Jo Taylor: Using evidence to make impact

Jo Taylor: Using evidence to make impact

How facts and figures can help you design a business or service

What is evidence based practice?

People should use evidence – facts and figures – to guide the design of businesses and services. They should use evidence to guide their actions or practice. This concept is called “evidence based practice” (EBP) and is particularly important for people trying to achieve social change. EBP can help you achieve more impact, more quickly.

But the idea of “using evidence” can be hard to master. There are many types of evidence which can be used to base your practice on and you need to decide which to use.

Through your work you will also generate evidence which might be useful for other people working in the same area. And, you will probably need to provide evidence that your work is impactful to funders or customers.

So how do you collect it? And, what can you use to influence your work?

Different types of evidence

In my undergraduate degree, I used to think that evidence existed on a continuum between randomised controlled trials (RCT) and qualitative data, as illustrated in this graphic.

A traditional hierarchy of evidence types from O’Hare 2016
A traditional hierarchy of evidence types from David O'Hare 2016

Since September 2015 I have been doing a doctorate in Educational Psychology. It is an applied course, which means that we learn theory, apply it working as an educational psychologist and do research.

It has been an amazing so far, because I have been: 

  • learning from evidence – lectures
  • applying evidence – work
  • and creating evidence – research.

So I have had to think about how different evidence fits into these different situations.

Daniel O’Hare is a practicing Educational Psychologist based in Stroud, in the UK. In January 2016, I saw him speak at a conference about the use of evidence to influence practice. He described it as quadrants which should be balanced.

Different types of evidence in EBP from O’Hare, 2016
Different types of evidence in EBP from Briner, Denyer and Rousseau 2009

Ways to use the evidence base

I spoke to Helen Cunningham from the Alliance for Useful Evidence – a non-profit that provides a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK.

We talked about the way that social entrepreneurs use evidence and she made some interesting points.    

First she said, “It is important to be open if you do not know something”. It’s possible that you will not have evidence for a certain approach, or are not sure if evidence will be relevant in your context.

Second she pointed out that evidence can help you in different ways. It can design a business process, explain a decision, influence a funder or increase impact. “So know how you would like to use it,” she advised.

Third, she said, “It can be hard to balance innovation with the need for evidence.” So as a social entrepreneur you need to build in systems to ensure you can do both.

Top tips for Queen’s Young Leaders

When I was writing this article, I called Daniel O’Hare to speak about his talk at the conference on evidence. While we spoke we came up with some tips for social entrepreneurs, which I have jiggled a bit and include here.

Take time to reflect

This is evidence creation and monitoring at its most basic, but also at its cheapest – time and money.

When applying for funding build in time to measure your impact

It is important for them, but also to ensure you actually have the time to do it protected in your workflow. Look back at O’Hare’s quadrants. It is important to ensure that you have time to use all types of evidence.

Use your peers       

Doctor and epidemiologist, Ben Goldacre describes “Shanghai journal clubs” where teachers meet up and discuss new evidence. This could be you, except anywhere in the world, and with whatever journal you want.

Complete the feedback loop

As an innovator you will be collecting lots of new evidence, which could be useful to the world. If you share it with other people they can learn from it. They can also critique it, so you can learn from them!

Recommended online resources

The Alliance for Useful Evidence and NESTA have produced lots of reports on evidence. Two of my favourites are Using evidence and Standards of evidence.

Using evidence

This spiral describes the different stages of innovation. In Using evidence, there is a breakdown of ideas for how you can use evidence, and the different sorts of evidence you might look for at different stages on the “innovation spiral” (p13-16).

From Using research evidence (Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016, p14)

From Using research evidence (Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016, p14)

Standards of evidence

While looking for evidence to influence your practice, you could also be gathering evidence on how your own work is having an impact.

Nesta’s Standards of evidence will help you describe how confident you are that your innovation is having an impact. They set out different levels of evidence, ranging from being able to describe what you do and why it matters to ensuring “consistent replication and positive impact”. It also gives details on the methods that could be used to gather evidence at each level.

This article was written by Jo Taylor.