Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Why best practices are hard to practice (and what can be done about it)

with 14 comments

Introduction

In a recent post entitled, Why Best Practices Are Hard to Practice, Ron Ashkenas mentions two common pitfalls that organisations encounter when implementing best practices. These are:

  1. Lack of adaptation:  this refers to a situation in which best practices  are applied without customizing them to an organisation’s specific needs.
  2. Lack or adoption: this to the tendency of best practice initiatives to fizzle out due to lack of adoption in the day-to-day work of an organisation.

Neither point is new:  several practitioners and academics have commented on the importance adaptation and adoption in best practice implementations (see this article from 1997, for example).  Despite this, organisations continue to struggle when implementing best practices, which suggests a deeper problem. In this post, I explore the possibility that problems of adaptation and adoption arise because much of the  knowledge relevant to best practices is tacit –  it cannot be codified or captured via symbolic systems (such as writing) or speech.  This “missing” tacit knowledge makes it difficult to adapt and adopt practices in a meaningful way.  All is not lost, though:  best practices can be useful as long as they are viewed as templates or starting points for discussion, rather than detailed prescriptions that are to be imitated uncritically.

The importance of tacit knowledge

Michael Polanyi’s aphorism – “We can know more than we can tell’ – summarises the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge : the former refers to what we can “tell” (write down, or capture in some symbolic form) whereas the latter are the things we know but cannot explain to others via writing or speech alone.

The key point is: tacit knowledge is more relevant to best practices than its explicit counterpart.

“Why?” I hear you ask.

Short Answer:  Explicit knowledge is a commodity that can be bought and sold, tacit knowledge isn’t. Hence it is the latter that gives  organisations their  unique characteristics and competencies.

For a longer answer, I’ll quote  from a highly-cited paper by Maskell and Malmberg entitled,  Localised Learning and Industrial Competitiveness:

It is a logical and interesting – though sometimes overlooked – consequence of the present development towards a knowledge-based economy, that the easier codified (tradeable) knowledge is accessed, the more significant becomes tacit knowledge for sustaining the heterogeneity of the firm’s resources.  If all factors of production, all organisational blue-prints, all market-information and all production technologies were readily available in all parts of the world at (more or less) the same price, economic progress would dwindle. Resource heterogeneity is the very foundation for building firm specific competencies and thus for variations between firms in their competitiveness. Resource heterogeneity fuels the market process of selection between competing firms

Tacit knowledge thus confers a critical advantage on firms.  It is precisely this knowledge that distinguishes firms from each other and sets the “best” (however one might choose to define that)  apart from the rest. It is the knowledge that best practices purport to capture, but can’t.

Transferring tacit knowledge

The transfer of tacit knowledge is an iterative and incremental process:  apprentices learn by practice, by refining their skills over time. Such learning requires close interaction between the teacher and the taught. Communication technology can obviate the need for some face-to-face interaction but he fact remains that proximity is important for effective transfer of tacit knowledge. In the words of  Maskell and Malmberg:

The interactive character of learning processes will in itself introduce geographical space as a necessary dimension to take into account. Modern communications technology will admittedly allow more of long distance interaction than was previously possible. Still, certain types of information and knowledge exchange continue to require regular and direct face-to-face contact. Put simply, the more tacit the knowledge involved, the more important is spatial proximity between the actors taking part in the exchange. The proximity argument is twofold. First, it is related to the time geography of individuals. Everything else being equal, interactive collaboration will be less costly and more smooth, the shorter the distance between the participants. The second dimension is related to proximity in a social and cultural sense. To communicate tacit knowledge will normally require a high degree of mutual trust and understanding, which in turn is related not only to language but also to shared values and ‘culture’.

The main point to take away from their argument is that proximity is important for effective transfer of tacit knowledge.  The individuals involved need to be near each other geographically (shared space, face-to-face) and culturally (shared values and norms).  By implication, this is  also the only way to transfer best practice knowledge.

