The Virtuous CIO  

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January 23, 2010 — The Cultural Aspects of Best Practices

Why do people keep talking about Best Practices?

The term Best Practices is most often used as a weapon by vendors and consultants. It is also used as a political device within businesses as a means for one party to get its way in a difference of opinion. The wielder of this device attempts make the unanswerable argument.

“Why should we do this?”

“It is Best Practice.”

If you look carefully at the semantics, this is quite similar to arguing with a child.

“Why should we do this?”

“Because!” comes the whiny voice.

What is also amazing is the remarkable similarity in the mentality behind each of these arguments. There is a certain tongue-in-cheek moment involved in this essay because I have been guilty of using this argument myself. It is rather embarrassing to look in the mirror when I am asking the question “Who is the fool?”

Giving some additional thought to the use of the term, it is easy to see how one can be backed into a corner following injudicious use. At this point you have not been convinced you are acting the fool, so you trot out the trump.

“I don’t think it applies in this case.”

“Well, we need to recognize this is Industry Standard Best Practice.” You perhaps do not say it with a whiny voice, but it’s sure hard to avoid that note of superiority.

Consider for a few moments the dangerous position our IT Professional can land in. First of all, after you take refuge in a tired catch phrase, everyone else involved in the discussion wonders if you really know what you are doing. Secondly, you are implying that the individual on the other side of the discussion really doesn’t know what he is doing. Not only is this insulting, but calls into question one of the fundamental attributes you should have as an IT Professional: the ability to communicate.

So what?

The purpose of this essay is not to describe the stupidity we often find ourselves guilty of, but rather to speak to the concept of Best Practices and what it really means. Googling the term yields a plethora of definitions, and most boil it down to something like “finding the best way to a desired outcome.” The term generally revolves around the discipline of Business Process Management (BPM), and has been in use for about twenty years. Michael Hammer developed Business Process Reengineering in the late 1980’s as a result of some unusually clear thinking. He was able to fix broken businesses by starting with a clean sheet of paper and asking fundamental questions about what the business was and where it was going.

Hammer quantified and summarized a lot of thinking which has been going on for the last century. The underlying concepts are not new, however his presentation was. The importance of process and practice lies in the nature of business today. Competitors may not only be in the same city, but also across the nation or on the other side of the globe. A discussion of trite, overused phrases related to globalization will wait for another time, but we cannot ignore the truth. Survival of a business requires nimbleness and a deep awareness of how your business functions.

Where do we go from here?

Best Practices will have two primary applications in business today. Business organizations need to constantly reexamine process in the light of understood best practices.

First of all, it is necessary to control cost and improve operational efficiencies. This is where the term, which I just maligned; Industry Standard Best Practices becomes important. In any given industry, there will be a body of knowledge on how best to operate the business. It may be quantified and published or it may be tacit. The individual in charge of business operations needs to ask herself if the business is compliant with this body of knowledge. She would need a very good reason not to follow these practices. Going back to our definitions, the goal of these practices is related to cost. As we have recently seen in the automotive industry, high fixed costs can be lethal in a dynamic economy.

Secondly, best practices may be adopted as a way to gain competitive advantage in a given market or industry. In this case, you would not necessarily be following industry standard practices. You would, instead, be looking for that edge within your own organization and processes, which puts you ahead of the competition. This is where Michael Hammer achieved greatness. Organizational and process change from a reengineering perspective can be used to create value for the organization. In most cases this is directly reflected on the bottom line.

And to sum up?

Do your best to avoid tossing terms around as a way to confuse senior management, or sidestep your own mistakes. The road to success as an IT Professional, and also as a business professional, is to use Best Practices as a strategic weapon to advance the business organization.