MIS40910 – Critique – Managerial fads & fashions, Evidence based management

This is a critique on the following articles on management strategies by Abrahamson and Pfeffer & Sutton, it was written as part of week 4 readings in Skills for Business Enquiry course

1.  Abrahamson, E. (1991) ‘Managerial fads and fashions: The diffusion and rejection of innovations’, Academy of Management Review, 16(3): 586-612.

1.Abrahamson1991-Managerial Fads And Fashion

2(a).  Pfeffer, J. and Sutton, R. I. (2006) ‘Evidence-based management’, Harvard Business Review, 84(1): 62–74.

2a.Pfeffer2006-Evidence Based Management


2(b).  Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (1999). Knowing “what” to do is not enough: Turning knowledge into action. California Management Review, 42(1), 83-108.

2b.Pfeffer1999-Knowing What To Do

Group D – Tarun Rattan, Philip Burtenshaw, Conor Gleeson, Thomas Joseph, Fiona Walsh

Abrahamson as well as Pfeffer & Sutton are trying to unravel decision making processes within individual organisation and also within a group of organisations. They are questioning

1) When & by what processes & contextual factors are technically inefficient innovations diffused or efficient innovations rejected within organisations or a group of organisations?

2) Is evidence based decision making better than experience based models while determining technical efficiency of an innovation or context?

Abrahamson approaches these questions from the academic & researcher standpoint whereas Pfeffer & Sutton represent the industry practitioner viewpoint. Both of them are aware of pro-innovation or pro-evidence biases and strive to remain unbiased by suggesting perspectives countering these pro biases. While both agree that efficient choice is the dominant perspective in business decision making, they concur in that it alone is not sufficient to explain either Innovation diffusion processes or Evidence acceptance decisions. To counter pro biases Abrahamson uses “Outside Influences” & “Imitation-Focus” dimensions to explain various perspectives on diffusion & rejection of choices. Though Pfeffer & Sutton are not so methodical they also use similar arguments while promoting evidence based decision making. Both of them agree that research into decision making process should explore other perspectives which nullify the pro biases.

Abrahamson argues that the assumption that “rational adopters make independent & technically efficient choices” in fact perpetuates pro-innovation biases and is also incorrect in most cases. Similarly Pfeffer & Sutton contends that assumption that medical practitioners use evidence as efficient choice method to “guide medical decisions” is not accurate. In-fact the facts are more damning, “the recent studies show that only about 15% of their decisions are evidence based”.

Abrahamson’s research is at a more macro level in that his focus is on the organisation or group of organisations. Pfeffer & Sutton on the other hand are approaching these questions at a more micro level and are focussed on individuals within these organisations. If we try to superimpose Pfeffer & Sutton evidence based management methods on the “Outside Influences” & “Imitation-Focus” dimensions used by Abrahamson, the matrix looks like below


Imitation Focus


Imitation Processes

Do Not Impel the Diffusion or Rejection

Imitation Processes

Impel the Diffusion or Rejection







Outside Influence Dimension

Organizations Within a Group Determine the Diffusion and Rejection Within This Group

Abrahamson: Efficient Choice Perspective

Abrahamson: Fad Perspective

Pfeffer & Sutton:  Evidence Based Decision Making

Pfeffer & Sutton: Hype & Marketing / Ideology

Organizations Outside a Group Determine the Diffusion and Rejection Within This Group

Abrahamson: Forced Selection Perspective

Abrahamson: Fashion Perspective

Pfeffer & Sutton: Forced Ranking

Pfeffer & Sutton: Uncritical Emulation / Casual Benchmarking / Dogma & Belief

The various propositions raised by Abrahamson around these perspectives can again be countered due to the numerous contextual factors affecting organisations & incipient individuals within these organisations. For example the proposition around efficient choice perspective that “performance gaps will prompt the diffusion of innovations in efficient organisations” is true only in certain cases. In most cases the organisational culture & personality traits of the leader override the acceptance of such innovations. Similarly another proposition around forced selection where “political pressures are deemed to trigger diffusion or rejection of innovations” does not take into account that political class is generally business & technology illiterate. The forced selection is nothing but the result of “lobbying” by influential organisations within an industry segment. The same argument is very much true for the propositions around the fashion perspective. Similarly evidence based methods as proposed by Pfeffer & Sutton discount human instincts which have been a key for many a great things humans have achieved. Emerson’s quote “Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” still resonates for most of us.

The two approaches put forward by Abrahamson and Pfeffer & Sutton might look similar but there is an underlying fallacy if one digs deeper. If we look at employee stock options references in the two articles then Abrahamson on the one hand uses stock options to explain how the diffusion of technically efficient innovation does takes place among a group of organisations. But on the contrary Pfeffer & Sutton use it to highlight that evidence suggests that employee stock options “had no consistent effects on financial performance”. So while Abrahamson thinks employee stock option is a technically efficient innovation, it does not pass the test of evidence based management. This dichotomy leads to a bigger question, bigger than at least what Abrahamson is trying to research.

Perhaps more important is not “how” the technically efficient innovations are diffused or inefficient ones rejected? But rather “what” makes an innovation technically efficient or inefficient? Which contextual, behavioural & social factors are responsible? And if it can be proven that evidence based method is a useful measure for determining the technical efficiency for such innovations, then it would have much more utility.

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