Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

A thin veneer of process

with 6 comments

Some time back I published a post arguing that much of the knowledge relating to organizational practices is tacit – i.e. it is impossible to capture in writing or speech. Consequently, best practices and standards that purportedly codify “best of breed” organizational practices are necessarily incomplete:  they do not (and cannot) detail how a practice should be internalised  and implemented in specific situations.

For a best practice to be successful, it has to be understood and moulded in a way that makes sense in the working culture and environment of the implementing organisation.  One might refer to this process   as “adaptation” or “customization”, but it is much more than   minor tweaking of a standard process or practice.  Tacit knowledge relates to the process of learning, or getting to know.  This necessarily differs from individual to individual, and can’t be picked up by reading best practice manuals.  Building tacit knowledge takes time and, therefore, so does the establishment of new organizational processes. Consequently, there is a lot of  individual on-the-job learning and tinkering  before a newly instituted procedure becomes an organizational practice.

This highlights a gap between how practices are implemented and how they actually work. All too often, an organisation will institute a project to implement a best practice – say a quality management methodology – and declare success as soon as the project is completed. Such a declaration is premature because the new practice is yet to take root in the organisation.   This common approach to best practice implementation does not allow enough time for the learning and dialogue that is so necessary for the establishment of an organizational practice. The practice  remains “a thin veneer of process” that peels off all too easily.

Yet,  despite the fact that it does not work,  the project-oriented approach remains popular. Why is this so? I believe this happens because decision-makers view the implementation of best practices as a purely technical problem –  practices are seen as procedures that can be grafted upon the organization without due regard to culture or context and environment or ethics.   When culture,  context and people  are considered as incidental,   practices are reduced to their mechanical (or bureaucratic) elements –  those that can be captured in documents, workflow diagrams and forms.  These elements are tangible so implementers can point to these as “proof” that the processes have been implemented.

Hence the manager who says:  “We have rolled out our new project management system and all users have undergone training.  The implementation of the new methodology has been completed. ”

Sorry, but it has just begun. Success – if it comes at all – will take a lot more time and effort.

So how should best practice implementations be approached?

It should be clear that a successful implementation cannot come from a cookbook approach that follows textbook or consultant “recipes.”  Rather, it involves the following:

  1. Extensive adaptation of techniques to suit the context and environment of the organisation.
  2. Involvement of the people who will work with and be affected the processes. This often goes under the banner of “buy-in”, but it is more than that: these people must have a say in what adaptations are made and how they are made. But even before they do that, they must be allowed to play with the process – to tinker – so that they can improve their understanding of its intent and working.
  3. An understanding that the process  is not cast in stone – that it must be modified as employees gain insights into how the process can be improved.

All these elements tie into the idea that practices and procedures involve tacit knowledge that sits in people’s heads.  The visible, or explicit, aspects – which are often mistaken for the practice – are but a thin veneer of process.

So, in conclusion, the technical implementation of a best practice is only the beginning – it is the start of the real work of internalizing the practice through learning required to sustain and support it.

Written by K

April 15, 2011 at 5:51 am

6 Responses

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  1. Great post K. One point I would suggest needs further emphasising is that no long term change is possible without a cultural change. It is mentioned in your post but I believe it needs to be more prominently emphasised.

    Cheers, Shim.

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    Shim Marom

    April 15, 2011 at 10:05 am

  2. Shim,

    Good point. I haven’t made it clear that change (of the kind wrought by best practices) more often than not requires a change in attitudes. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Regards,

    K.

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    K

    April 15, 2011 at 10:55 pm

  3. This is excellent and offers a valid extension to the concept of ‘tacit’ – to constitute much of the ‘wiring’ of any organisation. This wiring is surely a product of an organisation’s history.

    The concept is I suggest related to notions of ‘experience’ and of ‘maturity’. One way that I see people’s maturity in project management is the extent and success of their engagement with other players, with stakeholders, with values, with habits, with the objectives, the project organisation and the project’s pace – its capability and tenacity to deliver. It is the habituation of these features that characterise what an organisation is able accomplish and how. I sense that habituation is a label that describes what you refer to as ‘not a technical issue’!

    People’s maturity is revealed in their behaviour as a project player – sensing, thinking, arguing, deciding and acting: within the context of the assumptions, habits and local culture and tacit behaviours. Some people learn more from the situations in which they find themselves, than others.

    More will be found in the book that I promised the last time I contributed

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    Martin Price

    April 18, 2011 at 9:44 pm

  4. Martin,

    Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

    I really like the metaphor of wiring because it applies at so many different levels. For example, one can apply it to the lines of internal communication that are unique to an organisation.

    The term habituation is also very apt – people get used to behaving in certain ways and it takes much more than a thin veneer of process to change that.

    I look forward to reading your book.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    Like

    K

    April 18, 2011 at 11:48 pm

  5. One might even articulate the end of the project with a declaration like “Mission accomplished.”

    More broadly I think we are learning that project management is sub-optimal in many places it’s used.

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    Craig Brown

    May 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  6. Craig,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve heard the “mission accomplished” line a few times myself…

    Your observation regarding the sub-optimality of PM in many places is right on the money. I think the “thin veneer of process” is one reason for it, but not the whole story. Another reason, I think, has to do with human motivations: it isn’t enough to dictate to people that they must follow a certain process, they have to actually want to do it.

    Regards,

    K.

    Like

    K

    May 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm


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