Discussion

Best practices, by definition, aim to capture knowledge that enables successful organizations be what they are. As we have seen above, much of this knowledge is tacit:  it  is context and history dependent, and requires physical/cultural proximity for effective transfer. Further, it is hard to extract, codify and transfer such knowledge in a way that makes sense outside its original setting.  In light of this, it is easy to understand why adapting and adopting best practices is hard: it is hard because best practices are incomplete –  they omit important elements (the tacit bits that can’t be written down). Organisations have to  (re)discover these in their own way. The explicit and (re-discovered) tacit elements then need to be  integrated into new workplace practices that are necessarily  different from standardised best practices.  This makes the  new practices unique to the implementing organisation.

The above suggests that best practices should be seen as starting points – or “bare bones” templates – for transforming an organisation’s work practices.  I have made this point in an earlier post in which I reviewed this paper by Jonathan Wareham and Hans Cerrits.  Quoting from that post:

[Wareham and Cerrits] suggest an expanded view of best practices which includes things such as:

  1. Using best practices as guides for learning new technologies or new ways of working.
  2. Using best practices to generate creative insight into how business processes work in practice.
  3. Using best practices as a guide for change – that is, following the high-level steps, but not necessarily the detailed prescriptions.

These are indeed sensible and reasonable statements. However, they  are much weaker than the usual hyperbole-laden claims that accompany best practices.

The other important implication of the above  is that successful adoption of organisational practices is possible only with the active involvement of front-line employees. “Active” is the operative word here, signifying involvement and participation. One of the best ways to get involvement is to seek and act on employee opinions about their day-to-day work practices.  Best practices can serve as templates for these discussions. Participation can be facilitated through the use of collective deliberation techniques such as dialogue mapping.

Wrap-up

Best practices have long been plagued by problems of adaptation and adoption. The basic reason for this is that much of the knowledge pertaining to practices is tacit and cannot be transferred easily. Successful implementation requires that organisations use best practices as templates to build on rather than prescriptions to be followed to the letter.  A good way to start this process is through participatory design discussions aimed at filling in the (tacit) gaps.  These discussions should  be conducted in a way that invites involvement of all relevant stakeholders, especially those who will  work with and be responsible for the practices.   Such an inclusive approach ensures that the practices will be adapted to suit the organisation’s needs. Further, it improves the odds of adoption because it incorporates the viewpoints of the most important stakeholders at the outset.

Paul Culmsee and  I are currently working on a book that describes such an approach that goes “beyond best practices”.  See this post for an excerpt from the book (and this one for a rather nice mock-up cover!)

Written by K

November 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

14 Responses

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  1. I can’t help reading this think that the phrase “best practice” is used too broadly and generalizations are always made as a result. A technological implementation best practice and a management best practice are defined and use so differently I don’t know how they can even be spoken of together.

    When I think of a “best practice” I think of a method or approach that has been agreed upon by consensus by others in the field. It seems to me that tacit knowledge must always become explicit in order to be recognized as a “best practice” (otherwise does only one person’s knowledge make something a best practice?).

    I guess I read this and feel like a main point struggles to find its way out.

    Like

    Chris

    November 19, 2010 at 3:42 am

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks – I truly appreciate your taking the time to read the post and respond to it. I’ll attempt to address the points you’ve raised below:

    1. The difference between management and technology best practices is smaller than seems at first. Most tech projects have to make contact with organisational reality in the end – and that’s where many of them come unstuck. Consider the number of botched ERP, Business Intelligence and SharePoint projects, for example .

    2. Certainly, best practices are agreed on by consensus at first, but they eventually make their way into some form of published standard. This is a problem because it implies a lowest common denominator approach to what’s included in the standard. In practice, this usually means that only the portions that can be codified are included.

    3, The main point I wanted to make (but perhaps didn’t do so well) is that – as a consequence of (2) – every organisation has to “rediscover” the best practice and make it their own. Published best practices are at best discursive templates – starting points for discussions. Unfortunately they are usually taken to be much more than that.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    Like

    K

    November 19, 2010 at 6:55 am

    • I always loved that the word ‘practice’ was in “best practices”.

