Becoming an Evidence-Based Organization: Five Key Components to Consider
David L. Myers, PhD Indiana University of Pennsylvania
During the past 10 to 15 years, increasing emphasis has been placed on the use of scientific research to guide the work of agencies and organizations focused on assisting clients with achieving behavioral change and success. Overall, this evidence based approach stresses collection and use of data to assess risk factors and needs; consideration of available scientific evidence on the effectiveness of existing policies, programs, and practices; implementation of strategies and methods that have the greatest research support; and ongoing data collection and analysis to monitor operations and evaluate outcomes (Aarons, Hurlburt, & Horwitz, 2011; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara, LoefflerCobia, Rhyne, & Sachwald, 2010; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Lipsey, Howell, Kelly, Chapman, & Carver, 2010; Myers, 2013; Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, 2014).
Although many contemporary agencies and organizations have sought to become more evidence-based, mainly through implementing certified or model programs and practices, becoming a comprehensive Evidence-Based Organization (EBO) is not as simple as adopting a curriculum, strategy, or service that is supported by scientific research findings. Rather, the path from obtaining and using evidence-based knowledge, to fuller implementation and evaluation, and eventually to becoming a full-fledged EBO, typically is lengthy and complex. This process presents ongoing cycles of learning, understanding, implementation, evaluation, and adjustment that eventually become engrained parts of the organizational culture. When this occurs, EBO’s have been found to exhibit some common characteristics (Aarons et al., 2011; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara et al., 2010; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Myers, 2013):
- Effective integration of evidencebased policies, programs, practices, principles, and management techniques
- Organizationally shared vision, mission, goals, and objectives
- Efficient use of resources
- Organizational culture that embraces learning and innovation
- Enhanced internal and external communication and collaboration
- Decision-making guided by data and scientific evidence
- Emphasis on professional development of staff
- Clients are held accountable, but their behavioral success is viewed as the primary goal of the organization.
In order to reach this level of EBO functioning and effectiveness, research indicates there are five key areas of organizational development that must be pursued (Aarons et al., 2009; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara et al., 2010; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Lipsey et al., 2010; Myers, 2013; Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, 2014). These five areas provide the framework for evidence-based evaluation and certification offered by Joyfields Institute for Professional Development (http://www.joyfields.org/) and the Evidence-Based Professionals Society (http://www.ebpsociety.org/).
- Knowledge and use of evidencebased policies, programs, and practices
- Demonstration of effective organizational leadership
- Understanding of organizational culture and use of organizational assessment
- Utilization of effective strategic planning, performance measurement, and program evaluation
- Ongoing efforts to enhance organizational capacity and sustainability
Knowledge and Use of Evidence-Based
Policies, Programs, and Practices At a foundational level, leadership and staff of EBO’s share a common knowledge and use of evidence-based policies, programs, and practices (Aarons et al., 2009; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara et al., 2010; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Lipsey et al., 2010; Myers, 2013; Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, 2014; Welsh & Harris, 2008). Policies are laws, rules, or guidelines that are used for decision-making and problem-solving. Programs provide a specific set of services directed at achieving goals and objectives within certain individuals, groups, organizations, or communities. Practices are more routine methods and procedures that are built into the work of the organization and also assist with achieving goals and objectives. Being evidence-based means that organizational policies, programs, and practices are backed by scientific evidence that support their effectiveness, in terms of solving problems, meeting goals and objectives, and assisting clients with achieving behavioral success. Across evidence-based policies, programs, and practices, there also are a number of evidence-based principles that emphasize client-centered risk reduction and strength enhancement as the general approach to increasing the likelihood of behavioral success. These principles, which again are supported by scientific research, commonly are incorporated across EBO policies, programs, and practices. They include the following (Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara et al., 2010; Myers, 2013):
- Assessing client risk and needs by using empirically validated tools and techniques
- Enhancing the intrinsic motivation of clients
- Targeting interventions to clients based on their risk and needs (also known as Risk-Need-Responsivity)
- Building client skills through guided practice and feedback
- Utilizing and increasing positive reinforcement for compliant and successful behavior
- Enhancing family and community support
- Measuring and assessing processes and outcomes
- Providing evaluation feedback and disseminating results to stakeholders
