Interview with Cédric Velghe from The VIGOR Unit: What does it take to put science in practice?

ScienceForWork is a non-profit association that promotes the use of evidence-based practices in HR management and people-related decisions. We do so by writing articles that sum up useful and reliable scientific findings in less than 1000 words, and by interviewing practitioners that are making HR more evidence-based.

ScienceForWork: Moving HR Management from opinion-based arguments to evidence-based discussions

First of all, we would like to give you some space to introduce yourself. Cédric Velghe, who are you?

In January 2015, together with prof. Frederik Anseel, I founded The VIGOR Unit, a Ghent University spin-off with the purpose to help managers in making better decisions. Now I am a full-time entrepreneur, but I still very much feel being a researcher though. For about 6 years, I mainly conducted research on innovation and entrepreneurship at Ghent University’s department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology. My priority, however, never was to publish my research in top-journals, but to develop knowledge that helps people and organizations succeed. Meanwhile, we also have been actively promoting evidence-based management in Belgium in collaboration with the Center for Evidence-based Management (CEBMa).

What business struggles The VIGOR Unit aims help in?

Our aim is to support business leaders and policy-makers in making more effective people-related decisions. We help them in identifying the management solutions with the highest probability for success. Today, leaders already use diverse sources to inform their practices, but information-gathering is a time-consuming process and not all sources are equally reliable or useful. Within a competitive time and cost-frame, we engage ourselves to provide decision-makers with the best-available knowledge concerning their case. Therefore, we offer them three different services, all three characterized by a scientific approach, namely (1) reviewing the scientific literature that is relevant to their case via a Rapid Evidence Assessment, (2) systematically analysing the knowledge and data that is available within their organization, and (3) setting up new experiments on the field.

I believe that we contribute to overcoming the huge gap between science and practice. What managers and professionals believe or apply often does not rhyme with what science is teaching us. Much harm and loss in organizations could be avoided, if practitioners would consult science more often, or critical thinking and scientific research methods would be applied more rigorously in managerial decision-making. By bringing scientific knowledge and skills to management practice, we overcome the barriers for practitioners in terms of time and expertise towards evidence-based management.

Next to our consultancy services, a very important part of our business is also developing new management tools, for instance, a psychometric test, a training protocol, or a serious game. We do not commercialize these tools ourselves, but we serve as R&D partner for existing providers who wish to present new products and services to their customers. We only accept R&D projects like these when we see an opportunity to come up with an innovative solution and when our partners are willing to invest in the necessary research for investigating the validity and efficacy of the new tool. In other words, we want our tools to be evidence-based. One example is, an online simulation test to measure the innovation skills of professionals.

How is your work different from that of bigger HR consulting firms?

Our goal is to provide our customers with the best-available knowledge that can help them to identify the most promising solution to their problem, whatever that solution might be. So in contrast with most consulting firms, we do not sell our clients a solution. As we do not advertise any ready-to-implement management tools, we have no interest in pushing forward any solution, and can remain neutral and objective in our advice.

You talked about Rapid Evidence Assessments: why a HR manager should want one, and how long does it take you to deliver it?

As I said earlier, gathering information can be a time-consuming process. By conducting a Rapid Evidence Assessment, we can help decision-makers by doing this task for them. We do this by systematically reviewing one of the most reliable sources of knowledge, namely peer-reviewed scientific research. Given our expertise, we are very fast and proficient in identifying relevant research, evaluating its quality, and translating it into insightful conclusions and actionable recommendations. In our reports, we are also transparent on what research methods we applied, for instance, in what databases did we search for articles, what queries did we run, what criteria were used to evaluate the research and what information was extracted. As such, our customers can evaluate the quality of our work. With this transparency, we also strive for objectivity. The idea is that no matter who is conducting the review, the results should be the same if the same methods were applied.

The amount of man-days we need to execute a review really depends on the nature of the research question and the amount of research that is available on that topic. On average we need between 5 to 10 days to execute a review, including presenting the results to our customers and time for Q&A.

To conclude, in your view how close are HR managers to use evidence-based approaches when making decisions at work?

I Googled “evidence-based management” on the 26th of October 2015 and got 367.000 hits. That is not a lot, really. “Evidence-based medicine” or “predictive analytics” give you a tenfold. I do see positive trends, though. The rise of predictive analytics, for instance, is showing that a notable part of managers are in need for more rigorous information and are ready to invest in systematic data collection and analysis for better decision-making. This is a wave proponents of evidence-based practice should surf on. We have a lot to add to the analytics movement, as critical thinking and scientific rigor can prevent mistaking noise in data for signals. Data analysts in organizations could also build on the knowledge that is already available through Rapid Evidence Assessments. I believe this could make predictive analytics in organizations much more efficient and less vulnerable to false conclusions.

In the end, what really matters to me is that managers are interested in what a review of the scientific literature has to say and in setting up scientific research in their own organization as to inform their decision-making.

Thank you Cédric for the thorough and detailed explanation of what means conducting management consultancy by means of a rigorous application of the scientific method.

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