Dave UlrichGuest AuthorLeadership

How “Observation” Keeps Human Capability Research Relevant

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

What can be done to ensure relevant human capability research?

No question: the HR field is awash in research. But human capability does not advance just by doing and reporting more research. Doing so is like stockpiling emergency food storage that is never used and then discarding it when it is out of date. Let me offer some context and suggestions to keep research relevant.


When I edited Human Resource Management (1990 to 1999) with an incredible editorial team (thanks Dr. Gerry Lake!), we worked to become a bridge journal that integrated theory (ideas), research (evidence), and practice (solutions). In the over 40 issues (350 or so articles), we published an abundance of ideas and exceptional solutions (cases), but evidence-based articles were sometimes lacking.

At the 25th anniversary of Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) in 2010, I shared meta-analysis that showed that conference presentations had shifted over time to present more research.

This movement towards more research in human capability (talent, leadership, organization, and HR) has evolved dramatically in recent years. Extensive empirical studies have been conducted by many consulting firms: BCGConference BoardDeloitte, Gartner, Insight222Kennedy FitchMcKinseyMerckRedThreadRBL GroupVisier, and many others. I know many colleagues who are dedicated to evidence-based insights: a few whom I follow include Josh BersinJohn BoudreauAllan ChurchRob CrossTom DavenportMarc EffronBob EichingerJonathan FerrarLynda GrattonMark Huselid, and many other idea mentors beyond the Hs. Research has been in evidence by an expanded Academy of Management in 2022 with over two thousand sessions where scholars generally share research, with regular curation and sharing of this research by colleagues like David GreenNicholas BehbahaniSian HarringtonDavid McClean, and others. In addition, research is much more readily accessible through social media outlets like Linkedin, blogs, podcasts, and webinars.

Unlike 25 years ago, the challenge for relevant research is less about collecting more data, statistics, or clever visuals. Rather it is more about:

1.    Ensuring the rigor of the research. Not all data are reliable, valid, or relevant: convenience samples of LinkedIn friends or pop-up surveys lack much credibility.

2.   Making sure that the individual research studies combine into a unifying framework that moves the profession forward by cumulating and advancing more than repackaging ideas. The human capability architecture and research we propose provides such a foundation for progress.

3.   Offering more than descriptions of activities (how many employees wear masks, work remotely, or receive training) to show the impact of activities on outcomes that matter (e.g., individual well-being, strategic reinvention, customer commitment/share, investor/financial results, or community reputation). We call this moving from benchmarking to best practice to predictive analytics to guidance.

4.   Exploring non-obvious events (e.g., “Do people working at home feel more isolated? ”) to discover insights about emerging challenges without easy answers (e.g., “How can remote workers continue to have positive connections with colleagues?”).

Suggestions for Relevant Research

To ensure the relevance of human capability research, let me propose five steps (see figure 1). While each of these five steps matters, I want to emphasize the foundation of relevant research by focusing on step 1: observe relevant phenomenon. Too often researchers jump to step 5 and share ideas without the previous steps that inform the research. 

No alt text provided for this image

Simply stated, a phenomenon is “what is happening” in human capability (talent, leadership, organization, and HR). Observation means identifying, focusing on, and understanding relevant phenomena by becoming a leadership anthropologist and phenomenologist and exploring questions that are not yet or not easily answered, avoiding what is sometimes called Type III error.

Below are eight hints and questions to improve observation skills.

1.    Seek out and attend to the right phenomenon: those that are interesting, unusual, challenging, and impactful. Interesting phenomena offer new insights to old questions. Unusual phenomena are things that are counterintuitive. Challenging means that the phenomenon is often a problem without an obvious answer. Impact suggests that the phenomenon makes a difference to someone or something people care about.

Ask: Is this phenomenon worth exploring and understanding more deeply?

2.   Listen for unsolved challenges thoughtful colleagues talk about. Thoughtful people learn by being curious and seeking to understand problems (or phenomena) that may not have obvious or immediate answers.

Ask: What are the unsolved challenges thoughtful people are curious about?

3.   Get out of your comfort zone with people. Spend time with people not like you—diverse thinkers who see what you don’t see.

Ask: How do others experience this phenomenon?

4.   Get out of your comfort zone with ideas. Spend time with ideas (idea friends) not like yours. Cross intellectual boundaries and seek insights from other disciplines.

Ask: How would someone from (name other discipline) understand this phenomenon?

5.   Ask what questions to define the present and how the phenomenon you are observing shapes experience today. Phenomenology examines how the mind interprets reality. Observe how different people with the same experience have different reactions.

Ask: What is the response of those who experience this phenomenon?

6.   Ask why questions to explore the past. Learn the history and root cause of the phenomenon by asking why to understand the evolution of the phenomenon (see five whys).

Ask: Why did this phenomenon happen?

7.    Ask what if questions to anticipate the future. Think about how the observed phenomenon will adapt over time.

Ask: What if this phenomenon were extended into the future?

8.   Look for patterns. The phenomenon is often embedded in a system with patterns. Observe the patterns that embed the phenomenon.

Ask: What are some common patterns shaping the phenomenon?

Human capability does not advance just by reporting research. These observation tips and questions foster relevant research. Without rigorous observation as the foundation and first step, the other four steps in figure 1 will lead to research without roots and with limited impact.

How do you observe more carefully the phenomenon you are interested in?

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button