Tuesday, 20 October 2009

In defence of Best Practice

Mr Bean at Goodwood
Originally uploaded by Estel-uk
Much as I like and respect David Gurteen, there are times when I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, and today is one of those times. I’d like to discuss one of the topics in his latest newsletter, “On best practice and thinking for yourself"

David writes

“Dave Snowden frequently criticises the concept of best practice such as here in this article and in an article in Harvard Business Blog, Susan Cramm questions it too.

Steve Billing in his blog recently added weight to what David has to say. He comments that best practice" ignores the most important factor ? the people who are working with the practice or model". He adds that "best practice and its forebear benchmarking both divert attention from the people and the context, focusing entirely on the disembodied prescription or model, as though it can be implemented anywhere and get the same successful result".

I am often asked for best practices in KM though what I discern is that what people really want is a prescription - a recipe they can blindly follow. But as I am so fond of saying "there is no substitute for thinking for yourself!" - in the complex real world of KM - there are no best practices; there are no simple recipes!

Steve says this "Instead of looking at best practice, focus your attention on the particularities of your situation, trying to understand all the factors at work, not just those prescribed in your model or best practice. Reflect on how your own participation is affecting, and is affected by, the way these factors are playing out in your organisation. That way you can help to make sure your attention is on what really matters so much more than a best practice or model ? how you are others are interacting with each other and influencing each other in the process of getting the work done."

In other words "think for yourself!"

This has been picked up in several blogs, including Mary Abraham’s excellent legal knowledge management blog.

Now I know that “best practice” is a contentious term; that it can be used defensively (“I’m not going to look at your process improvement because I’m already following best practice”); that some people will not accept a better practice if they don’t think it’s “best in the world”, that the term “best” can itself be a barrier, and that "best" is always contextual.

However there are times when following best practice, rather than thinking for yourself, is entirely the right thing to do. These are times when you are dealing with an area of knowledge that is extremely well established, within the context in which you will use it.

Take the example of driving. My stepdaughter is learning to drive at the moment, and the process of teaching somebody to drive is the process of instilling a whole set of best practices, and an entire suite of rules to follow. Drive on the left (in the UK), approach roundabouts in such and such a way, never cross a double white line, come to a complete halt at a stop junction, give way to oncoming traffic when the cars are parked your side of the road, and so on. The rules of the road are very well-defined and represent best practice for driving in the UK. The last thing you want is the new teenage driver thinking for themselves instead of “blindly following the recipe”. Now there are cases where this doesn’t apply. If you are Jenson Button, there may be times when it is valid for you to overtake on the inside. If you are in an emergency, perhaps you need to cross the double white lines, but in 99% of cases, for 99% of drivers, you would really like everyone to blindly follow best practice (including Mr Bean - see picture).

Where else may you see a similar situation? How about safely shutting down a chemical plant? If a good and safe “best practice” has been developed for plant shut down, you don’t want people thinking for themselves instead of following the best practice. How about food safety procedures in a food manufacturing plant? If a good, effective, safe and legislation-compliant “best practice” has been developed for eliminating contamination, you don’t want people thinking for themselves instead of following that best practice. There are many other examples, and we frequently see this in our Bird Island exercise where best practice has been firmly established over the past decade, and teams that follow best practice succeed, while teams that try to innovate, fail. Of course these best practices are only valid within their own context, and you would not take the rules of the road for the UK and apply them while driving in Paris (let alone in Cairo). But within their context, the practice is best and there is no point in everybody trying to be innovative.

I would refer you to my blog post and magazine article about the evolution of knowledge, and the various maturity stages that knowledge goes through. We can think of four main stages in knowledge evolution

One. The knowledge doesn’t exist yet, and the focus needs to be on Knowledge creation and innovation

Two. Knowledge is in its early stages of research and development. The focus is on finding any practice that will work consistently.

Three. The knowledge is in practice, but still evolving. The focus now is on developing a common view of current best practice among the community of practitioners, and always looking to innovate to make this better. The current best practice may be codified into documentation, which will always be open to change and improvement.

Four. The knowledge is well established and mature, with little scope for further evolution. The focus now is on following the best practice wherever it needs to be applied. There will be no changes to this best practice without careful management of change procedures, and the best practice can be codified into procedures, standards, and even into the operating systems of a factory or plant.

It is in this last case where best practices may be more important than people, and maybe more important than “thinking for yourself”. There is a time and a place for innovation, and a time and a place for following the recipe, and we need to recognise when and where these strategies apply.

Now where I do completely agree with David is where he says that in KM itself, there are no absolute best practices. Here knowledge ie evolving, we are in stage 3, and although there are current best practices, they can always be improved superceded. However despite the lack of Best Practices in KM, there may well be Best Principles.

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