Transcript: Conversation with Prof. Rob Briner

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the HR Uprising Podcast, which is aimed at forward thinking HR, O.D. and Learning & Development professionals.

My name is Lucinda Carney. I’m the Podcast Host. You can hear there’s some interesting sound all around. I’m not sure if that’s a child or a swan in the background.

Lucinda Carney:     So, today we’ve got a very exciting guest from my point of view personally, and a really lovely location. So, we’re by Tower Bridge. So, there may be some background ambience and sounds all around, which are great. But the person I’ve got with me today, and I’m delighted, really. This is my first conversation with. So, I’m very grateful to Professor Rob Briner. So, it’s b_ɹ_ˈaɪ_n_ər as opposed to bɹˈa͡ɪnər, that I’ve been pronouncing incorrectly for many years.

                               So, Professor Briner is the Professor of Organisational Psychology at Queen Mary University of London. He’s also Scientific Director, the Centre for Evidence-Based Managements. He’s been in HR Magazine Most Influential Thinkers a number of times. You were rated No. 1 in 2016. In our sort of pre-chat, I was saying that, well, a number of years ago, you were actually my professor when I did my Masters, although we never met, because I did it all through correspondence. So, it’s actually great to personally meet him, and be able to toss some of the questions that I’ve always wondered about. But I feel… Can I call you Rob, I supposed?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Of course, of course. That’s my name.

Lucinda Carney:     So, I feel that you’re very visible, and therefore, a really great person to have on this show as someone who can help us with this crossover between academia and HR. As you know, I said the purpose of this Podcast for me is about, first, to improve our credibility, let’s as HR professionals. It’s about being more evidence-based and also more strategic. So, I thought who better to talk to than this.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Okay, thanks very much for having me on.

Lucinda Carney:     So, appreciate your time. So, in terms of evidence-based HR, would you like to explain what it is for the benefit of the podcast?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Sure. I mean the short version, is, it’s just about making more informed decisions, decisions both about what organisational problems and opportunities might be, and also better decisions or more informed decisions about what likely solutions or interventions should be. So, that’s kind of the simple straightforward explanation, better informed decision. Nobody disagrees with that. Motherhood and apple pie, is, great.

                               More technically or in a bit more detail I guess, what it means, is, using multiple sources of evidence. So, for us in HR,

  • It’s typically our own experiences as practitioners.
  • It’s stakeholders’ perspectives, so employees, senior managers, maybe customers.
  • It is organisational data from inside the organisation, and fourth, it’s scientific evidence.
  • It’s about bringing those 4 sources of evidence together. So, to both understand problems, opportunities and also to make decisions about likely interventions.

Lucinda Carney:     So, I get the fact that we have those different sources of evidence. I think back to my time as a practitioner. I hope that the airplane going overhead isn’t too distracting for the audience. I suppose, if I’m really honest, I’d probably use stakeholder influence, and maybe my own professional expertise. I think maybe, a bit of organisation theories, a bit of reference to that. But scientific literature I think, is certainly other than that I remembered from my qualifications, and maybe, if you’ve done the CIPD course and things you’ve been taught, I think it’s quite hard to get hold of that.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes, it is. It is.

Lucinda Carney:     So, how do you do more of that?

Prof. Rob Briner:    It is hard to get a hold of it. It’s also I think about, what are the differences between the way we normally seem to use evidence and evidence-based practice. Everybody uses evidence. As you said, everybody does a different kind. There may be some sources that they don’t use so much, partly it’s hard to access. I would also say that often organisational data is pretty hard to access.

  • So, one difference is multiple sources.
    • Another difference is taking a structured approach.

                               So, you actually do a step by step by step to, for example, asking questions, acquiring the evidence, critical appraisings, qualitative assumptions. You go through a series of steps.

                               I think the other difference, is, it’s about the attitude or approach you take. So, typically, we describe it as conscientious, explicit and judicious. Conscientious means you try. Explicit means you write it down and code it. Judicious means you judge quality.

                               So, I think in your example of your experience, I’m sure that’s right. It’s harder to get hold of scientific evidence. But I’d also suggest that probably like most people, most of us aren’t that conscientious, explicit, judicious so we don’t follow a specific process. We gather together bits of evidence. It may be good. It may be bad. It may be relevant. We kind of put it into a pot, and then try and make a decision.

                               So, you’re right. There’s an issue around getting a hold of it, but I think it’s not just about academic evidence. I think it’s about other kinds of evidence. I think there are also issues around understanding, and critically appraising, and judging its quality or trustworthiness.

Lucinda Carney:     So, it’s not being objective. So, as opposed to almost going, actually this is a solution I want to do, I’m going to try and find the evidence to back up that decision I’ve already made. Taking a step back, and having an objective, evaluative process of going through a number of stages of what is the best evidence out there. For example, if…

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, from all those sources, indeed. All those sources, yeah.

Lucinda Carney:     So, let’s take a real example. So, a typical scenario. I’m in an organisation and the MD or Sales Director said to me, I need a development program. Our guys haven’t got the right skills. So, what would be an evidence-based approach for me doing that? I suppose the only thing to do, is, what he says what he wants.

Prof. Rob Briner:    So, the evidence-based approach, first, is, to say what’s the problem. Just because someone thinks people don’t have the right skills, doesn’t mean they do or they don’t.

                               So, you always take a step back and say, what’s the problem or opportunity here?

                               It’s only, if you did a proper assessment I guess of sales people’s skills, and indeed whether they are somehow not good enough, and indeed whether they are not being good enough for leading, and then explanation for their poor, whatever that means, sales performance. If you’re pretty confident that was the case, again, using evidence from those multiple sources. You then go on to say, okay, so it appears to be the case that lack of skills or limited skills, is, a cause of this serious organisational problem.

                               Therefore, what is the most likely intervention?

                               Now, the CEO, whoever said to you, is, training. But maybe that’s not the best intervention. Maybe, it’s selection. Maybe, it’s something else. Maybe, it’s giving people more resources they need, to use the skills they already have, or other ways of enhancing skills, that don’t necessarily involve development.

                               So, crucially within an evidence-based practice, the key thing to start with, is not, a sort of solution, or let’s do something about this. It starts off with this, what is the actual problem? I think, if someone says to me, what’s the one thing you could do in HR, or management, or any discipline to be more evidence based? I think the first main tip would be focus on what the problem is, because we’re very keen in moving into solution mode, implement mode, roll things out mode.

                               Usually, I think that’s the main stumbling block, is that, we roll things out. We do stuff. People have no problem doing stuff, being very active, spending money, rolling out programmes and so forth. But what they are not so good at, what we seem to have really difficulty, is, focusing on what the issue is. So, that will be my starting point. In the example you gave us, going back and say, let’s find out what the problem is first.

Lucinda Carney:     So, I can think of a couple of examples there, which I’ll reflect back and see whether they would be good examples. So, certainly, as I was heading in Learning & Development, I do remember without a shadow of a doubt in 80 percent of cases, where someone comes and says, I need this training course. You go, okay, so, what is it that you actually want? What’s your actual problem? What is it? And you would find out that, that they actually didn’t need that training course at all. So, that would be an example of actually diagnosing what the problem was first.

                               In an example with the sales one. I remember, we did have a situation with a sales programme. Actually, there was some psychometrics out there, which had done some profiling about different roles. So, there was an evidence there, of whether there was a gap against the profile. Now, of course you have said, what’s the evidence for that profile being legitimate? It came from quite a decent psychology house, actually.

                               But yes, that would be an example of evidence, and the fact that these people went through psychometric profile, and there was actually a gap against that desired profile, let’s say a solutions salesperson. So, there appeared to be a gap, if that was the desired role.

                               Now, I guess one of the conclusions I’m also thinking, is, it’s not just one solution. There wasn’t really one solution, is that, when you were talking about people and interventions, that might just help a bit. But actually, that person might need to know to do things differently, or you probably need multiple solutions.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Potentially do. Also, the key thing, is, how actionable or changeable these things are. So, for example, you might identify, say, personality or some job attitude, or whatever it is as being quite relevant to causing or affecting that, can be wrong. But if it’s effective, and not changeable, in terms of concept of bang for your buck, then don’t go crazy trying to change that one thing, because it’s actually really hard to change. So, it’s probably about multiple solutions potentially, and also what is actually changeable. Lots of things are quite hard to change. So, why focus on things that’s hard to change.

Lucinda Carney:     So, do you subscribe to the whole thing about strengths versus, or looking at it in terms of looking at people? So, I’m going off from one slightly, in terms of should you be focusing on being better at things you do well as opposed to trying to close gaps? What’s your…?

Prof. Rob Briner:    I don’t know.

Lucinda Carney:     I actually don’t know the evidence on that one.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Me neither.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay, well, I’ll have to go and look that one up. I’ll find someone else on that one. So, on terms of… we’ve talked about, if we were going to look at things, we could try and access in scientific literature, and actually maybe, just try a bit harder. But it’s really also about being sequential and measured in our approach.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, and it’s also crucial about looking at other sources as well, because scientific evidence in itself is meaningless like any sources.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, well, I supposed what it mean, is… But also, it may not be scientific evidence for the thing that you’re trying to deliver. Because actually, the academic studies don’t necessarily correlate with what we’re trying to do in business.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Absolutely, and that’s fine. That’s fine. That’s true, that any of those 4 sources of evidence, you may lack professional expertise. You may have very little organisation data. You may not have talked to stakeholders. So, not having evidence is not in itself a barrier to evidence-based practice. I know it sounds a bit contradictory, it’s not. It’s about the process.

Lucinda Carney:     It’s the fact that you actually…

Prof. Rob Briner:    Tried.

Lucinda Carney:     Thought about it, tried and taking a step back, being objective. Okay, well, that means, that makes it found a bit more reasonable and achievable potentially.

                               Okay. So, as I’ve got the luxury of having a professor sitting with me, and I know in terms of your role with CEBMa. I’m a member of that, although I have to say, again, searching through some of the literature, sometimes, it’s still quite challenging to get to what you’re trying to find. But I mean what is your recommendation, if I’m a HR professional or an L&D O.D. and I want to be more scientific in my approach? How can I do that?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Well, I think also, first of all, look for what the problem is first. Again, don’t go look for scientific evidence, and then decide your problem is one that can be fixed by this bit of evidence. Start with it, the problem itself.

                               In terms of generally accessing scientific evidence, the Centre for Evidence-based Management, if you are a member, enables you to have access to quite a few databases, which is useful. Increasingly, with the open access movement in terms of publishing, as a general member of the public, it is still hard, but it’s easier to get access to scientific articles.

                               Same if you’re a member of some professional bodies, such as CIPD or the British Psychologist Society, there’s access there. There are also things like research gates. There’s a whole kind of platter now of different ways. They are often not very always as convenient of getting hold of that stuff.

                               So, I think getting hold of it, is, it’s sort of easier. I think what’s more difficult is two things. One, is, judging its quality. That is quite hard to do.

Lucinda Carney:     So, just because it’s academic doesn’t mean it’s good.

Prof. Rob Briner:    No, not at all. No, absolutely not. So, there’s some very poor qualities research published.

Lucinda Carney:     Especially, I think about the MMR sites, the issues they can have separate out there.

Prof. Rob Briner:    For example, yeah. So, there’s very poor-quality research published, and very high quality journals. It’s very hard to judge. It’s very hard even for the scientists to judge, never mind someone who isn’t trained in science. So, judging the quality is difficult.

                               I think the other thing, which is, I think quite an Achilles’ heel sometimes for people who want to use scientific evidence, is, we were not on whole interested in the single scientific studies. We read a couple of scientific studies. What’s important, and that’s true for any of those areas of evidence, is, the body of evidence. So, talking to one person as a stakeholder is great, but it is only one person. Yeah, looking at some more organisational data is great, but it’s only maybe, one year. So, it’s all right, but it’s not really giving you the picture.

                               The same is true with scientific evidence. You need to read reports together, everything that is relevant. That is, I would say not impossible. It’s very difficult for someone working on their own to do that, to find other stuff, pull it together and say, overall this is the evidence-based for this particular propositional problem, or hypothesis, or whatever it happens to be. So, I think that’s the real challenges.

                               While in other fields such as medicine, for example policing, there are national, international bodies set up to actually summarise that research into something called, systematic review. Or, something like a meta-analysis, if the question lends itself to meta-analysis.

                               So, I think again on certain website, you see some of the guidelines, include how to find things like, meta-analysis and systematic reviews, because they are not single studies. They are trying to pull together lots and lots of studies, which is the key thing. So, that’s a tricky thing, and I think they all as it were partly barriers of access, but then barriers of aggregation and barriers of comprehension and judgement there as well, as well as just access.

Lucinda Carney:     So, from the time of poor HR professional or L&D professional look for systematic reviews or meta-analysis.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Systematic reviews, I mean, they can even just go onto Google Scholar.

Lucinda Carney:     Read the abstract.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Type in the theme they are interested in. Type in systematic reviews and meta-analysis. That will help. The problem we have in areas of management and HR, is, there just aren’t very many systematic reviews yet. It’s changing a bit, but there just aren’t very many around. The problem with the meta-analysis, is, you get the garbage in, garbage out. The problem with it. It’s true with systematic reviews as well to some extent.

                               But broadly speaking, meta-analysis of course, can only pull together studies that address the same question in more or less the same way. So, it’s true you get a lot of data. But whether it’s any good, whether it’s really telling you much scientifically, is, another issue. So, searching for systematic reviews and meta-analysis is probably a better place to start where it is than just searching for single studies.

Lucinda Carney:     Sorry, the difference between a meta-analysis and a systematic review?

Prof. Rob Briner: So, meta-analysis is quantitative for a start, and it’s pulling together statistically lots of results from similar studies. For example, job satisfaction, job performance. They measure those things in very similar ways.

                               A systematic review can address a much wider range of questions, including qualitative, more questions. It doesn’t necessarily do a meta-analysis statistical summary. It pulls together to find perhaps, some quite different kinds of studies.

                               And often, systematic reviews don’t depend on having a big body of evidence as to begin with. So, you can do a systematic review, and actually find there’s only 3 propagations on it, 3 scientific. So, that’s fine.

                               But systematic reviews tell you what we know and don’t know about something. Meta-analysis is only impossible, and you’ve already got quite a big quantity of data.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay, it tells you what is there. Also, you said the open… what’s changed?

Prof. Rob Briner:    The open access movement. So, essentially and this is a very, very crude way of putting it. Essentially, most academics, most scientists work in universities. They are paid already in their jobs by student fees, taxes, et cetera, depending on where you work, research grants from governments. They write their research. They publish it. And then paradoxically perhaps, the publishers who get hold of it then charge the Universities, and members of the public, and other people to actually read it.

                               So, there’s been an increasing movement that say, well, this doesn’t make sense. It actually doesn’t seem ethically right. Also, yeah, I mean it’s just sort of a bit of nuts. So, there’s been more of a move to support saying, recognising the publishers obviously, add some value to that, is, why should they be able to lock this stuff up behind the pay wall?

                               So, there’s been more and more of a move to sort of try and get away from that, make more to open access. Probably in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, it’ll probably much of it will be completely free and open.

Lucinda Carney:     So, for you, if you publish something, your name is on it. Do you have the freedom to put it out there, or does it mean the publisher stop you?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Okay. That’s a great question with an extremely long answer. It depends on lots and lots and lots of stuff. Broadly speaking, yes, but it’ll have to be the crude version of the article, before it was fine and accepted for publication.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay, because they own that copyright or something.

Prof. Rob Briner:    There are all kind of different types and levels of kind of access, open access.

Lucinda Carney:     Right, because it is an interesting one. We were essentially talking offline a bit, weren’t we, about actually how academia is academia, and then HR is over here. Actually, the more, if they could merge better, you would think it would be better. This would be one of the obstacles.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah. To me, that’s about merging, I think, academia and practice. To me, it’s more about trying to, if you encourage practitioners to be evidence-based. So, of course, researchers are practitioners too, practitioners of science. Are they evidence-based? Not particularly.

