When My Old Best Practice Was New

Kathleen PetersonMy father often sang a song to my mother entitled, “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New.” The lyrics went something like …”I remember with pride how we stood side by side; what a beautiful picture you made as my bride.” The essence is that while time has passed the ole’ love machine is still working. In my parents’ case this was most assuredly true, but with today’s 50% divorce rate many old wedding rings are just that … old!

Oddly enough, I recently thought about these lyrics while in a discussion regarding the notion of “best practices.” Hence, when my old “best practice” was new …

When a management initiative is undertaken, somebody has to be first. Somebody has to be an early adopter, an innovator, an adventurer. In my view, those that adopt “best practices” simply because they are common are the least likely to be comfortable on the “edge” as innovators or creative drivers committed to what is BEST for the organization right now.

I have questions regarding “best practices.” How long does a “best practice” (as “it” is known) actually last? Was it a “best practice” when first deployed? Does a so-called “best practice” have the same glow as that old wedding ring? Or is it just “old”?

I guess I struggle with the entire notion of “best practice.” I prefer to think of the “best practices” I have seen documented as “common practices.” These have risen to a level of adoption that earns the moniker of “best” when in my mind they are merely “common.” This doesn’t make the practices “bad” per se; they may be “bad” only in the aspect that they often short circuit analysis and creativity. In many cases, “best practices” are stated in such broad language and discussed at such a high level that they are dependent on the uniqueness of the organization, culture, systems, etc., to be truly effective.

Some of the white papers published today relate “best practices” to elements such as solid management, communication, quality, etc. Come on … these are simply characteristics that must exist in ANY successful organization. The most challenging to me is when systems are lumped into the “best practice” moniker – e.g., CRM (Customer Relationship Management), Knowledge Management, and E-learning. (I’ll talk more about these a bit later.) While these sound lovely, systems and processes must be integrated into an overall operational plan. As stand-alone elements they are in and of themselves able to accomplish NOTHING except to continue the practice of isolated decision-making and renegade technology purchases that cause disappointment when the “thing” doesn’t work.

My experience tells me that it is the weakest and most naïve leaders that want to validate concepts against a “best practice” – which in many cases has become stale. Leaders need to know the mechanics of running a Contact Center as well as the strategic drivers of the enterprise. They must use their wits and the unique attributes of their operation to adopt any type of practice … best or otherwise. The only “best practice” worth its salt is one that has been vetted to be the BEST for your operation’s specific and unique needs.

The most dangerous of all “best practice” monikers are those assigned to tools. Let’s look at the three examples previously mentioned.

CRM – Is it a “best practice” to utilize a CRM system? “It depends” is the only answer that comes to my mind. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish. It depends on whether CRM is a top-down strategic initiative or simply an IT initiative. Unless the initiative is coming from the top, it is very likely to fail. Why? … Because true CRM success comes only when there is enough senior leadership around to beat down the silos and operationalize at each and every customer touch point. If the Marketing Department implements CRM, but the Contact Center isn’t included, failure will loom large on the horizon due to the disconnects that the CUSTOMER will experience. The problem is that a CRM system is only the WHAT; operational alignment is the HOW. Far too often the “best practice” mentality confuses the system with the HOW. The HOW is what is unique about your organization. It is where all the various “connectors” must work and where all the cross-functional processes are aligned.

Pure leadership logic says that the first step is to determine exactly WHAT business problem needs to be solved. What are the expectations? What are you trying to accomplish? Then and only then will a “requirements” document emerge that will allow for a rich and robust assessment of what is available on the market. You will have a much better shot at accomplishing your goal if due diligence time and effort is spent NOT on defining the tool but on analyzing the situation. You will then be able to find the tools that most efficiently and effectively meet your unique needs.

Knowledge Management – This is another popular “best practice.” Sadly, I have also seen my fair share of failures with this tool. Knowledge Management is nothing more than a tool by which organizations warehouse information for use by their varied constituents. The challenge is that far too many organizations skip over the due diligence portion of the program. The result is that reams of documents are transferred into the electronic warehouse with little if any thought of the various user communities. (As an example, Accounting and the Contact Center have vastly different needs.) Consideration for creating standardized templates and assessing content readability are given short shrift. While chapters of paragraphs may suffice for some departments, Contact Center staff are generally in near-immediate contact with the customer. They require a consistent format that allows for specific entry fields; information must be current, complete, and easily/quickly accessible. Often, these considerations are simply overlooked by the seduction of “easy” solutions presented to IT or even to the most senior levels of the organization. Decisions are void of “domain expertise” that assures attention to the unique requirements within the enterprise related to WHAT is trying to be accomplished and HOW it will be achieved.

E-learning – E-learning is the same deal. When Computer-based Training (CBT) hit the market years ago it quickly earned the moniker of “best practice.” Why? The seduction was that agents would not have to be taken out of service for the purpose of ongoing learning. Customers would be happier with better-trained agents and management would be happy with more productivity. Then it just slipped away … because many adopters wanted technology-based learning for the right reasons but half-baked implementations resulted in disappointment. In this case, the failure was more likely human than system related. We face similar challenges with today’s E-learning initiatives.

As you consider any buying initiative, be sure to assess the WHAT prior to identifying the HOW. You will be a better consumer and achieve stronger results than those that seek “best practices” as their driver of change. And consider the fact that “best practices” are often a label assigned by the manufacturer rather than by the user community.

Think about it. Are you adopting “best practices” that are nothing more than just common, old, and without the glow? Be the leader that establishes the right “best practices” for your operation – not those that are right just for the offering vendor or the current users. No two organizations are so alike that they can simply adopt a management practice as something adoptable by the masses. Most folks need to appreciate their uniqueness … before “best practices.”

“The only way a company can hope to stay ahead now is by being continuously entrepreneurial and innovative, by creating processes and capabilities that allow innovation to flourish and become a core strength. Only then is it possible to escape from the game of follow-the-leader.” Tom Peters

– Reprinted with permission from PowerHouse Consulting, Inc. , www.powerhouse1.com


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