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#10: Are You Practicing Evidence-Based Consulting

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, March 20, 2009
Occasionally I team with other consultants and get to see them in action. Some have rich methodologies and demonstrable results, while others are using methodologies they developed that have no apparent proof that their approach has any validity. Is it unethical to be promoting a consulting approach that has not been proven?

This is a tough question to answer. In healthcare, evidence-based medicine is largely the standard. Here, despite inherent variations in the characteristics of individuals and conditions surrounding treatment, scientific methods are applied to make best case decisions about medical interventions. A "best practice" has been proven to have broad applicability and predictable results. The standard of care does not extend to faith healing, experimental treatments, or other approaches whose results cannot be replicated and validated as arising from a specific approach.

Similarly, businesses are starting to press for evidence-based management. Results-orients, fact-based, proof cases are all terms coming into wider use. Managers are increasingly asking that interventions in strategy, operations or culture come with some evidence that they actually work. Even authors of best selling business books are criticized for researching what "best" companies do and then asserting that if you want to be great, you should be like those companies. This is the classic logic trap of post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") in response to which managers are asking for more proof that advisors prove that their recommendations will have the intended effect. The many stories of consultants advising millions of dollars of change that has no effect are taking their toll.

Alternatively, there is a large gap between evidence-based medicine and management. Since management is not a specific discipline, is practiced differently in various industries and cultures, and is highly influenced by fads, it is harder to prove the cause and effect. Nevertheless, several universities have started programs in evidence-based management and are conducting research.

Tip: It unethical to promote an approach for which you do not have knowledge, much less confidence, that it will deliver the stated results. However, given the newness of evidence-based management, one does not have to produce research results to ethically assert that their approach has merit if they can provide client testimonials of its past successful application. Get your former clients to specify the approach you used and describe the results they got and connect the two. Be as explicit about the steps, rationale and expected results and risks in describing your own methodologies when presenting to prospective clients. Let other consultants critique your approaches and make them as rigorous as possible.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting process  ethics  intellectual property  process 

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