There are six compelling reasons for why the learning and development community needs to shift collectively to an evidence-based practice paradigm. These reasons are readily forthcoming using the mnemonic ABCDE. Each letter denotes a major breakthrough in (or break from) how we currently think.
Actuarial science is one that collects all sorts of data about observed outcomes of phenomena, usually from raw data, and then calculates low, medium, and high correlations on the probability of those outcomes occurring.
Actuarial science takes this very powerful predictive knowledge and uses it to create some advantageous solutions. Since predictive knowledge tells us what we can expect, we're in a far better position to make informed decisions about how best to formulate these solutions. Here are a few of the many practical and business examples that rely on actuarial science.
Regardless of whether the focus is on raw or experimental data, actuarial science follows the evidence. In this new millennium, research in the form of individual case studies being generalized into global performance improvement solutions is tantamount to deadheading into a curriculum's instructional design based solely on some e-learning tool's capabilities.
Without actuarial science's data, we can't predict who, what, where, when, and how a desired phenomenon occurs, much less whether we've captured the right combination of means at our disposal to make that happen with any degree of certainty.
The more accurate our predictive focus is about a phenomenon's occurrence (or nonoccurrence - its relative importance deciding directionality)
- the more powerful our ability to manipulate (lessen, modify, stop, or maximize) that phenomenon's positive or negative effects or consequences
- the more manipulative control we have over the phenomenon, and the closer we are to achieving a direct cause-effect relationship with it; or at the very least, having a more predictable influential effect on it.
So, actuarial science becomes the undisputed tie-breaker as to who gains control over some phenomenon. The obvious business implications alone hint at how powerfully cogent this adopted way of thinking is for dealing with a multitude of costly, perilous business problems of vexing magnitude in our highly competitive world.
For many professions, there exist isolated "islands" ("orphans" is another good word) of research on effectiveness. For various reasons, members of a profession may collectively fail to see how some or all of these "what-works" islands meaningfully connect; such that when they are rearranged and combined, their effectiveness transforms into something exponentially more powerful, robust, and symmetrically and wholly more coherent.
To use a different analogy, as connections between these "research crumbs of effectiveness" are discovered, the first trail blazed begins to take shape. But at least it's a start. The hope is that some very forward-looking professionals will remap their trails' connecting breadcrumbs toward achieving maximum advantage - called metacognition. Forgive the mixing of metaphors, but this is where "B" gets a second wind for also denoting bodybuilding.
At some evolutionary point during all that connecting of dots on what works, a handful of professionals and researchers are going to sense some larger picture that pertains to how all these how-to phenomena fit together more intelligently and robustly. They will learn about how all their what-works evidence maps out hierarchically as a total solution for guiding their discipline's practice - a body of evidence on what works.
Consequently, the what-works breadcrumb trail will get systematically rerouted because of this body of research evidence. The evolutionary thinking doesn't stop there. Next are some high-level extrapolations of similar what-works clusters into powerful practice-guiding principles that can be adopted by a community of practice's respective practitioners.
Each guiding principle's strategic positioning within that big-picture hierarchy either strengthens or reinforces the next evidence-based principle in the chain. Dynamically, the hierarchy, or more accurately, its internals, is periodically upgraded according to the most current and credible research findings on what works.
Current and credible
Knowledge doesn't stand still. It is only our grasp of it that might be static. Witness the information implosion going on constantly in our industries and harried jobs. We need to stay current on what's out there. Knowledge continues to expand and alter as we - researchers and practitioners alike - make new discoveries, test what we think we know, and learn more about the situational contexts in which current knowledge is applied.
The credible component of this inseparable pair refers to who's doing the reporting on some piece of science-based know-how; how aptly it was identified and rigorously tested; and whether it has ever been successfully replicated.
For some disciplines, the urgency of keeping abreast of what works is more blatant, even compulsory. But for others, responsibility for staying current is up to individual members of a profession. There are some easily imaginable consequences of not making the "C" shift to this next paradigm:
- A training curriculum lacks one or more critical knowledge objects or skills, known only to current research, which would otherwise have greatly increased learner mastery.
- A consulting firm designs a client's solution based on last year's know-how; half of the proposed solution is unwittingly obsolete before it's even out of the gate.
- Training firms A and B both effectively market their management training workshops. Firm A's training reflects plain assertions and theory about what constitutes effective management. Firm B embeds in its curriculum both content and compatible learning interactions based on what the research says works and doesn't work, including post-training developmental strategies using coaching and evaluation to ensure learning and behavior transfer. Firm B's word of mouth and free publicity (numerous write-ups) earn it an increasingly higher volume of annually scheduled workshops.