                               So, to me, the key thing, is to the extent to which, to believe in evidence-based practice, or not rather than whether you’re a researcher, or academic, or practitioner in an organisation. That’s the key distinction, I think. So, merging particularly obviously, academic incentivise to do certain sorts of things. Practitioners incentivise to do other kinds of things, they’re often quite different.

                               But to me, it’s not about merging these groups of people. It’s about saying, how can people make better informed decisions? Not about the people, but about the institutions, I would say.

Lucinda Carney:     I always think therefore the institutions should be asking for it to be researched. I’m thinking, yeah, pharmaceutical industry, they’ve got people, they’ve got a vested interest, and they will get research done on topics they want to.

                               But I’m just thinking, pushing it the other way, as a practitioner and I’ll raise that pragmatic word, because I do remember using that on social media. I think you took issue with it. And I was like, if you’re in an organisation, and your CEO is saying, I want a solution. And I went, well, it’s got to be evidence-based. And it’s going to take 3 months to gather the evidence. Or, there’s no evidence, because the things that people in academia have studied are not actually relevant to the problems in business.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Sure, yes.

Lucinda Carney:     I mean that would be much on how could academia being more relevant to business, if that’s a fair challenge?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes, it is. I don’t necessarily think, it’s academia’s job to be relevant to business. In the same way I don’t think, it’s practitioner’s job to be relevant to academia. And they are just different systems.

Lucinda Carney:     But being evidence-based makes sense, because you’re a practitioner to deliver value to the business. So, being evidence-based assuming there is evidence for being evidence-based, which is, then you’re going to deliver more value to the business.

                               But then surely, I don’t really understand then, if you’re in academic, why would you choose to study something, then if it’s not going to be relevant, if it’s, you know, a business topic, if you’re outside?

Prof. Rob Briner:    I think there are certain things that determine scientific relevance, and certain things that determine practical relevance. So, you could be, for example, doing some incredibly scientific relevance to sound personality and behaviour, that in the end has no application of work. It doesn’t mean it isn’t important, it isn’t scientifically interesting, it isn’t scientifically valid, but it just may happen on the application.

                               Similarly, yeah, the problems business faces just may not be that important scientifically, in another sense. So, I think, if anybody wants very kind of practice relevant research, I think that’s a different kind of research from purely scientific research. So, it’s a bit like applied research.

                               So, another way of putting this, I suppose, is that, if you want a piece of research that will directly help you with a business problem, it may be exactly the kind of research that will never get published in scientific journals. Is it practically useful? Is it still science? Absolutely. Because time has gone on, academics across all fields are under pressure to publish certain kinds of articles.

                               So, for example, if the research in HR or organisational psychological did a piece of research that was practically, incredibly useful, had a huge impact, it may well never get published in the journal, because it’s not novel. It doesn’t have theory. It doesn’t use cutting-edge methods. It would be seen as, oh well, you know, this is just…

Lucinda Carney:     It’s not scientifically interesting enough.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, or it’s just too descriptive. It doesn’t mean it isn’t practically useful. So, I think there’s a kind of, not always, but there can be a kind of contradiction, between what is useful in terms of some forms of practice, and what is interesting and important in terms of science. That’s okay, I think. That’s fine.

                               But it’s not a sense of bridging a gap as how people often put it. I think it’s more a sense of always focusing what is the problem, what is the question you’re trying to address, and looking around to try and find evidence, whatever kind of evidence is to help them make a more informed decision.

                               I think how you get more, if you like, applied science has done, the way I think Universities are going, is, it’s not going to happen there. So, you might need intermediary organisation. You might need to train people in organisation, particularly big ones, to do more themselves. You might need more consultancies, who are good at doing applied research, that sorts of things that would actually help.

Lucinda Carney:     What about like organisations funding like MBA students or MSc students, giving them a sort of thesis, rather than they don’t have to do big researches? Whereas they can give them…

Prof. Rob Briner:    That’s certainly possible. Again, you have this contradiction that sometimes a piece for it doesn’t mean you can’t do both, of course. There’s often more work for the students, that the kind of research that will be accepted for a Masters dissertation, certainly a Doctoral thesis might not be practically that useful to the organisation. So, people end up doing parallel pieces of research. Yes, it is doable, but it can be a bit more work. Yeah.

Lucinda Carney:     It’s a bit of a dichotomy.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay. All right. So, on that then, this is a kind of link in my head, because I know that… I’m going to go more into sort of HR terms, and jargons, and fads, and things that I think you’re great at calling out. I thought, I’m going to kickstart with engagements, because I know you’ve got a view on that.

                               I’ll just say, I remember, the company that I worked for, that Gallup was out there with lots of evidence. Very compelling evidence such to the extent that, and I’m saying evidence with inverted commas. I don’t know, whether you would agree with it, it’s that kind of evidence for being a direct line between employee engagement and productivity, profitability, et cetera.

                               Now, I feel that you have some alternative views to engagement that isn’t the whole story. I mean, it sold a lot of engagement surveys for Gallup here. It’s a great way forward, isn’t it? I suppose that’s where we have to be wary about evidence, and such that is sponsored by someone proprietary. What’s your take on engagement?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes. Engagement is just an example. I guess there are hundreds of examples. It’s just one. I think firstly, it has to be very clear about what the claim is. So, what is the claim being made? So, often in a case of engagement, not just Gallup, more broadly, is that, for example, the claim is that, it has really strong causal effects on the organisation performance. Okay. Does it? I mean, what would constitute good. It is sure there’s lots and lots of evidence, and it is true.