As compared to 15 years ago, today it is much easier to access information on evidence-based approaches. In addition to a variety of available professional organizations, centers, and institutes (such as Joyfields Institute for Professional Development), the following websites are useful for tracking down information in various fields and using this information to evaluate current agency strategies and methods, along with possible future approaches:
Demonstration of Effective Organizational Leadership
In addition to foundational knowledge and use of evidence-based policies, programs, and practices, becoming an EBO requires effective leadership and management techniques (Aarons et al., 2009; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Guevara et al., 2010; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Lipsey et al., 2010; Myers, 2013; Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, 2014). In general, an effective leader is someone whom followers are willing and motivated to follow (Sylvia, 2010). More specifically, research has revealed a number of characteristics that are associated with effective leadership (Anderson & Anderson Ackerman, 2001; Bennis, 2003; Carter, 2006; Cronin, Hiller, & Smith, 2006; Drath, 2001; Kouzes & Posner, 2002; Myers, 2013; Sylvia, 2010):
- Integrity and steadiness of character
- Uncommon dedication and commitment
- Saying and doing things in ways that build trust
- Exhibiting humility and letting others receive praise
- Eager listener and open to new ideas
- Creative and willing to take calculated risks
- Knowledgeable and able to communicate knowledge
- Passionate, energetic, and enthusiastic
- Forward and future-thinking perspective
- Empowering others and encouraging them to excel
- Personal warmth and concern for followers
- Being able to stand in front and offer a command presence
Although there tends to be a certain degree of overlap between leadership and management, in comparison to the characteristics of effective leadership listed above, good management techniques tend to focus more on the present day and ensuring things get done properly and on time. In general, leaders lead people and seek to establish new strategies and partnerships, while managers typically manage things (schedules, supplies, equipment, facilities, etc.), employ chosen methods and practices, and ensure they are properly followed.
In an EBO, both strong leadership and management are required at all levels of the organization, in order for the organization to grow and evolve over time, while operating in an efficient and effective manner. This type of leadership and management is not limited to particular positions or titles; rather, it can be cultivated and exhibited by anyone who possesses the skills and abilities that persuade others to follow. Furthermore, evidence-based leadership and management embrace the following:
- Scientific research findings to guide organizational change efforts
- Cause and effect logic to evaluate available evidence and solutions
- Data to guide decision-making
- Experimentation and innovation
- Communication, collaboration, and continuous learning
- Strong staff training and professional development
- Identification of client success as the priority outcome
Understanding of Organizational Culture and Use of Organizational Assessment
A third major component, and one that is vitally important, for becoming an EBO is understanding of organizational culture and use of organizational assessment. Research indicates that a large majority of organizational change efforts fail, and major reasons include a lack of understanding about the importance of organizational culture and a failure to assess and prepare the organization for major change (Aarons et al., 2011; Domurad & Carey, 2009; Flaherty-Zonis, 2007; Guevara et al., 2011; House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004; Myers, 2013; Schein, 1992).
Organizational culture consists of the prevailing assumptions, values, expectations, and norms that characterize the leadership, management, staff, interactions, and daily operations of an organization. Organizational culture is important because it dictates such things as the way services are provided and how work gets done; the type of employees the organization attracts, retains, and promotes; who exercises authority and exhibits leadership in the organization; what behaviors are rewarded and discouraged, both formally and informally; and how staff members view their job and their role in the organization.
Some parts of organizational culture are visible and often are known to the outside world (e.g., written policies and procedures, websites, brochures and other literature, and common words and behaviors of those working for the organization), while many other parts of an organizational culture are less visible and may not be known or recognized outside of the organization (e.g., individual attitudes, values, and beliefs; customs and traditions; and internal language, stereotypes, and informal interactions).
Research further shows that successful implementation and sustainability of effective services, such as evidence-based programs and practices, initially requires at least a basic level of organizational effectiveness (Glisson, 2007; Glisson, Dukes, & Green, 2006; Glisson & Green, 2006; Hemmelgarn, Glisson, James, & James, 2006; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Myers, 2013). In other words, a satisfactory degree of organizational effectiveness typically precedes successful implementation and sustainability of evidence-based policies, programs, and practices, and these evidence-based approaches alone cannot be counted on to produce an effective organization. This is why becoming an EBO is not as easy as simply adopting a single or combined set of evidence-based policies, programs, and practices.
