Creating a Culture of Evidence

When organizations act and learn from data, their people and culture benefit.

Authored by: Lindsay Scanlon and Kelly Zimmerman

In the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Making Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-435) and companion guidance, policymakers charge organizations with creating a “culture of evidence.” The Act requires federal agencies to create a living “learning agenda,” which consists of research questions that communicate knowledge gaps and evidence-building priorities, among other things. To create a culture of evidence, an organization must turn the collection, study, use, and learning from evidence into a systematic process where employees regularly answer learning questions, develop plans to disseminate and use findings, and update learning agendas to reflect new frontiers. As the environment, conditions, and context change—so might evidence. In this way, organizations built on evidence remain agile in the face of change.

How do we achieve an evidence-based culture? First, senior leaders should define a “culture of evidence,” its importance to the mission, and convey that it will take everyone collaborating to co-create that future together. Leaders should use storytelling to demonstrate what a culture of evidence looks like, feels like, and acts like. They might use inclusive language such as “we” and “us” when talking about the change. When staff feel they are part of the same group as the leader, they are more likely to assimilate. Employees will need to cultivate a growth mindset – the belief that skills and abilities can be continually improved. This may include designating characteristics or behaviors that affirm a culture of evidence. Such values might include curiosity, adaptability, inclusivity, resilience, collaboration, educated risk-taking, and learning. These should be woven into the talent management process beginning with behavioral interviews to determine how candidates would approach a difficult problem. Talent managers can offer employees the tools to self-assess their mindsets and take training to help them develop these behaviors. Leaders must model these behaviors and recognize and reward employees who do the same. This type of organization requires leaders to set the stage for learning and innovation and constructively manage conflict to allow for diversity of opinion.

We recommend focusing on the following capabilities to facilitate employee adoption, learning, and behavior change:

Evaluation: For evaluations to be useful, they should clearly delineate between findings (what raw data tells us), conclusions (key takeaways that answer research questions), and recommendations (what should be done differently). Evaluators can co-create an implementation roadmap with program managers to help them prioritize and sequence activities. To ensure recommendations are acted upon, leaders might develop and publicly commit to post-evaluation action plans. “Pre-commitment” is a nudge that influences the likelihood that leaders will follow through on what they communicated. To foster accountability, leaders can designate champions for major changes and assign responsibility to owners for implementing others. In this culture, social norms will help employees stay accountable. Finally, leaders should recognize this work and celebrate both quick wins and longer-term accomplishments to strengthen employee relationships and inclusion.

Learning: A culture of evidence both enriches the employee experience and gives teams a purpose to rally around. Learning and development should be designed for how adults learn best. Research shows adults learn 70% of what they know on-the-job, 20% through others, and 10% through traditional training. Organizations can use rotations, details, and tours of duty to create on-the-job learning opportunities and bridge divides between functional divisions. Communities of practice, mentoring, giving and welcoming feedback, and peer coaching programs further learning for individuals and teams. Continuous improvement should be the norm. After finishing a process, activity, or task, multidisciplinary teams might ask “how can we do this smarter, faster, or better next time?” Employees should regularly conduct “after action reviews,” update standard operating procedures, refine related tools and templates, and then leverage these resources to inform policy and programming. 

Data Management: A “culture of evidence” cannot exist without modern, user-friendly systems to capture, collect, store, and allow easy access to and use of evidence in all forms (e.g., program monitoring data, evaluations, third party performance data). Data should be shared as broadly as possible given its classification, with transparency as a default. Organizations can create evidence registries, and periodically synthesize findings to optimize their use. Evidence-informed programs are more likely to lead to successful outcomes than those based on anecdotes or historical precedent. When data falls short of targets, teams will study the challenge, test assumptions, and pivot if necessary. Through automation and accessibility, knowledge workers will have the time and space to curate, study, and learn from reliable data. After all, it requires human logic and emotional intelligence to interpret performance and evaluation information.

Creating an evidence-based culture isn’t easy, but the “why” is an investment that will benefit your mission and your people. Evaluation, learning, and data management capabilities serve as a foundation for this transformation.

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