Against Bestness

I’ve had a couple of brushes with bestness in the past week. Well three brushes actually, illustrating four distinct dangers of the notion of “bestness” in knowledge management:

• The notion of bestness is attractive but has little utility in dealing with human systems
• The application of the notion of bestness can be abusive
• The notion of bestness can give you licence to switch off your brain
• The notion of bestness can blind you to your options

1.Denning’s Diversion

It all started with Steve Denning on actKM inserting a promo for the book Tribal Leadership by Logan, King and Fischer-Wright into the middle of a conversation about the use of Open Space Technology (OST). The book identifies five different categories of workplace, with the implication of a hierarchy of “bestness”:
•Level 1: criminals, violent people as found in prisons: “life stinks” (2% of workplaces)
•Level 2: cynical, disillusioned: “this place stinks” (around 25% of workplaces).
•Level 3: it’s about me: “I am great!” but my fellow workers are not so hot (around 50% of workplaces)
•Level 4: it’s about us – “We are great!” (around 22% of workplaces)
•Level 5: how do we change the world? “Life is great!” (around 2% of workplaces)

In taxonomic terms, this looks very much like a closed typology, where each type has its own distinctive set of attributes, and where the complete set of types expresses the whole system with nothing left over. Moreover, it’s a progressive one, where the implication is that it’s better to be at level 5 than at level 1.

The link to OST was tenuous at best, but this was a bright red herring to Dave Snowden’s bull, which loathes anything smacking of simplistic (and supposedly comprehensive) categorizations of complex phenomena like organisational cultures.

To quote Dave: “I am afraid that crude and simplistic categorisation (especially ones that end up with a level five higher state) of people and communities deserve vigourous criticism.. I have seen more people damaged by this type of approach in too many organisations to be able to tolerate it.”

Now I actually think there are two different problems here. One is simply about how much usefulness a high level typology like this can have. Typologies – even simple ones – can be useful devices for structuring a conversation and establishing a common understanding, even if that understanding contains disagreement about the types. The types give you a hook to agree or disagree about and in the process figure out how the other party thinks and whether or not you can work together.

However when it comes to culture, simple and closed typologies have very limited utility, because (in my experience) the simple, universal things you can say about a culture are rarely the salient features relevant to bringing about positive change – (a) the simple enduring universals tend to be the hardest to change because they tend to be the most strongly modeled by leaders already and (b) many of the real change management issues are rooted in the much more granular, specific and diverse micro-cultures of an organisation, not the simpler macro-culture. Think about it. If cultures were that simple, they’d be much easier to change.

This is very similar to the problems we have with using a KM maturity model (another progressive typology) to characterize an organisation’s overall – well, KM maturity. You can certainly conduct such an assessment, using fairly well-established descriptors and benchmarks. But once you’ve generalized the responses across the organisation, and reached a verdict of, say “Repeatable Good Practices” with a mid-level of maturity overall, you’re still left with the question of how useful this is apart from being reassuring (or depressing).

For realistic and pragmatic KM planning the summative approach is just too generalized to be useful, and it conceals the fact that different parts or even different aspects of the organisation are at very different levels and have very different issues and needs – you need the specific granular insights from the salient parts of the organisation to help you figure out the best course(s) of action to undertake.

Simplistic, closed typologies tend not to have high planning utility for complex organisations. They are just not granular enough, because organisations, like cultures, are never consistent or uniform all the way through.

[Having said that, in our consulting practice we frequently use a form of “open” typology to “read” cultures and identify salient change issues – but these are emergent typologies of archetypes built by the organisation’s population themselves, out of shared stories about their common experiences. They don’t claim to be comprehensive or complete, but they are clearly salient, because they emerge from repeated themes important to the groups who create them.]

The second problem is in the implied hierarchy of “increasing betterness” in the typology. Linking types and categories to a hierarchy of bestness from base and primitive to elevated and sublime is an ancient human practice, expressed in the architecture of step pyramids, and in the notion of the “great chain of being”, which can be traced through ancient Greek philosophy into early rationalist views of biological taxonomy and evolution, through to interpretive frameworks like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and developmentalist approaches such as Spiral Dynamics.