Overall, effective organizations are those that possess committed staff, with low turnover and high job satisfaction. In addition, an effective organization emphasizes and supports internal and external collaborative relationships. High priority is placed on service availability, responsiveness, and continuity, because serving clients and assisting clients with achieving behavioral success is the central mission of the organization. At these organizations, staff members feel empowered because they believe they make a difference in the success of both the organization and their clients. There also is a sense of being part of a team and the community, and despite challenges that exist, work is viewed as exciting, stimulating, and rewarding.
Organizational effectiveness does not occur by accident. Rather, organizational leadership, culture, and climate combine to play a large role (Glisson, 2007; Glisson, Dukes, & Green, 2006; Glisson & Green, 2006; Hemmelgarn, Glisson, James, & James, 2006; Hovmand & Gillespie, 2008; Myers, 2013). For example, effective organizations tend to be high in proficiency, meaning employees are expected to be knowledgeable, competent, and client-centered; low in rigidity, meaning employees have some flexibility in their work, and the ability to experiment and innovate; and low in resistance, meaning employees are expected to be open to change and new ways of providing services. Furthermore, staff members of effective organizations tend to be high in engagement, meaning they experience a sense of personal involvement and accomplishment through their work; high in functionality, meaning they believe they receive the cooperation, support, and recognition they need to do their jobs; and relatively low in stress, meaning they do not feel emotionally exhausted or severely overloaded in their work.
Utilization of Effective Strategic Planning, Performance Measurement, and Program Evaluation
Development and use of the three initial components of EBO’s discussed to this point sets the stage for the fourth component, which is effective strategic planning, performance measurement, and program evaluation. Effective strategic planning exhibits a number of important characteristics (Guevara et al., 2010; Hunter, 2013; Mittenthal, 2002; Morino, 2011; Stroker & Giguere, 2010, Vaughan & Arsneault, 2014):
- It is proactive and forward-looking, providing future direction for an overall organization or a specific program
- It links the organization’s or program’s role in the community with steps to be taken to fulfill the role
- It lays out organizational expectations and activities for all interested stakeholders, both internal and external to the agency
- It helps an organization anticipate and respond to change, adjust its resources, and refine its programs
- It promotes communication and collaborative learning
- It is used for building and sustaining organizational capabilities, funding, and client and other stakeholder support
Unfortunately, a great deal of strategic planning tends to be ineffective and does not exhibit the above listed characteristics. Ineffective strategic planning typically is backward-looking and greatly consists of repacking what the organization already is doing, with recommendations that things should continue as they are. It often is assigned to a small group of employees, commonly in management positions, who seek little input from the rest of the organization. The resulting plan then is not useful in making organizational decisions and enhancing organizational culture and growth, and not much positive or sustained change results from this approach.
Another key aspect of effective strategic planning is that it is linked to performance measurement, which provides data to determine how well the strategic plan is being implemented and important outcomes are being achieved. Performance measurement itself is an evidence-based practice, used by evidence-based management in evidence-based organizations. More specifically, performance measurement is the act of measuring an organizations ability to get things done and achieve the expected results (Bazemore, 2006; Boone & Fulton, 1996; Hunter, 2013; Morino, 2011; Stroker & Giguere, 2010; Thomas, 2006; Vaughan & Arsneault, 2014). Expected results can be established with regard to productivity (i.e., output measures, or how much is done); timeliness (i.e., efficiency measures, or how long it takes to do it); quality (i.e., process measures, or how well things get done); and effectiveness (i.e., outcome measures, or how good the results are).
Effective strategic planning and performance measurement takes time and commitment, from both engaged leadership and involved staff members. Any major organizational crisis or conflict should be resolved prior to strategic planning; leadership and staff should have a strong understanding of the purpose and benefits of strategic planning and performance measurement; and a commitment of resources should exist to assess the performance of the organization and its programs and practices. Overall, there must be a willingness to question the status quo, focus on the future of the organization, and consider new approaches to perform and evaluate the operations and services of the agency.
