Agile HR and Evidence-Based HR : A Conscious Coupling, Maybe?

In the constant evolution of the HR function and our continual aspirational ascent towards a potentially mythical higher purpose and being in the workplace, some ideas, practices and propositions have come, and some have gone, with a range of reasons being attributed.

See for instance NLP and MBTI, like bhuna stains on clothing, they are the hallmarks of something once delicious that has left an unfortunate after-effect that is unlikely to ever fully disappear.

In recent times however, two different processes have increased in popularity – agile HR, and evidence-based HR.

Agile HR

Agile HR can be described as “the use of agile techniques and tools to build a shared value between customer, business and people” (thanks Agile HR Community). It is about approaching HR and people practices with an agile mindset, working collaboratively, being evidence-based (more on that later), and being people-centric. Harvard business review describing agile more generally as “a move away from rules – and planning-based approach toward a simpler and faster model driven by feedback from participants”.

Agile has taken off in a big way. Five minutes scouting LinkedIn will demonstrate quite how healthy the future of the rugby game is in the UK with all of the ‘scrum masters’ dotted around but despite my obvious facetious quips, I admire its aim and desire. It has responded to business leaders wanting a different approach from HR, a less-bureaucratic approach and one that addresses people issues in collaboration with those who will benefit, instead of creating strategies that can often make people feel as though they are having something done ‘to’ them.

Agile can cut waste, and get right to the heart of an issue.

However, I often wonder, what is sacrificed when rushing to a solution, as pace of change is a vital agile hallmark.

“The enemy of good thinking is artificial urgency”

David D’Souza, CIPD

Evidence-Based HR

“Evidence-based management is a career-long pursuit – not just a tool or a course. It challenges conventional wisdom, authority and tradition regarding the way decisions are made. It raises a seldom-discussed issue in contemporary organisations – the quality of the evidence we use”

Evidence-Based Management : How to use evidence to make better organisational decisions. Eric Barends & Denise M Rousseau.

Evidence-based HR is essentially a HR-Centric derivative of evidence-based management which as defined by CEBMa ‘is about making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources’.

I write a lot about evidence-based management/HR because it’s something I passionately believe in. Using evidence to help HR make better decisions is in my view, the most credible and professional way of fully contributing to the organisations in which we operate.

Evidence-based practice isn’t necessarily a new concept in HR. Many HR folk I talk to often tell me that they’ve always used evidence when determining how to solve a problem or approach a challenge, and although this isn’t fully evidence-based management per-se, it is certainly encouraging.

Evidence-based management focuses on four sources of evidence that should be reviewed or explored to help identify a solution that is more likely to work than other possible solutions;-

Scientific literature – using empirical studies and evaluated academic research to inform decision-making

Organisational evidence – data, knowledge and insight gained from within an organisation to help inform decision-making

Stakeholder evidence – evidence from employees, customers, board members, suppliers etc which help inform decision-making

Practitioner experience – views and insights from the practitioners as to what the issue is thats being investigated and what our opinions are on what solutions could possibly work.


The ethos of evidence-based management is that by using (and using correctly) evidence from multiple sources, practitioners should be able to reach a conclusion on a solution that is more likely to work.

Some may feel, that these two processes are both conflicting of one another as well as complimentary to one another, with perceptions of time and speed of response being the force that repels the processes from coming together.

There’s more in common than you think

There is quite a lot of overlap between these two approaches. Agile HR is about collaboration and evidence-based HR is about embracing the views of the stakeholders and practitioners. Agile HR is about cutting to the heart of an issue and evidence-based HR is about defining exactly what that issue is. Agile HR is about being evidence-based and evidence-based HR is about…. well, you get the idea.

Yet despite these two approaches sharing similar aims and objectives, why are they not considered ideal bed-fellows, if indeed they are not?

In one exchange on social media I had with an agile HR practitioner, when I was describing evidence-based HR to them they explained that they thought the process sounded problematic because they were ‘all about agile’. Its a shame our conversation didn’t continue but my understanding is that this person perceived evidence-based HR as not in keeping with their agile mindset, because of a view that researching evidence was timely, which contravenes the ethos of making quicker decisions as has become a hallmark of agile working (see hackathons and the like).

However, what relevance is time when making a quick decision following an agile mindset, that doesn’t really solve the problem at all, or is not a sustainable solution to the problem at hand? Similarly, what good is using a range of evidence to make a better decision if the decision takes too long to make?

Middle Ground

The answer to this is somewhere in the middle.

If Agile HR is truly evidence-based then there is no reason why it wouldn’t want to make agile decisions based on the best available evidence, not the evidence thats quicker to gather and easier to access.

If evidence-based HR is to fully transition into a popular mainstream HR process, then it needs to find a lean way of making the process work that is marketed right and attractive to all HR professionals, including those from an agile HR background.

Ultimately, the answer to both agile HR and evidence-based HR transforming the people profession, something they absolutely have the power and potential to do based on their positive successes already, could be in finding the middle ground. The answer could be through collaborating together and making better decisions which are based on evidence but by following a lean and not unduly-timely process. But ultimately the answer starts with us as professionals, outlining what we need and how we need it, so an evidence-based agile approach can present itself accordingly, to support us in becoming the best we can be for the future of HR.