There are various views on the concept of best practice in IT. Many frameworks or models in IT call themselves ‘best practice’ and provide updates and new versions on a somewhat regular basis. But surely it’s an oxymoron to improve something that has been declared as the best possible way of doing things?
Firstly, one should never forget that IT is actually very young. In fact in 2010, we’re celebrating 50 years of IT in New Zealand with a major conference in September. It is naive to suggest we’ve already figured it all out.
Secondly, is best practice per se important? Are the overheads of best practice, and those of the benchmarking that must be done to achieve best practice, actually of greater cost than the benefits it arguably produces? And are the outcomes of benchmarking against external factors better than other approaches?
The truth of the matter is that very few ‘best practices’ are appropriate in all circumstances. Take ITIL, for instance, in the service management area. Whilst it is arguably the most widely accepted set of concepts and practices available, there would be very few instances where it would be appropriate to implement ITIL in its entirety.
An alternative approach is what can be called ‘good enough practice’. ‘Good enough’, as opposed to just ‘good’, is the pragmatic approach. Rather than benchmarking against so-called best-practice frameworks, we focus on ourselves and our competitive environment and ask questions like “Are we doing it as well or better than most of our competitors at the moment?”, “Are we following recognised good practice, but in a way that focuses on our intended outcomes?”, and “Are we agile enough to take advantage of changes to our environment?”.
With the change in focus towards a more pragmatic approach comes a change in outcome, leaning towards a more efficient, agile, versatile and competitive approach with a lower compliance cost – all good factors for success (especially in the current environment). That being said, we can never lose sight of the objective as IT professionals.
As you’ve probably picked up, ‘good enough’ as a concept is relatively subjective, which makes it a weaker candidate for benchmarking – how can we benchmark against something that isn’t particularly easily defined quantitatively?
The temptation then grows to focus more on business outcomes than professional ones, and upsetting that balance never ends well. The answer, of course, is that to define ‘good enough practice’ in an organisation we must have a greater understanding of our own organisation and objectives, the objectives and standing of our competition, and our professional, legal and ethical responsibilities. Armed with this knowledge we can then go about building the criteria for assessment that will enable us to implement a benchmarking process on an ongoing basis. Interestingly, the actual art of accumulating and compiling this information is where the true benefit of this approach lies, for all of a sudden we’re measuring ourselves against our own critical success factors rather than an arbitrary model that may not always be entirely suitable for our environment, organisation or intended outcome.
Both approaches have their place, of course. However I can’t help thinking that measuring ourselves against our own critical success factors combined with an ongoing competitor and environmental analysis and an understanding of professional responsibilities, and then constantly adapting ourselves based on these criteria, will bear juicier fruit than benchmarking ourselves against an arbitrary and general externally-defined regime. As with all things the answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle.