E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Why Best Practices Don’t Work for Knowledge Work

Gran Canaria - La FortalezaI don’t recall having put together a blog post over here on the specific topic of capturing "Best Practices"; so after reading last Friday’s blog post by my good friend Oscar Berg on this very same topic (Under the title "Forget about copying best practices") I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a few insights, specially since I’m one of those folks with a traditional KM background that never believed in them, even back then! Years have now gone by and I suppose you may be wondering whether I have changed my opinion on them, or not, right? Well, no, I haven’t. Quite the opposite! And here is why …

"Best Practices" are the worst thing you can apply to any kind of knowledge work. Any kind. Social Computing is no different! More than anything else because best practices will always suggest concepts like static, fixed, inalterable, unmodified, unbeatable, perfect. And, as you can imagine, those are the kind of characteristics that would be rather the opposite to what knowledge is all about and the capturing of some of it; knowledge is supposed to be dynamic, flexible, malleable, modifiable, flowing, a continuous learning experience, imperfect. Always leaving room to improve the already existing knowledge by acquiring plenty more!

So can you capture those "Best Practices" on knowledge work? No. You just can’t! That’s exactly what Oscar talks about in his blog post, where he claims how you can’t copy best practices from one company to another because eventually it would turn itself, over time, into what he calls a "common" practice. They would devalue themselves over time with their continued reuse to the point where at some stage they would no longer add any additional value to that business. On the contrary. And I just couldn’t help agreeing with him 100% on this one, but I would go even one step further: even within your own business and across organisations best practices would follow that same dead end!

That’s why whenever someone asks me whether I have got documented somewhere some "Best Practices" on Social Software and Social Computing, so that they would have a good starting point for them to start experimenting with these social tools, based on what other knowledge workers may have been using themselves successfully in the past, my answer keeps coming up with the same sentence: "No, sorry, I don’t have any; there aren’t any!" This surely surprises them quite a bit, since most of them are very well versed, and very much used to, as well!, to the concept of best practices, since that’s what they have been accustomed to from last century’s labour based economies, where, to some extent, they could make sense. To a certain extent…

But not in today’s knowledge economy. Not in today’s working environment where information and knowledge flows faster than ever before improving itself more and more by the minute without an opportunity to become static, so you can capture it. However, that’s typically not my answer to their amazement when confronted with the fact there aren’t any best practices for social software, and for knowledge work, in general. My typical answer is that in most cases best practices would probably work for those folks who put them together for themselves in the first place. And that’s about it.

Why? Well, to me it’s all about a key concept we keep neglecting back and forth and with no remedy: context. Indeed, when trying to capture those best practices, you may be doing a very good job at it, but still they are being put together in a specific context, that, of course, will not correlate to other areas of the business, nor other companies, and as such that’s when we would be entering that "common" practice. And I always make use of an example very close to people: blogging. I have been blogging for about 7 years now and plenty of folks have suggested I put together some of those best practices on blogging. Kind of like a Blogging 101 for newcomers.

And time and time again I keep telling those folks that, yes, I could do that, I could document them, but I also mention that they would only probably work for me, and my context. No one else’s. I mean, all of the stuff I have learned about blogging over the years pretty much applies to me. To my own blogging style and voice. And not anyone else. Just because they don’t have the same context I do, just because they don’t have the same goals for their blogging as my own. Simple, but it gets the message across.

Another interesting read on the topic of capturing best practices, and its various flaws, is one blog post (In Portuguese, originally [Link here]) put together by the always insightful Ana Neves under Capture Best Practices. Or No [Translated link into English]. In that article Ana just nails it, in my opinion, when she states what they usually convey:

  • "Cannot be improved
  • Must be followed to the letter
  • Applies in all circumstances"

That’s exactly why I, too, would prefer to use the term "good practice" versus "best practice" and more than anything else, because of something I learned a long while ago as well: there is always room for improvement. Always! And that’s exactly where Best Practices fail to deliver time and time again.

A long while ago I was actually attending a live event where KM extraordinaire Dave Snowden was the main KM keynote speaker, talking as well about the main fundamental flaw(s) behind best practices that I thought was worth while mentioning over here as well, which I think has also been rather underestimated all along: the fact that, as a human being, there is very little you will learn from a best practice. We just can’t learn from something that is perfect, that works all the time, that doesn’t challenge us over and over again.

Our brains, contrary to what most people think, have been designed to learn much more from lessons learned instead; from what didn’t work; from conflicts; from situations that were everything, but successful; from what would force us to (re)think what we have just done and do it better, trying harder next time around…

So, if anything, businesses should encourage knowledge workers to capture those lessons learned, to document them as good as they possibly could (Perhaps with the use of narrative / storytelling to make it much more compelling), but always leaving plenty of room for improvement. Because that way we would be capable of guaranteeing something even better will come along the way. And, eventually, re-word best practices as good practices to perhaps then allow them to transform themselves into "common practices" and, finally, die off completely. Somehow I just feel we would all be so much better off altogether. Without them, of course!

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  1. Essentially, you are saying that reframing a “contextual best practice” as a “lessons learned” makes the information more transportable, and usable at the other end.

    I agree that rote reuse of practices (best or otherwise) is lazy management. But I have also seen too much of the “not invented here” mindset that wasted tons of resources and frustrated staff endlessly because management refused to consider ANY practices from other industries or peers.