Based on the information discussed above, a systematic strategy can be pursued for implementing effective strategic planning and performance measurement, and then advancing from performance measurement to more scientifically rigorous program evaluation (Carey, 2010; Guevara et al., 2010; Hunter, 2013; Knowlton & Phillips, 2013; Mittenthal, 2002; Morino, 2011; Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, 2014; Stroker & Giguere, 2010; Vaughan & Arsneault, 2014). This systematic strategy has four major parts, as outlined below.
- Link the Organizational Vision and Mission to Specific Agency Activities and Outcomes
- Use data for problem analysis and needs assessment
- Understand characteristics of clients and who should be targeted based on risks and needs
- Understand characteristics of the community and available/needed resources
- Develop an information management system to collect and analyze data
- Link strategic planning with performance measurement
- Vision and mission statements that are embraced, displayed, and show the organization is evidence-based
- Goals that provide direction and objectives that are measurable
- Use of SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats), logic modeling, and performance measurement to inform, establish, monitor, evaluate, and refine the strategic plan
- Use data for problem analysis and needs assessment
- Utilize Consistent Data Collection and Analysis Strategies
- Use standard forms, procedures, and information management system
- Provide ongoing training and supervision
- Produce organizational reports, funding applications, “report cards,” etc.
- Ensure Program Fidelity and Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI)
- Both program effectiveness and implementation effectiveness are necessary for successful and sustainable outcomes
- Utilize CQI (performance measurement for staff) to ensure desired programs and practices are delivered in the manner they were intended
- Use data and results to provide feedback, motivate, and evaluate staff
- Advance From Performance Measurement to Program Evaluation
- Utilize process evaluation, or external evaluation to determine if programs and practices are being implemented as they were intended
- Utilize impact evaluation, or external evaluation to determine if programs and practices are producing the expected results
Ongoing Efforts to Enhance Organizational Capacity and Sustainability
The fifth and final major component for becoming an EBO is ensuring and maintaining ongoing efforts to enhance organizational capacity and sustainability. Although many organizations do a good job with implementing programs and managing personnel and costs, relatively few focus enough time and resources on a continual basis for building a high performing organization and sustaining it over time. Fulfilling the first four components of becoming an EBO will assist greatly with adding organizational capacity, but these efforts should not be viewed as simply a set of tasks to be completed in order for the process to be finished at a certain point in time.
In general, capacity includes the knowledge, skills, motivations, attitudes, and collaborations that contribute to the accomplishment of organizational goals and objectives (Hunter, 2013; Morino, 2011; Vaughan & Arsneault, 2014; Venture Philanthropy Partners, 2011). Capacity can exist at the individual, organizational, and community levels, and all three contribute to agency success and eventually to sustaining an EBO over time. Capacity also can be of two types. Innovation-specific capacity refers to the individual, organizational, and community factors that are necessary to implement and sustain a particular innovation, such as a specific evidence-based policy, program, or practice. General capacity refers to the individual, organizational, and community factors associated with overall organizational effectiveness and sustaining an effective organization over time.
Ongoing efforts need to be built into an agency to enhance both innovation-specific and general capacity. On the innovation-specific side, examples of these efforts include information sharing and increasing understanding of identified problems and possible solutions; generating organizational buy-in for specific innovations; building skills and abilities for implementing and sustaining specific innovations; providing access to training, technical assistance, and coaching; and utilizing performance measurement and program evaluation to assess the implementation and effectiveness of innovations. On the general capacity side, examples include cultivating a culture of flexibility and openness to new knowledge and learning; providing collaborative leadership and management techniques; producing clear and articulated strategic plans and evaluation strategies, securing adequate funding and other resources, and enhancing internal and external collaborations and partnerships.
Sustainability occurs when organizational changes and innovations become “institutionalized” within the organization, meaning they become a permanent part of the organization’s structure, culture, and operations (Hunter, 2013; Morino, 2011; Vaughan & Arsneault, 2014; Venture Philanthropy Partners, 2011). For sustainability to occur, successful innovations must be continued, strengthened, and broadened, and organizational capacity must be enhanced on an ongoing basis. Learning and evaluation results also should be shared both internally and externally, both for the organization’s benefit and so that others can learn from and build upon the knowledge and outcomes (both successful and unsuccessful) being generated.