      It’s not that you ‘implement’ a best practice. It’s that you practice it (the act of rehearsing a behavior over and over) and determine if it works for you. The act of practicing in it’s self is a reflective one since the goal is to improve (in my opinion it is fundamental to reflect in order to improve).🙂

      It’s not as complex as Cynefin (or as complete) but I think if we use that in tandem with avoiding the term “Best” meaning perfect (cannot be further improved) I think the risk of misusing a Best Practice is considerably mitigated.

      As for creating Best Practices… well then I would get into the Cynefin model or take other models/concepts into account… Maybe that’s the trickiest area? Luckily this article was called why best practices are hard to practice, not necessarily why best practices are hard to create/define.🙂

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      Richard Harbridge

      November 25, 2010 at 5:11 am

      • Hi Richard,

        Thanks for your comments.

        I agree that practice, in the sense of performing a task repetitively, is the key to transferring tacit knowledge. This, in fact, is what apprenticeship and learning by doing is all about. You are also right that such practice should be reflective, not just an unthinking following of prescribed processes.

        The point I would like to emphasise, however, is that best practices cannot capture tacit knowledge. Codified best practices (or standards) are therefore necessarily incomplete. One of the things standards don’t tell you is how you should “practice the practice”. Practices have to be customised or adapted to specific organisational contexts before they can be practiced. The process of customisation invariably involves the creation of tacit knowledge to fill in the missing bits. This is why I used the word “rediscover” to describe this process, rather than “customise” (or “adapt”) : the former gives a better sense for the magnitude and type of effort involved whereas the latter suggests that minor tinkering will do the job (which it won’t).

        Regards,

        Kailash.

        Like

        K

        November 25, 2010 at 10:50 pm

  3. Hi Chris

    (Good to see Kailash is attracting the SharePoint crowd too)

    One of my colleage says “as soon as something has the word ‘framework’ in it, it is like an excuse for people not to think for themselves”

    What he is really saying is the lowest common demoninator form of “best practice” becomes a crutch, because people confuse the means of the practice with the end being sought. (Translation: Don’t start with the means)

    This memetic slant that I wrote for another article at endusersharepoint might offer aother angle to this problem. This article is based from some ideas in our book.

    http://www.endusersharepoint.com/2010/06/30/sharepoint-%E2%80%93-the-ring-for-the-memetic-smackdown/

    regards

    Paul

    Like

    Paul Culmsee

    November 19, 2010 at 9:31 pm

  4. In my encounters with the notion of ‘best practice’ it always seems to either actually stifle reflection, innovation and debate, or is used to prevent challenge to the practice. The fact that every practice in business has a specific domain (e.g. I’m in ‘human services’) and context (e.g. accommodation services) means that as soon as any particular practice is moved from its originating domain and context, it probably becomes sub-optimal as soon as its adopted. So rather than assist in advancing performance, responsiveness and capabililty, ‘best practice’ dumbs down to an unquestioning reflex.

    Like

    David Green

    December 1, 2010 at 8:59 am

  5. David,

    Very well said!

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    Like

    K

    December 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm

  6. […] They want Joe or Bob because of what Joe or Bob, as individuals, bring to the table. (Kailash writes about this in more detail if I am leaving you scratching your head at this point. I am going to quote him in a reply to […]

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  7. […] most practices– even the most mundane ones – involve a degree of tacitness.  In fact, in an earlier post I have argued that the concept of best practice is flawed because it assumes that the knowledge […]

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  8. […] are to be used or implemented. This approach is doomed to fail because – as I have discussed in this post – standards, methodologies and best practices capture only superficial aspects of processes. […]

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  9. […] Why best practices are hard to practice (and what can be done about it) […]

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  10. […] deeper issue is that much of the knowledge pertaining to best practices is tacit – that is, it cannot be codified in written form. Indeed, what differentiates good business […]

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