Last reviewed 5 January 2022

Never have we heard more about decision-making “being guided by the science”. Here, Laura King explores how business leaders can use evidence to make better decisions.

Evidence-based decision-making (EBDM) is not new. For some years it has been adopted by medics, but it is increasingly being used in other professional spheres to help make better decisions by collecting and using the best evidence available. In these areas, EBDM is often referred to as evidence-based management or evidence-based practice.

At the centre of EBDM is the idea that in order to make a good decision it is necessary to blend critical thinking with a systematic and thorough review of available information to arrive at a conclusion. By doing so, a practitioner can avoid pitfalls such as anecdotal experience, personal bias, “best practice” based on a one-size-fits-all approach, or unproven assumptions.

We all use evidence to make decisions — for example we research whether to buy an electric car or look at internal near-miss data to review safety policies. The reason why we use data is clear — it helps us make more informed decisions, improving the chance of a positive result. In the first example, it will mean we are more likely to get a car that suits our needs and, in the second example, it will help us focus efforts on areas of health and safety that need urgent attention.

EBDM provides a structured approach to making decisions that helps identify the problem that needs to be solved, the types of evidence that is available, and how this can be used.

What is evidence-based decision-making?

The Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) defines evidence-based practice as the process of “making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources”.

Some of the key points of this are as follows:

  • “Conscientious” — time and resources are put aside to find the evidence.

  • “Explicit” — being clear about what the evidence is and where it has come from.

  • “Judicious” — taking a critical view of the quality of the evidence to assess how reliable and useful it is.

  • “Multiple sources” — not just taking data from one place.

Using this definition, evidence-based practice follows a clear model.

  1. Asking the right question: ie taking a practical issue and translating it into a tangible question that helps get to the bottom of the problem. For example, an organisation might perceive that a lack of physical activity is impacting on staff wellbeing, and senior management believe that introducing a cycle-to-work scheme will remedy this. First, the assumption around staff wellbeing needs to be explored to find out in what ways employee wellbeing is an issue, for example, asking how employee wellbeing affects the company? Assuming that staff wellbeing does need to be addressed, the next set of questions need to focus on how to improve staff wellbeing more widely, including whether a cycle-to-work scheme will help.

  2. Gathering and appraising data: systematically acquiring data, critically reviewing how useful it is, and then aggregating it. More information is below, but data collection should be as wide and varied as possible. For a cycle-to-work scheme, data might include benchmarking with similar organisations, internal staff surveys and interviews with key personnel, a literature review, and speaking with consultants that specialise in active commuting programmes. It is useful to set out questions that the data needs to answer. For example, what do scientific papers tell us about the impact of cycle-to-work schemes?

  3. Using the data to drive the decision-making process and assessing the success of the decision. The data might show that cycle-to-work schemes can be highly effective — but only if the workplace is close to cycle-friendly routes and if there are suitable facilities for changing. If, based on the evidence, a decision is taken to introduce the scheme, then it is important that data is also collected to review its success.

Where can the evidence come from?

CEBMa sets out four areas for collecting evidence:

  1. Scientific literature. This information should come from academic studies from various scientific disciplines, but could also come from information in professional publications or attending conferences. Health and safety practitioners will also need to understand how any decision fits within the context of current legislation.

  2. Internal company data. This could be from data collected through specific software or key performance indicators. As well as this quantitative data, qualitative data (such as perceptions of company culture) could also be collected.

  3. Practitioner evidence. Information from professionals within the sphere, such as consultants or industry experts. Where specialists are consulted, this information should be treated differently to evidence from internal staff as advice should be based on repeated experience of similar situations.

  4. Stakeholders. Stakeholders are any individuals or organisations that might be affected by a decision. Understanding stakeholder views will help determine how to weight any evidence obtained.

How evidence-based decision-making can improve decisions

In a 2020 paper published in Organizational Dynamics, Denise Rousseau (co-founder of CEBMa), outlined some of the ways EBDM can de-bias decisions within an organisation. Some examples are highlighted below.

By asking questions at the start about what needs to be addressed, solutions will be problem-driven, rather than idea-driven. In the cycle-to-work example, taking time at the beginning to ask diagnostic questions around employee wellbeing will help determine how best to tackle the issue — perhaps encouraging cycling is not the ideal solution at all.

Using evidence to maintain a broad scope and allow multiple options to be entertained will help mean that biases resulting from intuition or pet projects can be reduced. For example, in the cycle-to-work project, perhaps other options could also be introduced with more effect, such as a “bike doctor” to help people service bikes that they already own.

Expanding sources of evidence away from that which is readily available allows decisions to move away from solutions that are based on what is traditionally done, or what the most senior person thinks should be done. However, it is imperative that evidence is critically reviewed — not all scientific information will be relevant, and not all decisions made by a single influencer will be incorrect.

First steps along the way

Although embedding EBDM cannot be achieved overnight, fostering an evidence-based culture can begin with a few simple steps.

  • Require evidence to support decisions.

  • Look at problems from first principles and question underlying assumptions.

  • Run internal trials and pilot programs to test assumptions and collect evidence on what might work.

  • Expand the number of data sources used to make decisions and be clear-minded about the quality of that data.

  • Ask what new skills or knowledge are needed, for instance, skills to critically assess scientific papers.

  • Consider next time — is it possible to start collecting data now that might make decisions more evidence-based in the future?

Summary

Throughout the pandemic, a lot has been discussed about using science and evidence to make decisions. Such evidence-based decision-making can also help reduce bias to deliver outcomes that have a higher chance of success. This type of decision-making process follows some clear steps:

  1. Ask questions to understand the problem and to outline what needs to be addressed.

  2. Collect evidence from as many sources as possible, while critically considering the quality of the information.

  3. Use the evidence to review different solutions to the problem and make an informed decision.