A thin veneer of process
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:
- Extensive adaptation of techniques to suit the context and environment of the organisation.
- 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.
- 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.