    Balance and thoughtful consideration of current needs and context wins over knee jerk every time.

    Enjoying your posts!

  2. Luis,

    I much prefer the term “Testimonials” to “Best Practices”.

    I’m a firm believer taking time to consider what worked and what didn’t work on a particular project.

    Here in Oracle many of our teams use the After Action Review methodology to make this happen in a group setting.

  3. Luis, as you can image I agree with you on the fact that “best practices” are a false concept as no practice is, or at least should be seen as, the best.

    However, I do not agree with one of the reasons you point out for that: “you can’t copy best practices from one company to another because eventually it would turn itself, over time, into what [Oscar Berg] calls a “common” practice. They would devalue themselves over time with their continued reuse to the point where at some stage they would no longer add any additional value to that business”

    For me there is no issue on something becoming a “common practice”. In fact, and echoing what Mary says in her comment, it would be great if all “best” practices could be copied and used and became common practices – that would save a huge amount of time and money. The big issue is that once a practice is taken as “best” it is very easy for people / organisations to stop questioning it, trying to find ways of improving it.

    I hope this makes sense.

  4. Hi Luis. Perhaps “Best Patterns” or “Good Patterns” is a buzzword to use…with all due reverence to those who actually know and have written something about “design” and “pattern languages”. The word pattern here denotes (to me, anyway) a higher level of thinking and gets away from the implication that practices can be copied in any meaningful way. Your blog rocks. Thanks for keep us all on our toes.

  5. Luis, thanks for sharing another great piece. In his book “Collaborartion” Morten Hansen discusses how the more help a team gets from colleagues outside the project, the worse off they are. He’s talking about a cost of collaboration; we might postulate that best practices include a tax, i.e. that the further away from you the practice was developed, the more trouble it will cause you. It’s hard to generalize, of course, but as you’ve mentioned, extracting a practice from one context and embedding it in another has its risks.

    @Frank: best practices are often just stories that are generalized, turned into recipes an eventually into crutches. The semantics of “testimonial”, i.e. event-specific, descriptive, originating from an individual perspective make it such a great term. They are to be learned from, not copied.

    Here’s a good take on rules and exceptions from “Sea Kayaker’s Deep Trouble”:
    “Obeying rules without an understanding of the reasons behind them
    “creates an approximation of competence
    “which leaves one vulnerable to the exceptions.

  6. Luis,
    I remember arguing with senior managers in1998 (when best practice propaganda was in full flight) about the limitations of assuming there was one best way for all circumstances. It is critical that we attempt to share the best of what we have learnt and even more critical to know the limitations of these learnings when using them as a foundation elsewhere (in anothercontext). I agree with you that rigid best practices reapplied without adaptation is dangerous. However there aresome enviornents where this can be betterthan total flexibility. Companies in the known/simple Cynefin domain may benefit from keeping processes consistent whereas those in the comex space definately need aflexible approach, but may benefit from what has been successful in similar contexts before. The danger comes (in complex), when people think that THE answer is known. This is where best practices do most damage and why thy areso fiercely rejected. Often fueled the way they are sold in without thought of the new situation.
    Perhaps best practice might be discover what has been done and leverage it for future emergent opportunities.
    Tweeting as Metaphorage

  7. Well said.

    Humans are really only good for exception handling – when things go wrong, you need a human to analyze, to decide, and to find the ways around the problems. That’s what humans do best. It bugs the hell out of me when people get obsessed with optimizing and automating processes as though their workforce is an army of fleshy labor work-bots.

    Hopefully we can cast off the shackles of a hundred years of applying manufacturing management policy to knowledge work. It’s different. We know it’s different!

  8. Agree completely on all points, but I take a much more direct approach to get to the same “destination” in that I suggest that at BEST, a best practice has limited strategic value to begin with. A best practice is at best, “new to you knowledge.” New to you knowledge isn’t what feeds innovation which needs as its spark, new knowledge. All boats float in a storm, and all boats rise on the tide. So indeed a best practice does become as stated above a “common practice” and that doesn’t in the end really get you much (and that’s assuming that you can even apply the best practice).

    This, I believe, is exactly why KM is ill suited for common methodologies and such and why efforts by one organization to simply copy what another does are doomed to fail.

  9. Being highly tuned to metrics that discern improvement from the contrary is the only way to survive in a dynamic world. Baldrige and Deming had this figured out years ago. Make sure each morph is measured and in the right direction.

    Jim Hodson
    CEO Countdown To Buy

  10. In general I agree with your post, Luis. However, might I suggest a “meta” best practice — include feedback loops in your KM and social computing processes and systems wherever possible. Otherwise, how will anyone know when the current best practice has outlived its usefulness?

  11. I the health and development sphere I have also heard “evidence-based” practices and “promising practices”. Obviously, one comes before the other. “lessons learned” is a good terminology when you want to be context specific because the lesson comes AFTER an experience that is always relative to an individual. In closing, from now on I’ll average good and best and stick to “great”.

  12. Luis, just re-reading Anthony DiBella (Chap 9 – Learning Practices – Assessment and Action for Organizational Improvement) where he prefers “Best Principles” to “Best Pracs”. The challenge in trasnferring a “best prac” from one org to another is that often the context is not considered. The need to understand, reflect and re-invent (probe/sense/ re-innovate maybe) before responding.

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