, and make academics responsive to the customer’s need. A common experience for research commissioners was specifying a contract, putting it to tender, hiring an academic team to do the research, and then getting a report that barely met the original brief, provided few practical answers, and was written in inaccessible, academic prose. There was a sense of frustration at how difficult it was to get academic researchers to respond to the needs of the people who were, after all, paying them for a service.
Why, then, is “getting universities to work with us in customer-supplier relationships” (as one commissioner put it) so challenging? Part of the answer was to be found in what academics said. They told us tales of “trying to do two things at the same time,” writing for research commissioners but also putting together academic papers for those obscure journals read only by academics.
And here lies the crux of the issue. It may be commissioners that are paying for the research to be done, but for academics, those commissioners aren’t the sole - or even the main - audience. Academic performance management, career advancement and esteem all depend on output in those obscure journals. They value theoretical advances rather than practical lessons, methodological detail rather than clear communication, in-depth discussions rather than concise summaries for busy managers. And it is inevitably these channels that academics are driven to prioritise as they think about keeping their careers on track in a competitive university system.
In medicine - where the academics and the practitioners are often the same people, and where the academic discipline has a clear focus on applied research that answers practical questions - this isn’t so much of a problem. In management - where academics with any prior management experience are in the minority, and where theoretical, not practical, lessons are valued - it creates a large chasm.
The key challenge with evidence-based management, then, is not with the motivation or ability of managers to use research in the decisions they make. Nor is it simply a matter of communicating research findings better, though that is important. Rather, it is a much more fundamental, upstream problem in the divergent incentive structures for academic research and management practice.
There are important lessons to be learnt by commissioners around how to specify and manage research contracts, and more is now being done to promote dialogue between research and management - for example, the SDO’s Management Fellowships and the ESRC’s Knowledge Exchange Opportunities scheme.
But as long as academics are accountable to two masters with very different notions of research quality and relevance, evidence-based management will remain, for the most part, an unachievable quest.