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The Wrongheadedness of Best Practice Thinking

I’ve come across a gem of a book introduction, and I’m writing to recommend that you read it. Yes, all of you. The introduction is from the book Strategic Procurement in Construction by Andrew Cox and Mike Townsend, published in 1998. The shelves of bookstores are crowded with advice for practitioners and business owners about the latest “best practices” for their business or for business in general. I have contributed to the best practice literature myself, trying to make my onboarding research findings accessible and interesting. I’ve been troubled by the literature before; something about the idea of a “best practice” made me wary, much like a “Truth” did when I spent more time with philosophy. I noticed this frustration most acutely when teaching master’s students in a professional degree program. So many students demanded that I teach them best practices, that I tell them what to do in their next job. I tried to explain to students that I was helping them acquire new tools for meeting the challenges information professionals face, not giving them step-by-step instructions for how to do their eventual jobs.

Cox and Townsend argue in their introduction, and throughout the book, that best practice thinking is wrong-headed and leaves us playing catch up. One of my favorite bits of the introduction reads:

They will be searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ of best practice. By this one means practitioners are looking for the answer that provides the solution to all of the problems which they face managerially. Unfortunately, this desire to discover the single solution (best practice), that will allow the practitioner to avoid the need for thought and risk taking, is an illusion.

They go on to discuss concepts such as appropriateness and leverage and recognize that many practitioners would call their discussions “common sense.” Their response?

Some of the practitioners who read these pages may accept what has been said, and argue that this is just common sense (which it is), and that they already know this. If that is the case then this book may have little to teach them, however, because experience leads the authors to conclude that such a form of sense (in a business context) does not appear to be all that common.

I wish I’d written something like that in the paper Andy and I submitted recently that was rejected for having results that were not surprising enough. The results we found in our onboarding study were surprising because we found them and not necessarily in their content. For instance, it’s surprising that teams still behave as though new employees will be immediately productive even though the sense that onboarding takes time is apparently common. Much like Cox and Townsend find that strategic procurement is not all that common, neither are teams who smoothly onboard their new members.

My questions as I continue to read Cox and Townsend’s book are really about how one encourages strategic, reflective thinking over best practice thinking and how one should present research results that show just how uncommon common sense can be. See, one can learn things by studying construction projects. This message brought to you by my dissertation, a work in progress.

So, what do you think ?

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