Why Business Leaders Should Care About Research

by Peggy Jackson, Featured Contributor

IN A MASTER”S LEVEL CLASS I taught recently at my alma mater, many of the students were working professionals already making a living in the business world. Others were new college graduates just beginning their career journeys. Both will have an impact in corporate America for many years to come.

One of the assignments I gave was to write a paper reviewing the research literature on an assigned topic in Human Resources. Why? Because I believe in the business world today we Research 2are sorely lacking an understanding of what real research is. So what? you might ask. What difference does it make?  Well, it comes down to this: poor decision making; time, energy and money wasted; squandered profitability.

How many times have you seen companies implement the Next Big Thing so many times it simply becomes the flavor-of-the-month?  And how many times have you seen these initiatives fail to live up to their hype?  How many times have you seen new program after new program heaped on top of each other, but make no positive net impact to the business? Too many times to count, I’ll bet. I’ve seen it too. In my chosen field of HR, it’s rampant. There are far too many HR ‘best practices’ that cost the company far more than they benefit it.  Performance reviews? Exit interviews?  You should see the research on their effectiveness before you spend thousands upon thousands of dollars and hours of your employees’ time on them.

There has been much talk about evidence-based management in recent years, but I still see that leaders are often too quick to jump on bandwagons. Sometimes demanding no proof at all, other times accepting biased, anecdotal evidence as research. I think that is because there are a heck of a lot of people out there who don’t really know what valid research looks like.

Here are a few guidelines I provided my students, which may help you consider whether you are getting real evidence, or just spin.

  • Research is not a poll taken by a commercial enterprise, the numbers simply compiled and then printed without statistical analysis, validation or a thorough explanation of the methodology.
  • Research is not a series of anecdotes simply selected and presented.
  • Research is not published in support of selling a product or service (although critics of some medical research might beg to differ).
  • Research is collected without bias from a statistically significant population, is controlled and rigorously analyzed.
  • Research is analyzed and reported without regard to whether the findings support the initial hypotheses.

Here are some possible indicators that information you find is valid, scholarly research:

  • The description of the journal on the library website or the journal website says it is “peer-reviewed” or “refereed”
  • The journal has a relatively boring name, i.e. “Journal of Organizational…”
  • The article name is rather long, uses big words and may sound very dry
  • The cover is not flashy or glossy – usually no pictures
  • The editorial board or panel which is listed on the journal website is full of PhDs at academic institutions
  • The article itself includes a description of the methodology used and it references a lot of statistics with correlation coefficients

Here are some possible indicators that an article you find is not scholarly, peer-reviewed research:

  • The periodical has the word “magazine” in the title
  • It has pictures on the cover
  • It includes advertisements
  • It is published by an entity which also sells commercial services or products
  • The article is titled “10 Things Every Manager Should Know About…”
  • The description of the journal or website describes it as concise, convenient or for “busy professionals” (Scholarly research is usually none of these.)

This is not to say there aren’t journals or websites which present articles summing up other research, there are. But you need to consider the source very carefully.

Before you make a big investment, add new programs, or disrupt your business, perhaps you should look a little deeper and see what real research is available that may help you make your decision. Why should you care about research? Bottom line: dollars and cents. It can literally make the difference between a big improvement or a big mistake.

But, don’t take my word for it.  Read the valid research on evidence based management – it’s out there!


Peggy Jackson
Peggy Jackson
AS PRINCIPALl of Thrive Development Partners, LLC, Peggy serves as trusted guide to individuals, teams and organizations seeking higher levels of performance. Throughout her 20-year career in human resources and management consulting, she has led with a philosophy based on leveraging strengths, authentic leadership and sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships. On her Career Muse blog and Twitter, she advises individuals in developing their leadership capabilities and enhancing their professional brand in person, on paper and online.

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  1. Thanks, Carol. It is true (and a little scary) that faux research is often well disguised. It’s unfortunate that they would invent “research” in this way. The fact that the real results weren’t so dramatic should probably have been a signal to them that the real answer isn’t so pat and in most cases is the dreaded “it depends.” I agree the best solutions are unique and authentic to the particular organization.

  2. Great article, Peggy, and I agree with you. The proliferation of business books that offer “research” but are written or sponsored by the organization offering the “fix” is frightening. I got caught recently on citing something that even looked like credible research, but after digging deeper, found that it apparently was “research” that was invented by two highly credible business authors to drive home a point. Getting to the actual article showed that the research was similar, but not nearly so dramatic.

    In my mind, this all points to building what you have organically instead of layering on things that seem to work elsewhere.