There is a lot of pushback in the KM world about the term "best practice", but is it a bad term, or is it just a term than needs rehabilitation?
|Best practice isn't spread like butter|
Originally uploaded by sicamp
In the discussion groups, we hear people saying "we don't believe in best practice". Respected KM gurus say that "best practice harms effectiveness". There is a school of thought that says the concept is flawed, or even dangerous.
But is it?
In our recent survey we found that 62% of the knowledge managers who responded said that Best Practice was part of their KM program, and of that 62%, those who quoted a value delivery figure for KM delivered on average $175 million in value from Knowledge Management. Those who did not include Best Practice delivered on average $8.6 million from KM.
Certainly Best Practice is not a universal concept - David Snowden, in his complexity model, believes that best practice will apply only to simple repeatable non-complex problems. However the world is full of simple repeatable non-complex problems, and there is a lot of value to be gained by finding good consistent ways to solve these.
Certainly I have seen the concept of best practice used negatively and destructively in organisations. I have seen people defend outmoded and inefficient ways of working by saying "we are following best practice". However I feel that as a concept, best practice can still be very useful, with the following caveats
1. Best is temporary. There may be a current "best way" to do something, but like "world champion" or "world record", it's not going to stay the best for long.
2. Best is therefore a starting point. We are always looking to improve on best, but without knowing the temporary best, we don't know what we have to beat. Like a world record, best is there to be beaten - its a minimum accepted threshold.
3. Best is contextual. There may be no universal "best way" to do something. The best way to deal with emergency decompression of a Jumbo Jet may not be the best way to deal with emergency decompression of a Harrier jump jet. However within that context, there is still a "best".
4. In a new context, you cannot blindly apply "best" from another context. However you can learn from other "bests" - no context is ever totally alien, and there may be approaches that can inform and advise, that you can build upon
5. Best practice does not have to be written down. It can live there in the community cloud of tacit knowledge. Usain Bolts "best way to run a sprint" is probably not even conscious - its in his muscle memory. However if it can be written down - in a wiki, or a document, or a manual - so much the better, so long as it is immediately updated every time its superseded and improved. The risk with documenting a best practice, is that it goes out of date, and there is no point in documenting without allowing for continual update. The risk with not documenting a best practice, is that people can't find it, can't refer to it, and so make up their own practice which is frequently far from best. The answer is to record and continually update, eg through a wiki, or through a constantly reviewed and updated reference (for example, army doctrine)
If you apply these 5 caveats, then there is little or no risk from the concept of best practice, and instead it can be part of the engine that drives continual improvement.
After all, the concept of best practice is simply the following thought process
"Here's a problem. Has anyone seen anything like this before? What's the best way they've found to deal with things like this? How can I build on/improve on that to tackle my problem? Hmm - that worked, I'd better let others know what I did".