I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 54 October 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Next Feature - Readers' Replies - Knowledge Digest


Are Your Best Practices Really the Best?

David J. Skyrme

From time to time it pays to revisit and question some of the basic knowledge management techniques that many of us take for granted. One of these is sharing best practices, which is frequently one of the first projects in a knowledge management initiative. But do we really understand them as much as we might think we do?

What is a Best Practice?

The definition by ENTOVATION Colleague Jan Duffy is as direct as any:

"processes that represent the most effective way of achieving a specific objective"

For 'processes', you can take it as the wider concept of carrying out tasks or doing work. It is interesting that those organizations that are generally considered to have progressed the furthest with sharing best practice are those that have a strong process bias. Several such initiatives have emerged from the quality movement, where manufacturing systems have been divided into discrete processes, and these compared and benchmarked against similar ones elsewhere - either within the same organization or externally. Indeed, many people argue that without performance measures of outputs, you can't identify best practice. After all, unless a better result is achieved, clearly you are doing something sub-optimal that is not the best?

Things are even more complex in those organizations that are not process focussed. This includes many service organizations and many government, NGO and public sector agencies. One could argue that they could perform better if they were more process focussed but the fact is that many of them do not recognize that their work could be more effective if more systematized (how often do your hear the comment: "our work is different"; "we are unique"; "the nature of our intellectual work does not lend itself to automated processes"!). One of the complicating factors is that there are often different views on what represents a successful outcome. Different stakeholders have different perspectives. For example, a government department might regard an e-government initiative as successful if more citizens carry out transactions online (and therefore reduce their costs). Citizens might regard it as successful if it is quicker and cheaper than the traditional alternative (which it is frequently not!). Politicians might regard it as successful if there are few complaints (which there will be if few people use it!). So what might be best result for one group might be the opposite for another.

In addition, as with many aspects of measurement in knowledge management, it is very difficult to deduce the direct relationships between cause and effect. Hence, in many situations - and in common with many other aspects of knowledge management - best practice may not be deduced through objective measures but through subjective judgement.

Identifying Best Practices

What the above indicates, is that for many organizations, you cannot run business models to determine best practices. Therefore you must rely much on judgement. Nor can you necessarily identify 'processes'. To identify best practice you may therefore need to do the following:

  • simply log techniques and practices that people use and are proud of
  • pay particular attention to ones that other refer to "XYZ is doing some interesting things"
  • look for patterns where particular techniques are more frequently associated with good results
  • use 'peer groups' (c0mmunities?) to evaluate these practices.

Part of the challenge is to identify practices that are not widely visible (perhaps for good reasons!). Often the better practices are carried out by conscientious individuals or teams who don't shout about them from the rooftops, but just get on with their job.

At this stage, don't be dismissive about anything. Sometimes some very interesting insights will come from examination of those techniques that are 'unusual' or 'interesting'. And remember: 'best' is in the eyes of the beholder.

Sharing Best Practices

This is usually achieved by a combination of content and communities. Content is typically held in a best practices database, that categorizes the practices, describes them in outline and gives pointers to additional knowledge. Communities are the knowledge networks through which practical knowledge is shared. The essence is one of transferring knowledge from those who know how to do something well to those who are keen to learn more.

The two approaches complement each other. A database should provide enough context to enable a potential user of best practice to qualify the practice: is this one worth investigating further? Communities will help add context and personal experiences. But the best way of transferring many best practices is 'on-the-job'. Therefore, someone who wants to really learn will need to observe the 'best practitioner' at work and question them. Often this questioning will make the practitioner think and reassess their own approach, so that both existing knowledge has been transferred and also new knowledge gained.

Behind these two simple strands is a lot of hard work. No one said that sharing best practices is simple. Ford, for example, have a 62 step methodology that has been developed and refined over many years.

Best Practices in Best Practices

Based on experience of many practitioners and analysis of case studies, here are ten tips for making your Best Practices initiative one of the best:

  1. Have a customer in mind - identifying potential users will create market 'pull' and ensure that your overall programme is customer-focussed.
  2. Understand their needs - what problems or performance issues do they want to address? how do they want to access and retrieve best practice knowledge.
  3. "Tell me the ten things I need to know" - think carefully of what the most important things are to go into a best practice description. Users want hard guidance, not an essay!
  4. Extract guidelines - synthesize best practice from a number of cases into some general guidelines that can be used elsewhere.
  5. Don't be presumptive - rather than giving prescriptions, your aim should be to stimulate thinking and action, perhaps through a community dialogue.
  6. Create checklists - illustrated with examples and stories.
  7. Provide enough information to help users qualify the practice e.g. identify in which situations this practice has worked well.
  8. Nurture communities and networks. It is through people-to-person knowledge exchange that the deep knowledge of best practice gets transferred.
  9. Close the loop - use panels of experts and practitioners to validate best practice guidance; use feedback from practitioners to continually improve and build on best practice.
  10. Think out of the box - be creative and keep exploring new ways to carry out the same task. Never be satisfied that your 'best practices' are really the 'best'.
  11. Coming shortly to the Knowledge Connections website will be a Practitioner's Guide to Best Practices which expands this article, together with step-by-step guidelines, pitfalls and how to avoid them, case studies and additional resources. Details in next month's I3 UPDATE.

    By the way, one group that is addressing best practices in the context of e-Europe (the use of IT and the Internet to enhance work and skills, digital SMEs, regional cohesion and social inclusion,) is the EU-funded BeEP (Best European e-Practices) project. Over the next 2 years they will be developing public databases of best practices in these domains - see http://www.beep-eu.org

    Email: David J. Skyrme

    © Copyright, 2001. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

    I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News is a joint publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited and ENTOVATION International Limited - providers of trends analysis, strategic advice and workshops on knowledge management and knowledge innovation®

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