Lucinda Carney:     I think it’s a causal evidence, or is it correlation evidence?

Prof. Rob Briner:    It’s nearly all correlation. So, the same is true within sort of just within scientific institute, because they look at job satisfaction performance. And yeah, I don’t know, 95 percent of it, is, cross-sectional. So, it depends what the claim is.

                               If you say, is there an association between people saying, they are satisfied at work and are perform? Sure. Does it mean that people, if you increase job satisfaction, you increase performance? It’s totally a different plane. So, having evidence, and whether or not that evidence helps kind of establish, whether a claim is valid and reliable, is, a completely different thing. So, sure, there’s often tons of evidence. The question is what the claim is.

                               So, I think in the case of engagement, what happened, I mean I think they’ve come a hit peak and gone over the peak with engagement now. Because certainly, when it was hitting its peak maybe, 5 or 6 or 7 years ago, I think the claims made, were sort of very, very strong and quite clear for things like engagement, say, the UK was linked to national productivity. Wow, amazingly strong claim. As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

                               But the evidence wasn’t extraordinary. It was actually quite mundane. There wasn’t much of it. It wasn’t very good quality to answer that question. So, I think, it’s just one example of many, where yeah, there’s lots of evidence. But it doesn’t support those claims being made.

Lucinda Carney:     All right. I think engagement, I think one of the reasons that engagement was maybe grabbed upon, and it’s something, is because it gave you something tangible as a metric. If you’re an HR person, you say, well, actually that’s a number that I can increase that number from 3.2 to 3.6. Therefore, I’m doing a good job. Therefore, that’s me directly. I’m in the fluffy, fluffy HR. That’s me directly affecting the business.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes, absolutely, sure. Yes, I think I would agree. Again, I think, certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s tangible. I would say it appears tangible.

Lucinda Carney:     Yes.

Prof. Rob Briner:    If you say, what does that number mean? I don’t know.

Lucinda Carney:     Because actually, people metrics are really difficult. Although attrition, yeah, finding those, and to do an HR scorecard, for example, to show your impact, is, quite challenging. That’s the sorts of things you have to look at.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, it is. I think it appears tangible. I think the idea as a single number was sort of important. I think it’s probably still true now I suppose, largely, that I think HR is always kind of quite keen to prove apparently, to prove its value to the business. So, maybe it tries to do that in ways that seem very headlining, and possibly, slightly exaggerates what the value is, by as you said, looking at one number, and saying it’s linked with performance, and so on.

                               Having said all this, this is anecdotal, highly low-quality evidence. When I’ve spoken to engagement managers and people who have employee engaged in the job title, indeed as you said, they are very concerned about the level, is, going up is good, going down is bad, et cetera, et cetera.

                               I don’t think I’ve ever met one who’s actually ever linked that to business outcomes. They assume that, because of other research out there, and broader claims being made. Therefore, it’s going up, then it must be good. If it’s going down, it must be bad. But they actually don’t know that for their organisation.

                               I think it’s also quite a nice example, where you also need multiple sources of evidence. So, if you have external evidence of a scientific kind that makes that claim, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be true in the organisation. It may have made the engagement scores. It may have made no difference to their performance. It doesn’t mean it never does.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, it could be role specific or industry specific.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Lucinda Carney:     So, surveys. Is there a value to an engagement survey or not?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Broadly speaking, if you place engagement survey in the category of employee attitude surveys, in general, I sort of struggle to understand that purpose, both scientifically and both practically. Obviously, they’ve been around, if you look at sort of what’s the items they typically use to measure engagement in lots of surveys, those are items around things like, commitment, or kind of feedback, or those kinds of things. So, those items more or less, surveys have been around for 60 to 70 years.

                               Are they important? I’m not saying that are unimportant, but it depends on what the problem is. It depends on what you think the issue is. So, surely, you can measure people’s attitudes at work. They go up and down a bit. They differ between people. Maybe they correlate a little bit with stuff. So, what’s the problem? What is that helping us do? That’s sort of missing. It’s scientifically enabler. What is it helping us do?

                               So, for example, if you see a small association between commitment to say, performance, so what?

Lucinda Carney:     Well, I mean it’s all about again, it’s HR trying to show commercial value. So, if you’re the Sales Director, you can show that numbers you’re bringing in. If you’re the FD, you can save in the savings. So, it’s HR trying to have a metric that they can show value. And I see, and there’s, therefore, because you’ve got your… That might be quite annoying.

Prof. Rob Briner:    I think that’s Tower Bridge going up.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay, that’s Tower Bridge going up. So, that noise in the background, was that, the Tower Bridge potentially going up, and maybe, it stopped.

                               So, I suppose my view, is that, it’s about HR trying to demonstrate commercial value again, and it’s a metric. I think obviously, there is an assumption therefore, that if people are happier, they are either going to perform better, or they are not going to leave. Both of those have tangible costs.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, sure. You just made the point, there’s an assumption. That’s fine, but you need to test it for your organisation.

Lucinda Carney:     Is that relevant to your organisation?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah. Because I think, I don’t know, I get their point about these numbers, you can see them going up or down. But in the end, you have to show those things you’re measuring, are actually important. Also, you have to be able to show you can affect it. So, for example, if you said, what’s the evidence that you can intervene to increase organisational commitment? I don’t know.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah. So, this is one, which I think is… So, throwing that back, because you can get to the point, where you go, all right, what’s the point of my job? Because if I can’t prove it makes a difference, then what do I do? So, where is there good evidence?

