It's Time for Evidence-Based Management

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Until a surprisingly few years ago, the practice of medicine was based on long-standing traditions and not on any real scientific principles.  In fact, it was not until 1993 that genuine science began to guide the way medical care was applied.  That fact may seem astonishing to people who tend to equate science and medicine. 

But science involves making an observation of something in nature, proposing a hypothesis about what is observed, and then devising an experiment to prove or disprove one's hypothesis.  That experiment must then be replicated by other scientists to prove that the results are valid.  The experimental results are known as evidence.  For example, everyone who drops something is accumulating more evidence for Isaac Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation.  It works the same way in every laboratory. 

The gold standard for testing theories about medical care is known as the randomized controlled trial, in which a treatment is given to a group of patients, while a control group does not get the treatment or receives a placebo.  The two groups are then compared to see if the treatment actually works.  This approach yields actual experimental evidence concerning whether or not a therapy is effective and whether it should be used or abandoned.

Tests of that sort were not widely applied to treating patients until the 1990s, when the so-called Cochrane Collaboration was begun; including 15,000 volunteers from 90 countries who systematically review published medical literature to sort out which medical procedures are based on real evidence and which are simply folklore. 

In the wake of that development, two Stanford professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, spearheaded a movement to apply similar standards to business management.  In a seminal article, titled "Evidence-Based Management," published in the Harvard Business Review,1Pfeffer and Sutton proclaimed that managers rely on "obsolete knowledge gained in school, long-standing but never proven traditions, patterns gleaned from experience, the methods they believe in and are most skilled in applying, and information from hordes of vendors with products and services to sell."

Their article, which boldly called managers "ignorant," sent shock waves through the business community.  Yet, as we'll explain, now is clearly the time to embrace evidence-based management because making the right decisions has never been more important and technology has never made doing so more feasible. 

As outlined by Pfeffer and Sutton in their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense,

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