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Medieval IT Best Practices

Originally published June 6, 2011

A young couple, just married, is preparing dinner. Before he puts the roast in the oven, he cuts it in two. She asks him why he is doing that, and he responds that this is how he was taught by his mother. That's how to prepare a roast. She is puzzled and suggests he call his mother. His mother's explanation? She always cut the roast in two because her oven was too small.

Enter the world of best practices, where we sometimes forget why we do things a certain way. Best practices is a commonly used term – particularly in IT – but the term’s meaning is often unclear. If you search for a definition of best practices, the text books say that a best practice is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive, or reward that is believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc., when applied to a particular condition or circumstance. According to other definitions, best practices describe the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.

In IT, best practices has many meanings. Sometimes best practices consist of templates that come with a software package. These templates contain certain workflows, business processes, standard reports and performance indicators. Step-by-step manuals on how to best implement the software or "hints and tips" (e.g., how to best tune a database or parameterize an application) are also considered by some to be best practices.

The idea of best practices is very attractive. "Plug and play" and "plain vanilla" are terms often heard when best practices are advocated. Adopting them minimizes the risk in a project. After all, the essence of best practices is that they are proven, so you can't go wrong. Because best practices are bound to be more complete than what you could have come up with yourself, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can stand on the shoulders of others. What could be wrong about learning from others, while at the same time saving heaps of time and money? And learning from best practices shouldn't be limited to your specific industry; other industries may have already solved the problems you are facing.

Another great thing about best practices is that they can form the basis of a benchmark.1 Benchmarking is used to measure the performance of a certain activity and compare it to a peer group within the company, or a peer group of other companies. If you share the same set of processes, way of working, or means of data collection, there is a common basis to compare. This comparison informs you how much better you are than average-in-class or how far removed you are from best-in-class. The measure of success can be anything, ranging from operational measures such as cost, quality and speed, to more strategic measures such as vision, agility, or alignment.

Best practices are not without criticism. The objection most heard is that although a best practice may work in one situation, it may not work when you change the context or the circumstances. For instance, a best practice top-down software implementation may not work in an organization that has a culture that favors bottom-up solutions. Different organizations have different maturity levels, skills and capabilities. Someone else’s best practices could be your worst nightmare. The context of the best practice should be known before you try to apply it. How much of an issue this can be depends on the type of best practice being considered... When considering technical best practices, such as ways to tune a database, it is easier to recognize, change or create the right circumstances. This is harder to achieve when dealing with management best practices, such as a certain decision-making process or a change management approach. However, there are other objections that are more fundamental of nature.

Competing Schools of Thought

The problem with best practices is that there are so many of them, and often they conflict with each other. Each discipline has rigorously thought through its approach and has written the "bible" on the subject, usually including a comprehensive overview of do's and don'ts. In various disciplines, arguments about which approach is correct can go on for tens of years. Remember knowledge management from the 1990s? There were two schools of thought. One school presented the view that knowledge is tacit and located within an individual and his unique frame of reference. Therefore, knowledge management should focus on expertise location, helping people find other people who have certain knowledge. The other school of thought was convinced that knowledge is explicit and can be extracted, codified and stored in systems. Users could access these systems for specific knowledge or these systems could actively support users in their work. Although the term knowledge management is not used that much anymore, the ideology – and discussion for that matter – is back with a vengeance. Enterprise 2.0, consisting of all kinds of collaboration technologies, and Semantic Web, codifying the meaning of information, are bound to keep the discussion alive for many years to come.
Likewise, for the last fifteen years there has been a discussion in data warehousing. Bill Inmon heads the school of thought that says data models should be application neutral, and therefore normalized. Ralph Kimball, representing the other school of thought, prescribes a denormalized model – called star schema – emphasizing the end user looking for fast query responses and a data model that is easier to understand. 2 The first question among data warehouse professionals sometimes still tends to be "Are you in the Inmon or Kimball school?"
Business process management has its own feud going on. The proponents of system-centric process management see business process management as a way of achieving operational excellence, creating optimized business processes geared toward maximum output. This approach is opposed by the human-centric process management school of thought, which puts the workers – not the process – in the middle and proposes that business process management should enable users to execute the process as they see fit. And the list of IT disciplines that are divided for years goes on and on.
Multiple issues unravel if you start thinking about this. While discussions continue for many years, technology itself is moving on. While complete groups of professionals are debating between right and wrong, the actual problem that needs to be solved is forgotten. Often a best practice is based on dealing with certain limitations or constraints. These can be cost, time, performance, capacity or anything else of a technical nature. In short, best practices are the solutions for yesterday's problems.
Furthermore, when there are multiple, even conflicting, best practices that are preached, how can you determine which one is really the best? For every success story, there is a success story for the opposite approach as well. And for every success story that you hear, there is a story in which the best practice completely failed. The only logical conclusion is that the success of a best practice is not in the best practice itself, but in the fact that you simply pick one way of doing things, and make sure everyone does it the same way. Creating alignment itself may be more important than how things are done. You could say that a best practice is a best practice because it is a best practice.
In itself there is nothing wrong with this practice. The result is the same: a successful initiative. It doesn't matter if the success comes through the specifics of the approach or because people simply used a single approach. In fact, a whole school of philosophers, the consequentialists, have argued the same. Although the consequentialists looked at it from a moral point of view – the consequences of an action determine whether the action was morally right or wrong – I am sure they would agree. They might not have literally said, "Hey, if it works, it works," when it comes to best practices, but it is the same principle.

But I don't buy it, I must admit. I find it too easy. Using a best practice for the sake of the best practice, even if it works, skips an important step: actually understanding what you are doing. If you are looking for a quick solution, best practices don't invite you to think for yourself. They achieve the opposite by inviting you to blindly copy what others have done. That's not going to give you a better understanding of your business. In fact, when a best practice is deployed –particularly if you belong to a certain school of thought – it is probably because that is the way you were taught. And that is simply called "dogma."


  1. It is not clear where the term benchmark comes from. Some say it originates from the chiseled horizontal marks made in stone structures, into which an angle iron could be placed to form a "bench" for a leveling rod. Another theory is that the term benchmarking was first used by cobblers to measure people's feet for shoes. They would place someone's foot on a "bench" and mark it out to make the pattern for the shoes.

  2. When you think about it, both actually say the same because Inmon is fine with application-specific data modeling on top of a data warehouse and Kimball has nothing against a normalized data integration layer underneath the star schemas.
  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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