Prof. Rob Briner:    I think that’s a very good question for any profession. Yeah.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah. So, then in HR, where are the areas. So, I’m going into HR, where is the good evidence? Where should I focus my energy?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Right. Okay. So, I would say, again, that’s the wrong place to start. What’s the problem?  

Prof. Rob Briner:    You don’t start with, you see, it’s a bit like saying, where are we now? Within an organisation, you’ve got loads of organisational data. Where is all the organisational data? I know. I’ll go look, where there’s lots of data, and that’s my focus. But hold on, what’s the problem?

Lucinda Carney:     It’s a bit of chicken and egg though, isn’t it? Because if we’re saying that I can’t solve certain problems, I suppose what I’m saying, is, which are the problems that I’m most likely to be able to use an evidence-based solution for?

Prof. Rob Briner:    I think any problem.

Lucinda Carney:     No. Okay, so, that’s any.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Any, any at all, yeah. I think, okay. So, that’s in a sense working back, it’s a bit like saying, instead of saying, I don’t like using medical, I’m just going worse. It’s like saying, okay, in which area of medicine is a strong evidence this stuff works? You go, oh, it’s in treating pain. Oh, okay. Then what we’ll do, is, we’ll go around and treat everyone’s pain. But hold on, these people don’t have pain. Yeah, but that’s what works. But they don’t have pain.

                               So, you have to start with what the initial problem is. You can take an evidence-based approach to anything.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay. So, again, going back to my pragmatism, I’ll push on this one, because yeah…

Prof. Rob Briner:    Please push, push.

Lucinda Carney:     I’ve got people out here going, well, you know, so, I’m going to do nothing.

Prof. Rob Briner:    No, they are not going to do nothing. No, no, they are going to do anything. They’re going to do something. They are going to do two things.

  • They are going to address important business organisational problems and opportunities, No. 1.
    • No. 2, they are going to do stuff that’s more likely to work.

                               That is the only thing we shall be doing.

Lucinda Carney:     But I’m not going to do a survey.

Prof. Rob Briner:    No, no, you might. It depends on…

Lucinda Carney:     I might, if it works.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Of course, of course, you can do survey. You can do anything you like. But you don’t start with a technique. You don’t start with a norm. You start with, what’s important for this organisation, and how do I know it’s important. What’s the evidence for that from multiple sources? And if I’m fairly clear, it seems very likely that is quite a serious problem for this business organisation, or it’s a good opportunity. Then what is the evidence from multiple sources about what’s the most likely solution. That’s what you do.

Lucinda Carney:     So, if I was going to go…

Prof. Rob Briner:    In my view.

Lucinda Carney:     And I don’t know, if this is a problem, because I think I’m going straight forwards and back. So, again, I’m pushing my thinking, maybe. The situation problem, is that, the organisation wants to perform, wants to have a greater performance, greater output from people performance. So, I appreciate that’s kind of forwards as opposed to a diagnostic problem.

                               So, the reason I’m coming up with this, it’s because we’ve got someone to do a research review of what actually drove performance. Because I wanted to know, because of the business that I run, as to, is there any evidence that you can influence it? The things that came out, I mean, is, goal setting. It’s goal setting and feedback, was one of the more rigorous ones in terms of seeing a correlation with performance. Do you agree with that in terms of?

Prof. Rob Briner:    It depends on what kind of performance you mean, and it depends on the context.

Lucinda Carney:     Right, right. So, all those sorts of…

Prof. Rob Briner:    I’m going to prove stock, and you say, you always have to be specific, because you’re right, if you said, which motivational technique, it is the most evidence for, yeah, absolutely, it’s goal setting. If you said, is that, it doesn’t work here, it’s a different question.

Lucinda Carney:     It might not.

Prof. Rob Briner:    If you said, is this going to be disaster here? Yeah, it could be. Is this the worst possible thing to do in this organisation? Yes, it could be. So, again it’s working back. You don’t say, where there are lots of evidence. What, in inverted commas, works? You say, what is the problem? Go back to that performance issue.

                               As you know, there are lots of different kinds of performance. To say, we want the organisation and the staff within it to perform better is so vague. It’s just pointless. It’s pointless. It’s not a problem. Are you saying, there’s 10 percent who are not performing? Whereas if you say, 50 percent, are you talking about contextual performance or social behaviour? Are you talking about service performance or about task performance? What kind of performance are you talking about? If you’re talking about performance dynamics, what do you actually mean? And what makes you think it could get better? I mean what if there’s assumption. Maybe it can’t or not by much.

                               So, why are you throwing all these resources a trying to improve performance? Maybe, you can do by 2 percent. Maybe, 2 percent really matters. Maybe, 2 percent is irrelevant. So, you have to understand and diagnose what the initial problem is first. It may turn out after all that, that indeed something like goal setting to increase one particular kind of behavioural performance for one group of employees in one context, given there’s a deficit, which you think is changeable. It’s really a good idea. But you don’t know that, until you’ve done all the other work.

                               So, in other words, as Einstein apparently didn’t say, if he had like whatever it is, 24 hours to save the world, he would spend 23 hours diagnosing the problem, and one hour implementing the solution. I think what people do, not just in HR, HR L&D, but lots of areas of practice. It is completely reversed. They spend one hour thinking about the problem, 23 hours trying to say, what shall we do? Let’s do this. What works? What’s great? Wrong way around. You have to start at the problem. That to me, is, one of the hardest things about being evidence-based.

