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You talked of best practices?

A little story

Eva Lisa, Jenny and Alan were having dinner in a restaurant in Salzburg after the European Digital Cities meeting. Coming back from the toilet, Alan commented that the design of the machine that distributed hand-towel paper was rather bad because with wet hands the paper tore as you pulled it out. Eva Lisa said she would then pull out the paper first and after wash her hands. Jenny suggested writing the idea on the wall over the washbasin. The owner didn't want to have people writing on the walls in the toilets but he took note of the problem and said he would talk to the person who sold him the machine. He didn't get round to doing so for quite a while because other more important things came up. When he did mention it, the salesman agreed that it was a nuisance but in reality, although he wouldn't admit it, he wasn't very interested in suggesting changes to the machine as he had quite a stock of them still to sell.... Anecdote? Or potential development of best practices? Well, some thought, a little communication and the lack of it as well.

People first

In the recent Aesopian workshop held in Salzburg about knowledge management and the role of ICTs, the question of so-called "best practices" was the key subject. Aesopian, by the way, is a European Union funded project developing a tool for best practices management. When we talk about Information Society Systems, which was the name of the workshop I was asked to run in Salzburg, it is important to stress that we are not just talking about hardware and software but also and above all about people. In developing electronic tools for assisting the development of best practices, it is so easy to get caught up in the intricacies of the software and the specifications of the tools that sometimes it is not so easy to keep in mind that people will always be the key actors in developing best practices.

Knowledge management

Let's see if we can step back a bit and try to understand what all this business of "knowledge management" and "best practices" is about. Knowledge management has to do with the need to improve the development of knowledge and in particular as far as best practices are concerned, with respect to ways of working and the integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in that process. Knowledge, by the way, is not synonymous with information, although the two are often confused. But why worry about best practices? Haven't we always developed good ways of doing things as a result of accumulated experience? Well, hitherto proven knowledge development methods turn out to be too slow and often inefficient in modern-day situations which are complex and evolve so rapidly. That doesn't mean we shouldn't use them any more. The question is "How can we accelerate and improve knowledge development without, in so doing, making it valueless?"


A major part of this effort involves individual and collective learning so as to improve ways of working, Developing best practices fits into this framework. We are not necessarily talking of learning sitting on a school bench nor of reading books or guides, but what is called tacit learning, learning from doing and from informal exchange with other people. Often the way we do things is not clearly thought out which doesn't stop us doing it that way. From experience we have learnt what seems the best way to do something. In addition, this "knowledge" is rarely in a form that can be communicated to others.

What are best practices?

One gets the impression when listening to talk about "best practices" that they are like recipes or rules of the game. The caricature would be that of an external expert called in to figure out the best ways to do things and then everybody implements those ideas to the greater good of the company. In fact, best practices cannot be a fixed statement of how to do things best because circumstances change so rapidly and the way we do things depends heavily on the context. They are not a set of rules to be imposed on colleagues so that work produces the best results. Just try imposing rules on people who, from their unchallenged personal experience, intuitively feel that the way they always did things is still the best. Best practices are in fact a crystallising out of experience in such a way that the essential can be exchanged and, as a result, enhance the learning of ourselves and others.

From the particular to the general

It the process of developing "best practices" we are moving from the particular to the general, from the context specific to what is pertinent to others in different contexts. This in itself is a considerable task. It requires making a choice amongst the mass of experience that is particular to a given context in the belief that what is chosen will be pertinent in other contexts. The choice is all the more difficult that the obviously pertinent may not be the very thing that sparks off an understanding on the part of someone else. If you look at the dynamics of the creative process, it becomes clear that much creativity comes from juxtaposing apparently unrelated things. The metaphor is one such powerful creative tool. All this selected experience requires structuring if others are to find their way around it. As far as the choice of the material is concerned, common sense would suggest that it best done by those seeking to learn from it ... but then you have a potentially unmanageable situation with the mass of context-related information. Presumably some midway solution would be the most appropriate: an initial choice being made by he or she who communicates the experience, who places it within some predetermined categories and the seeker of solutions is able to choose what he or she sees as interesting and pertinent.

Tacit knowledge

The knowledge that underlies our choices of the best way of doing things is so-called "tacit" knowledge. As we have said above, it is often intuitive, unformulated or only partially formulated. This is to a certain extent its strength because we don't need to waste much energy thinking about it. At the same time, the fact that it hasn't necessarily been thought out and that those ways of working recede to the limits of awareness as they become automatic implies that we can be victims of our own misjudgement without being aware of it. In fixing our ways of working in writing - as is generally done when formulating best practices - we shift that knowledge from tacit to formal and run the risk of making it inappropriate. As far as those who are involved in the formulation of best practices are concerned they probably learn a great deal from the experience of doing so. In other words, the formulation of best practices is an excellent way to develop best practices for those who do that formulation. It may not be economically sound to involve the whole work-force in actively thinking about how they work, although that intuitive economic evaluation might prove wrong. Whatever, we still need to communicate the essence of that experience to others. The little understood challenge of so-called best practices is to slightly shift tacit knowledge towards a more formal mode so that it can be more readily understood and exchanged without going too far and making it useless because it becomes too formal and rigid.

Formulating experience

One of the problems not specifically addressed by the Aesopian project is the question of formulation. How do you express your experience? The choice of words, the tone, the perspective from which the experience is taken,... all have a considerable impact on how that experience is received and used by others. In the light of what has been said above, in moving from tacit to slightly more formal knowledge, formulation plays a key role in finding a balance that does not destroy the value of that experience by over-formalising it.


Let's return to the question of the economic soundness of involving everybody in the process of developing best practices. I'm not talking here of executing those best practices developed by others, but of having individuals and groups think out that development for themselves. This ideal participatory approach has a number of apparent problems to it. First of all on a short-term basis, common sense seems to indicate that it takes more time and is less efficient. On a longer-term basis however, if you consider the difficulty of implementing best practices developed by others and the resulting conflict with individual and corporate cultures, having everybody participate from the outset may not turn out to be so time consuming and inefficient. Getting people to participate can be a problem in itself. There is another problem in a wide-scale participatory approach. The pressure to get the work done and deliver the goods is uppermost in everybody's minds. Hardly anybody talks of "stress" any more because almost everybody is stressed. So much so that it is difficult to find the time and the inclination to momentarily step out of that everyday rush and consider how things are being done. Our perception of and our attitude towards time are probably some of the major problems that face the western world. Rushing, especially when it comes to thinking and deciding, is surely not a good practice.

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Created: October 31st, 1998 - Last up-dated: October 31st, 1998