Bix sits in confusion (Detail), from "Heaven's to Betsy!", Club "16" comics

Do Best Practices Destroy Long Term Value in Knowledge Management & Process Design?

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Jack Vinson has an interesting report on a recent presentation by Bob Hiebeler of St. Charles Partners. The fascinating part was the discussion of “best practices”: it got me thinking about James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St) and what it implies for the areas of Business Process and Knowledge Management.

Hiebeler correctly states that is is not “a best practice” but “an example of a best practice”. Many people believe that a practice that works somewhere else can be replicated, mechanistically, in every other environment. Le Corbusier believed this in architecture, advocating standard processes that would be used across the world. Not only did he quite correctly advocate standard parts — such as having standard electrical current, beam sizes, nail and screws, etc. — he also believed in a standard model for all construction. Houses should look alike no matter where they are. Even cities are interchangeable: his “best practice” design for Moscow, which was rejected by even the ultimate High Modernists, the Leninists, appears again, almost jot for jot, as his plan for Paris.

20th century agriculture and development had this propensity for reusing success in one place in all others, with no regard to whether it fit or whether the existing communities had knowledge (always tacit since in many cases the communities were illiterate, even if their language had writing) that would enable results using different methods. The massive monoculture, easily taxed and white-led plantations were all based on the idea that you can reduce agriculture down to certain processes that will work anywhere. They replicated best practices from the temperate West and had miserable success.

One of the main reasons for the failure of High Modernism was its unexamined faith in what amounts to mechanization. The intellectuals of our past century truly believed in the efficiency of the monoculture. One of the most telling incidents is the speech by a noted American capitalists to the communist “convention” after the first war. He noted that while their ideologies were different, they aimed for the same ends. They believed in state-run everything for the cause of the worker. He believed in it because state-run was the most efficient form of production. Competition stifled efficiency, he believed. Which explains why there was such a rush to monopoly after Reconstruction.

We still have this problem. When we talk about “best practices” what we often mean is that native solutions have no value. A foreign practice (often actually from a foreign country and not simply a concept not from this subculture) will improve matters by making things more regulate-able. This ability to manage, which requires the ability to see into a process, is what we want, because it allows us to create repeatable processes. In fact, this is what drives many business process improvement efforts.

Knowledge Management is often seen as a way to reduce the “stupid” staff from “wasting” their time. Vinson discusses a recent article in KMWorld about the cost of not finding information. Vinson rightly questions whether the fact that knowledge workers spend 35% of their time searching for information is particularly bad, suggesting that researching is half the goal sometimes. This seems to be a question of “efficiency for what?” Why are we searching for efficiency in getting knowledge? In the end, knowledge building is difficult and most of the time, knowledge workers are working a problem that does not have one, right answer.

It is perhaps telling that the discussion time following Hiebeler’s talk dealt with, according to Vinson, two (of five) topics that show a High Modernist predisposition in the audience: “What do you do about people who are resistant to change?” and “How do you motivate submission / use of best practices?” The agronomists and the World Bank officials in Tanzania had much the same problem. They of course said that all new processes should be adopted voluntarily, that the peasants would see these new ways, see their superiority and intelligence and adopt them of their own free will. It must be adopted voluntarily. And where they do not adopt it voluntarily, we will use force to make them stop resisting. Resistance is usually for a good reason: you are taking someone’s power away or reducing a complex process to a simplified process that doesn’t work as well.

It’s all interesting stuff. What we need is a healthy respect for the complex local knowledge and ways that develop over time to fit the particular situation. No one ever adopts a “best practice”. They use it as a starting point, management forces it onto the staff who then have to figure out new ways of doing things, since the standard practice doesn’t actually work at a low level. Knowledge workers have always known this, which is why you pay consultants to come in and do things. The better ones have a large toolchest with a variety of toolsets that they can deploy depending on the environment.

I’m a big supporter of IT operations using tools like the SEI’s CMM and I’ve documented business process flows for IT in a variety of locations. I’m actually very Best Practice and Process oriented, but my experience tells me that you cannot ignore the complexities of the actual implementation, the myriad ways that individuals get around the process to get their work done.

Beware the consultant who comes in with a Best Practice.

Image Credit: Bix sits in confusion (Detail), by Jimmy Thompson. From “Heaven’s to Betsy!”, Club “16” comics

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