- Anyone intimately familiar with world-class manufacturing's awe-inspiring principles can attest to the present-day realities of numerous discipline-specific myths and "common sense" tactics still governing how work gets done and what constitutes best practice. But that is only until the next "Copernicus-minded" practitioner comes along and disproves everyone else's world view about how something works. A good reading example is Pascale and Sternin's article praising corporate America's "positive deviants" ("Your Company's Secret Change Agents," Harvard Business Review, May 2005).
- Science is the backbone of every technology. Old technology that's infrequently used today is essentially technology that doesn't continuously learn from its scientific mentor. Its users know or suspect that new knowledge from science currently and credibly exists but that it isn't making the necessary transition over the research-to-practice gap.
Association publications certainly do their part to keep us informed. Depending on the integrity of a publication of choice, we may still be in the dark as to a well-read article's purported currency and credibility.
And those who fail to keep up put themselves at greater risk of becoming outdated, underskilled, and habitually dependent on unsubstantiated evidence about what they market and deliver to their clients and corporate peers. Every discipline needs a highly recognized centralized entity of impeccable reputation to keep it current and credible, which is what the next reason, diffusion, is all about.
Diffusion of research evidence and innovation
The catalysts that they are, periodicals are nonetheless insufficient agents of change for propelling an entire profession toward adopting research as an industrywide practice. Indeed, a central authority needs to be in place - one dedicated to driving ongoing research at a highly charged momentum that is able to nudge us at critical mass.
We cannot realistically expect any sustained effort if it randomly trickles forth from only a few self-delegating individuals and organizations. Impetus for the learning and development community to execute a paradigm shift centered on effectiveness - the "E" shift in the evidence-based practice paradigm - requires something in the form of a National Institute for Workplace Learning & Effectiveness (to be proposed in an upcoming commentary being published by the Performance Improvement Journal, 2009).
Know that diffusion is a two-way street:
- new effectiveness findings from researchers get disseminated to the work world;
- and practitioners conduct what's known as practice-based research, submitting preliminary actuarial data to a central research agency, university, or similar affiliate, for rigorous experimental replications.
In business environments, effectiveness is hardly a word foreign to anyone. As intended, it must now translate into the same research-bred meaning for learning and development and never again stray too far from everyday collective workplace consciousness. That's what is meant by being effectiveness-centric.
The effectiveness-centric diagram helps drive home two points about the "E" shift:
- that we dogmatically pose questions, layer by layer, about what we mean by "effectiveness";
- and we unfailingly turn to sound research to answer those questions.
Finally, as an icon to help stay effectiveness-centric, "ResearchE" is the new recommended common usage of the term for everyday discussion. It signifies our newfound dependence on the design of experimental and descriptive studies and on the effectiveness findings according to a gradient of research rigor. Such a gradient will inform us of a study's level of research rigor - in other words, its quality, credibility, and reproducibility.
The practitioner's paradox
In five mnemonic letters, ABCDE depicts six distinctly individual but related mindshifts for achieving learning and development's next paradigmatic breakthrough. But here's the paradox: Presently, we're too anxious to proclaim "best practice" from studies with too few subjects and from isolated case studies. We are too quick to assert generalizability when replications testing should be trumping the next business-prone kneejerk impulse to "skip ahead."
From a best-practices standpoint, we sort of know what practice-based research is already, but we need to be more hard-data driven and more objective about what we purport and disseminate. Claims of demonstrated effectiveness obtained from ResearchE must come directly from a new cadre of learning and development professionals added to every corporation's training and development department. These are staff who are ResearchE-proficient and who operate independently of the influences of HR and, more significantly, marketing.
So what are the implications? Well, if we become far more ResearchE-centric, to rely more heavily on research, ResearchE production needs to be stepped up. That is the proverbial rub - getting over that initial phobia hurdle and making ResearchE an integral part of our everyday practice.
No matter what your personal technophobia index might be, if a friend stuck a Blackberry in your hand and showed you how to deftly use it to your advantage, you'd get in line to buy one. Well, I've journeyed around the organizational-change block enough times to recognize that these ABCDE shifts will not happen by osmosis. And they will certainly not occur en masse unless someone or some entity supplies user-friendly tutorials on how to more informatively use current research to our advantage, as well as how-to templates for conducting research, which readily plug 'n' play inside any organization without excessive effort, consumption of resources, and distraction from satisfying customers and profit margins.
Yet, these templates must equally satisfy a ResearchE no-nonsense clause of adhering to standards of rigor. In short, we need the research equivalent of today's Blackberry. In marketing terms, our way out of this practitioner's paradox is to create the ResearchE need by furnishing the friendliest tools and technology that users don't yet know they need, but will cling to once the advantages became concretely and viscerally realized. In other words, through word-of-mouth and the transfer of know-how that is so prevalent in everyday situated learning encounters. t+d