Saturday 17 January 2009

"Best" Practice

There seems to be some controversy around the term "Best Practice"

Last week I was in a meeting with business leaders, talking about transfer of a particular "best practice" - and met a very impassioned response. "This is not best practice! This is common sense! This is what we should be doing - what we used to do, until standards slipped. It is standard practice - not best practice". We seemed to skip over the fact that this practice was far better than what they were doing already, to a debate about whether it was "Best". To my mind, this debate was a sidetrack - the real debate should have been about whether they adopted this practice and improved what they were doing. Who cares if it's "Best" - it's better than what they have at the moment.

Similarly, in the online discussions, there are some strong views expressed that 'best practices' are harmful to leading KM' - partly I think because of a worry that KM will focus on codification of practice rather than process improvement. Also I have heard people say that the concept of Best Practice stifles improvement. If something is identified as a Best Practice, then people can refuse to improve it - "We can't change this! It's Best Practice!"

Personally, I think that the term "Best Practice" is so well established that it cannot be avoided, but that we should think of "Best Practice" as a goal, not a reality. It is something to be aimed for, not something that already exists.

I work a lot with teams who drill for oil, and their attitude to Practice illustrates what I mean. For them, there is an existing practice which is the Current Best; in other words, what they currently recognise as the best way to drill a well in a specific area. This is documented in their defining documents such as their "Recommended Practice" for specific operations. However they also know that this practice will be constantly reviewed, and improvements constantly sought. They always look to improve beyond the Current Best, and the operation of every well is scrutinised to look for improvements. When improvements are found, the Recommended Practice document is updated. Practices are continuously improved, and performance is continuously improved as a result. Best Practice is the aim, but they know they will never get to "Best". Improvements are always possible.

It's like a championship team. You may be the best at the moment - you may hold the Heineken Cup or the FA cup - but there will be a better team along any minute. Champions can be toppled. Being "the best" is a momentary thing - something to aim for - and it will always be overtaken by something better.

So don't worry too much about the term "Best Practice"; it's pretty much here to stay. Just make sure people treat it as a goal to be chased, and not a reality that already exists and that needs to be captured and preserved. Keep looking for those improvements, keep looking to use the current best as a yardstick to be met and exceeded, and keep learning.

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