Why best practices are hard to practice (and what can be done about it)
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:
- Lack of adaptation: this refers to a situation in which best practices are applied without customizing them to an organisation’s specific needs.
- 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.
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:
- Using best practices as guides for learning new technologies or new ways of working.
- Using best practices to generate creative insight into how business processes work in practice.
- 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.
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!)