Lucinda Carney:     Yes.

Prof. Rob Briner:    It’s not doing stuff. Anybody can do stuff. It’s saying, what is the issue or problem that we’re actually facing, and do we really understand what that is, and what we want to do first, and do that. A clear line between that and what are we going to do about it. Don’t even think about where we’re that. What’s the issue? Broadly speaking, my sense, is, it’s just hard. It’s hardest to do.

Lucinda Carney:     It is hard, because you’re being paid to do a job, and people want to see action potentially.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, and people think action, is, doing some thinking, isn’t it, which is just bizarre, because actually doing stuff is really easy. Thinking is quite tough. Thinking is doing stuff, of course.

Lucinda Carney:     That’s why we’re all doing things, and you’re obviously thinking. This is the real reason for the academic HR.

Prof. Rob Briner:    It is. Well, you’ll be surprised. The matter of fact, I mean, given the performance amounts place in academics now, I think there is less thinking going on. There’s more doing. What’s my next study? What’s my next paper? You know, there’s not a ton of thinking in terms of there’s lots of action.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, I’ve worked with a couple of universities, so that makes sense too. Okay, well, this is great. So, I’ve very much got the… I still would feel a little bit stuck, but I realise that there’s not obvious solutions. It’s challenging.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Okay, well, I would say if you’re feeling stuck, is, I would say, if you don’t feel stuck, you’re not doing it right. You have to feel stuck. Because by feeling stuck, you push. You say, what’s going on? I don’t understand. I don’t get it. It’s like not knowing stuff. Not knowing stuff is great, because you ask questions.

                               The same is true with things. I feel stuck. I don’t understand what’s going on, what’s happening. Fantastic. That is great. Because at that point, when you feel stuck, you’ll start pushing. Obviously, you give up. But, it is you start pushing. The danger, is, if you don’t feel stuck. When you’re sure everything is fine, everything is going right. You know exactly what you’re doing, everything is wonderful. That’s dangerous.

Lucinda Carney:     It’s interesting. Actually, I just saw a parallel there with what you’re saying between that and coaching. Again, people who often come and say, this is what I want to talk about. Actually, half an hour into it, you actually realise what the problem is. It’s much deeper down.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes, of course.

Lucinda Carney:     Or can see or anything like that, where people couldn’t unwrap it.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, exactly.

Lucinda Carney:     So, I suppose it’s a practical takeaway. If I’m an HR and L&D professional, and I’m going consulting with someone in my business, and they’re saying, I want this solution. What would be the best thing we can do in that situation, is, just keep challenging, and go, so, what is the actual problem? What’s the evidence to the problem? To keep digging down as opposed to jumping straight into solution mode. And I’m going to go in, and magic wand it.

Prof. Rob Briner:    I was going to say, one way, is, to sort of those 2 questions I asked before, you know, do you want to do what’s important? Do you want to do some more or like work? You know, that kind again, is, smothers the problem. No one disagrees with that. So, you say, okay, let’s think about what’s actually important. What do you think? So, you see the problem is, as you said, the example you gave before, that these people need development. Okay, but what’s the problem? That’s fine. What’s the problem? Come, let’s find out what the problem is first. What we think it might be. Otherwise, the likely problem, well, you just… Then we can look at the model resource with fairly confident that, that what’s going on. Now, we can start talking about what we can do about it.

Lucinda Carney:     And I think one thing that is worth making, is, it’s not just about sort of looking backwards. Because I think, if you have problem, you kind of feel like you’re looking backwards. Because it’s also about what’s the problem in the context, of where the business is trying to go.

                               So, we want to break into this new market, or we need a completely new skill. So, the problem, is, we won’t be competitive, if we carry on like this. So, it is about, that’s for me, is this piece is about problems, but also, being strategic. So, asking the person to talk about the future.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, when in a sense…

Lucinda Carney:     That’s the why.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Absolutely. But you can only, and that’s you’re going to look forward on the basis of historical data. So, if you’re anticipating, you won’t be competitive. But what is that? What’s that based on? A hunch?

Lucinda Carney:     Well, I can give it an example, where a particular marketplace was changing. So, you have people with all sort of telecom skills, and it was moving into traditional marketplace.

Prof. Rob Briner:    I’m sure, everyone says that. The only thing, is, you still need to look back to look forward. As it is not random, you haven’t invented it. You’re projecting forward on the basis of what’s happened historically. So, I think, looking back and looking forward, is, the same thing. I mean you have to look back to look forward, and vice versa.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, naturally. Okay, right. So, I’ve kept you talking, and we’ve got the bridge going again there. Just a few kinds of quickfire ones, I suppose. It’s certain to get out of it although I’ve got most of them are here. What’s your worst stage, or fad or jargon?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Worst?

Lucinda Carney:     What really kind of…?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Arrrr… I don’t know. There is a lot. Gosh.

Lucinda Carney:     What’s your current?

Prof. Rob Briner:    The current thing I find quite jarring, is, employee’s experience. Because in all those, I just don’t know what it means.

Lucinda Carney:     I was just going to say what does it mean.

Prof. Rob Briner:    When I say, definition. So, I’ve got an email the other day from a conference saying something like, employee’s experience is the sum total of everything the employee experiences from when they first know the organisation, to applying for a job, to going to work there, to what it feels like to be there, to their laptop, their computer, their IT, their everything, their physical environment.

Lucinda Carney:     It’s to do with recruitment. It’s brand, isn’t it? It’s pain brand.