Putting all of this together, becoming an EBO can be viewed as an ongoing cycle of six stages, which become engrained into the organizational culture and guide the way an agency does business. These six stages are summarized as follows (Fixsen, Naoom, Blase, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005):
- Exploration: Awareness and collection of information/data on evidence-based policies, programs, practices, principles, leadership/management, and organizational culture/assessment.
- Installation: Active preparation and strategic/action planning for implementation of evidence-based policies, programs, practices, principles, leadership/management techniques, and organizational change. Innovation-specific and general capacity building both occur.
- Initial Implementation: Early changes, challenges, problem-solving, performance assessment, and adaptation occur, along with continued innovation-specific and general capacity building.
- Full Operation: Evidence-based changes become accepted and viewed as normal within the organization, and innovation-specific and general capacity building continues. The EBO is established at this stage.
- Innovation: Ongoing learning and adaptation occur throughout the organization, along with sharing what is learned with the larger community. The EBO continues to build capacity, and evidence-based changes and innovations become institutionalized.
- Sustainment: The EBO continues long term operations, and the above stages repeat themselves, as learning, collaboration, and growth continues. The agency becomes a model EBO in the field.
Essentially, progressing through the six stages listed above will occur when and as the five components of becoming an EBO (as covered in this evaluation report) are fully embraced and utilized. Even in a best case scenario, it may take several years for an agency to become a fully functioning EBO. This typically requires a great deal of dissemination and discussion of available information; training for leadership and staff; data collection and organizational assessment; strategic planning and action planning; adopting and implementing specific policies, programs, and practices; assessing performance and evaluating implementation and outcomes; and using the results for ongoing organizational change and development.
As organizations pursue evidence-based growth by developing the five key components discussed above, several important points should be recognized. First, an adequate time investment is critical. Planning, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining evidence-based approaches take a great deal of time and effort, as does shaping and transforming the organizational environment. Staff development also takes time, and evidence-based programs and practices generally take longer to administer than more traditional (and typically less effective) methods and services. The bottom line is that if you are looking for a quick fix to improving your agency or larger system, becoming an EBO is not for you.
Second, staff training alone will be insufficient for creating an EBO. Becoming an EBO typically requires major changes in the way an organization does its business, and traditional training rarely produces any major organizational change. Rather, ongoing coaching and mentoring is necessary, in order to both implement and sustain evidence-based approaches and build a culture of learning and innovation that is characteristic of functioning EBO’s.
Third, risk and needs assessment is the foundation for implementing evidence-based approaches, but by itself this practice will not create an evidence-based environment. Risk and needs assessments unfortunately are often viewed by practitioners as a required task that must be completed, and the assessment results then are not used to target medium and higher risk individuals for appropriate programs that have been supported through research. Rather, following completion of a risk and needs assessment, treatment and programming decisions often are based on prior experience, readily available programs, and/or personal perceptions and beliefs about what is most effective for certain types of clients and offenders. Leaders and managers of EBO’s need to be cognizant of this common breakdown and work collaboratively to eliminate it.
Fourth, measurement and use of data throughout the organization is essential. Producing and using evidence for decision-making and evaluation requires good measurement as an organizational practice. In addition to performance measurement, data collection and analysis are necessary to assess knowledge and use of evidence-based approaches, perceptions of leadership and organizational culture, and internal and external attitudes and beliefs about the agency. Reliable and valid measurement requires a functioning information management system, and researcher-practitioner partnerships also can be useful in advancing this aspect of EBO’s.
Finally, internal and external collaboration must be embraced and enhanced in order for an EBO to develop. Experimentation, innovation, and learning all require internal communication and cooperation, and leaders must effectively communicate and collaborate with staff members in order to implement and evaluate evidence-based approaches and ensure professional and organizational growth. In addition, it is expected that EBO’s will collaborate with outside agencies and other stakeholders to improve the likelihood of client and offender success, as well as to ensure the sustainability of the organization and its programs.
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