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Ghost in the machine: How old practices hinder future progress

Why we need to restructure our organizations for evidence-based practices to be effective

Every day we use our computers to perform a myriad of valuable functions, from word processing to spread sheets to the gathering of information on the worldwide web. What we see on our screens are various applications, such as Excel, Word or Internet Explorer. From time to time we are asked to do various updates to these applications. Even better, we have enabled the automatic update function so that it occurs without our paying any attention.

For us end users, all of the operating systems that are constantly running in the background are like a “ghost in the machine.” It is a modern day version of magic, a series of zeroes and ones that produces miraculous results. But if those updates do not occur and something goes wrong, the phantom that we ignored suddenly comes back to haunt us. Everything that we take for granted with the computer comes to a halt, leaving us frustrated, desperate and angry.

So it is with Evidence-Based Practices (EBP). We learn the concepts, we go to training, we develop action plans, and then we move to implementation...only to discover that 85 percent of the time, our efforts to realize what we have learned result in failure. We sit there thinking that there must either be something wrong with us or that EBP is just another new fad, not worth pursuing.

In reality we have just encountered another “ghost in the machine,” only this one has to do not with technology but with our organizations. We are taking complex human behavioral interventions — in my world of criminal justice dealing with adult offending and juvenile delinquency — and trying to make them work on an antiquated operating system. It would be akin to surfing the internet on a computer still running the original version of DOS. It just can’t happen.

Yet every day we try to use advanced EBP applications and run them on an outmoded command-and-control, hierarchical bureaucratic system. Even more puzzling is that fact that we have come to assume that, in terms of EBP and our organizations, there is some type of automatic update process functioning in the background. We want to believe that implementing the knowledge of EBP will simultaneously transform the operating system of our organizations. If only the world were so simple.

Somehow we need to recognize that we can only apply research and science to the content of the work that we do, after we have applied the same principles to the organizations that we lead. Unless we understand, accept and take seriously this simple fact, which is of course where evidence-based management enters this picture, we will constantly be haunted by a “ghost in the machine” whose magic can only produce one nightmare after another.


This article was orginally published in Evidence Based Practices, Dec. 2007

Frank Domurad is Vice President of The Carey Group and a nationally recognized expert in Evidence-Based Practices (EBP). He has worked with community and institutional correctional agencies at the Federal, state and local levels across the country to implement Evidence-Based Practices, including strategic planning, assessment, human resource development, program implementation and training. He has written extensively on evidence-based policy and practice, evidence-based management, cognitive-behavioral interventions, organizational development and change management, organizational culture, team building and collaboration, professional assessment/DACUM, strategic planning, e-learning, technology and public safety, and terrorism and homeland security.

Domurad joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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