Prof. Rob Briner:    I don’t know. But for some people, then they say, how does all this link to the bottom line? Come and learn. So, how is that everything link to the…? Okay. So, I’m not sure what it means. So, it’s sort of annoying, because it’s quite hard to pin people down to their means. I think when people say, oh, it doesn’t matter what you’re calling. There’s always a red flag to me though. Hold on. They don’t even know what this is. You literally don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s kind of everything.

                               So, at the moment, I think also it happens, because it’s taken over from employee engagement.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, yeah. It is count on. So, again, going back to one of your things you put out. Appraisals, they’re pretty dead things in many ways. There’s always criticism about them. In one of your articles, you sort of said, yeah, you can just chuck them out of the window. What would you replace them with? Nothing?

Prof. Rob Briner:    Well, it depends what you’re trying to do. Trying to know what the problem is. So, I think, annual appraisals can probably have some sort of purpose. But it depends what you’re trying to achieve. So, to put in one extreme, you could say, well, why bother to evaluate people’s performance at all. What’s the point?

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah, and generally, it might be for pay. It’s one of the reasons for that.

Prof. Rob Briner:    It may be. And then maybe, there’s some context, it’s taken as necessary. Maybe, in some context, it’s very hard to do. So, again, well, it comes back to saying, what should we do with our own performance? That’s starting with a solution you think isn’t working. But what are the problems you need to address? Or, what opportunities around performance? And it may involve some kind of appraisal. It may be nothing to do with that. So, maybe weekly conversations. It may be measuring stuff. It may be giving people feedback. It may be selecting people differently. So, I think again, you have to start, not with a technic, but with what the issue is.

Lucinda Carney:     Yeah. The reality, is, you kind of end up with a void. Well, you can end up with a void. But that could be in for worse. But I suppose until you do these things, you don’t quite know what is going to be the impact

Prof. Rob Briner:    What’s a void?

Lucinda Carney:     Well, I’m just thinking, you could do with replace with something. I think where people go, our appraisal’s dead. Chuck it out, and go, fine.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, of course.

Lucinda Carney:     Okay. Do nothing? Or, are you really thinking that people are going to be… I think that’s a nonsense, really. Do you actually think that managers are therefore, going to have weekly conversations, just because they want to. Everyone is so busy. I just don’t think that would happen.

                               So, I think there has to be some sort of guidance, actually, in terms of what people should do in an organisation. What works and what works for an organisation is different from another. Some of that is about the culture of the organisation as much as, yeah, as to the practicalities.

                               So, sometimes, they just wouldn’t talk regularly. Some people go actually, it’s only appropriate to have a conversation every quarter. I mean, you just talk to, as an academic, the Universities I work with, actually, it’s a bit like medics, actually. It’s kind of a totally different entity in terms of performance managements, or viewed as such by HR in just compared operational stuff. I don’t know, if that’s, because it’s kind of an individual thinking role. It’s an expert role. I can’t imagine, yeah, you probably hate appraisals in academic scenarios. But I think we’re digressing there.

                               I think I’ve asked you this question already. I don’t think you gave me an answer to it. So, I’m not sure, whether you’ll give me an answer, if I ask you again. But I was going to say, because you’ll say what’s the problem. I think it’s yours, I supposed. So, if the answer isn’t what’s the problem, where is the strongest evidence in HR for practice. What have you been most impressed by in terms of evidence?

Prof. Rob Briner:    I just don’t intend to think like that. Because I’ll put it, I’m not ranking a whole list of random HR practice in saying, for which of these practices are totally different things, is the most evidenced. I just don’t.

Lucinda Carney:     You don’t think like that.

Prof. Rob Briner:    No, because I say that, again, scientific I think, is not very useful. Because for example, certainly in terms of research, it’s often a lot of evidence about something, just because it’s fashionable in academia. And often, not much evidence about them, is really important. So, I think it is…

Lucinda Carney:     Because people had chance to research. They’ve all go out on that research.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Exactly. In other words, it’s kind of misleading to say, look at… It’s misleading to say, because whilst, which is inconstant is in quality. So, there may be a lot of evidence for some sort of things. It doesn’t mean that, that’s better than anything else. It just means a lot of evidence for it.

Lucinda Carney:     And that it loops us back to how we started in many ways. So, if we want to try and look for quality, and quickly, systematic. It is the best place to go.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yeah, exactly. Systemise all returns to do those. So, how many studies are there? What quality are they? What are they showing? Are they showing clearer facts, consistent effects, mixed effects? And even sometimes, it is a very mixed effect. It doesn’t mean that practice technique isn’t useful. What the mixed effects might be telling you, you said before, it’s very contingent on context.

                               So, again, some people sometimes sort of say, well, you know, oh, it’s very mixed effect. Therefore, it doesn’t work. No, it means it works differently in different situation. Understanding how and why it does that, it’s a different issue. But I mean, mixed effect isn’t necessarily about things. They often seen as meaning, oh, it doesn’t really work.

Lucinda Carney:     Again, well, I’m going to say thank you very much for your time, Prof Rob Briner. I’ve got it right, hurray, at the end. That’s the conclusion of our HR Uprising Podcast. Hopefully, this sound effects were enjoyable as opposed to completely distracting. I have found that really, really interesting.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Yes, great. Thank you very much.

Lucinda Carney:     I really appreciate having you on. Thank you so much.

Prof. Rob Briner:    Okay, thanks very much.

Lucinda Carney:     Cheers.