Book Review and Commentary on Evidence-Based Management

By Harney, Brian | Irish Journal of Management, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Book Review and Commentary on Evidence-Based Management


Harney, Brian, Irish Journal of Management


Book Review and Commentary on Evidence-Based Management Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management By Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

If doctors practiced medicine the way many companies practice management, there would be far more sick and dead patients, and many more doctors would be in jail.

Pfeffer and Sutton (2006: 5)

The above quote helps capture the central thesis underpinning Pfeffer and Sutton's most recent contribution to the stockpile of practitioner-focused texts. Pfeffer and Sutton argue that too often managerial decisions are determined by hope and fear, imitation, deeply held ideologies and path dependencies. Instead, drawing on the concept of evidence-based management, Pfeffer and Sutton advocate that leaders should 'face hard facts and act on the best scientific evidence' (p. 237), thereby promoting healthy scepticism about what is currently being flaunted as 'best managerial practice'. Given its roots in clinical medicine, utilising the vehicle of evidence-based management is perhaps particularly appropriate to cure the 'ills' of current managerial practice. Moreover, the ideas of evidence-based management have already penetrated into education and policy-making (e.g. Campbell, 2002). There has been a clarion call for a similar intervention in management; Cummings has recently stressed the imperative of 'scientific knowledge as the basis for managerial policy and decision making' (2007: 356). This logic suggests that practitioners might do well to heed the advice of Sherlock Holmes, who highlighted the importance of using hard data to inform theories; the alternative being that 'insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts' (Conan Doyle, 1891: 163). So how well does Pfeffer and Sutton's contribution advance the argument for evidence-based management?

The book is neatly structured in three parts. The first part, 'setting the stage', contains two chapters: the first chapter sets the rationale for why organisations need evidence-based management and the second chapter indicates how to practice it. In building the rationale, Pfeffer and Sutton highlight the existing flaws in managerial decision-making. Three flaws in particular stand out for criticism: simply benchmarking what others have done, assuming the future will be like the past and following 'deeply held yet unexamined ideologies' (p. 10). While well argued, there is nothing novel here; however, Pfeffer and Sutton provide a way of moving beyond these issues by introducing the mindset of evidence-based management. This involves the dual criteria of 'putting aside belief and conventional wisdom' and 'committing to gather facts and information to make more informed decisions' (p. 14). It follows that a number of questions should be asked before introducing a new business idea: e.g. its underlying assumptions, whether these assumptions intuitively make sense and/or can be tested, and whether alternative solutions exist (p. 22).

The second chapter begins with Pfeffer's law: 'Instead of being interested in what is new, we ought to be interested in what is true'. While perhaps a little bit corny, the argument of the chapter serves to exemplify this 'law' in action. Here it becomes apparent that this is not simply another addition to the jungle of prescriptive texts. For example, the table on p. 34 humorously compares the competing advice evident in the titles of leading business books (e.g. Charisma vs Leading Quietly, Built to Last vs Corporate Failure by Design) and sets the tone that at least this contribution is going to be critically engaging. The second half of this chapter lives up to this promise by presenting 'six standards for generating, evaluating, selling and applying business knowledge' (p. 41). Among these include 'treating old ideas like old ideas', 'being suspicious of breakthroughs', 'emphasising virtues and drawbacks of research and proposed practices' and 'taking a neutral and dispassionate approach to ideologies and theories'. …

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