Such hierarchies can also have their utility especially when they are used aspirationally, but when combined with strict taxonomic categories and applied to people or groups, they are prone to nasty forms of abuse.

Categories which are assigned observable attributes give a means to discriminate between “better” or “worse” people in the chain of betterness that your ideology expresses. Thence flow the justifications of the worst touts of human discrimination and subjugation. Taxonomies and typologies of bestness are dangerous instruments easily misused when combined with power.

And progressive typologies like maturity models are also misleading, because quite apart from the variability of their parts, organisations and cultures as a whole often do not progress substantially – they can lurch very quickly from apparently mature states of being to apparently primitive ones depending on their environment, current needs and responses, who’s currently waving the flag, and where the demands for attention and action lie.

The observable features of an organisation’s behaviour are highly contingent, there is no really reliable way of gauging its “essential” maturity. As a focus for a conversation, the typology or a maturity model can help get you started. As a basis for detailed planning and intervention, it’s very unreliable.

So I agree with Dave’s warning. If you must use typologies to interpret cultures or human groups in general, avoid claims to comprehensiveness and implications of bestness. They have little real utility on the ground, and they enable abusive discrimination.

2. The Engineer’s Dilemma

My second brush with bestness was more mundane, no great chains of being here. We were conducting a workshop on communities of practice for a very experienced bunch of senior managers who were also CoP leaders. They were all engineers, and they were doing some pretty serious stuff with their CoPs, including identifying improved standards and best practices for their various plants.

The plan for the workshop was to give them some practical techniques they could use with their communities to sustain the energy, participation and commitment of the members, and to find some way to assess the value and effectiveness of the community.

A couple of the participants really did not want this. They wanted to hear about “CoP best practices” from other companies. I stuck with the original plan (which I think most of the participants were happy with) but fought a rearguard action all day against the implied notion that a CoP was very much like a type of machine, all you had to do was apply a method proven successful elsewhere, and you could switch off the requirement to observe, wrestle, think and engage with your community using a portfolio of approaches, some of which might work, and some of which probably wouldn’t, in a largely unpredictable way.

I don’t want to get into the argument about whether “best” really means “better”. When engineers talk about “best practices” they are quite ready to acknowledge that they can be improved further, so “betterness” is implied. What I worry about is the cognitive implications implied in the use of the term.

I never won that battle with the best-practice champions in the group. The leading lady in the best practice cabal made it clear that she was unhappy with the wooliness of my approach (ie the wrestling and playing with an unpredictably effective portfolio approach). And after all why should she be. The notion of finding an engineering best for a given situation was what drove her business as well as her profession, and is moreover the strongest possible validation of the economic power of knowledge reuse.

And maybe in KM if you really took apart the background context of a “best practice” (ie successful) community in a related industry, you could unpick some tricks and techniques and approaches that would serve you well in your own community. If only the best practice pundits actually told the whole truth about the context (and if only they didn’t filter the context to make the bestnesses shine more brilliantly).

But the problem of getting access to the real context aside, my real sticking point (and probably the real reason why I was comfortable with the decision to fight that battle) is that in engineering and in human systems, the notion of “best practice” has significantly different cognitive implications.

In engineering “best practice” transfer does lighten the load of rethinking the solution to a problem anew. Yes, you need to understand and internalise it. But it’s relatively easy to copy and apply. Think once, use many.

In human systems, “best practice” (ie successful practice) can be extremely instructive but only to the mind that is prepared to grapple with it, reap insight from it, and try out elements of it. Think much, use maybe.

That is what, to me, justifies defying the demand for “best practice” from an engineer’s perspective. If it means switching off your brain in a human systems context like a community, then you are pretty much guaranteed to fail.

3. The Librarian’s Lecture

The third brush with bestness was more passive (I was getting tired). I sat for an hour listening to a very distinguished librarian telling me (and others) what the “real” form of knowledge management was. In his book (pun intended) “real” knowledge management (ie the best form of KM) was the work done by authors and researchers when they condense other people’s knowledge into a new form of knowledge, and make it available to others in the form of papers, books and other artifacts. He was quite passionate about this.

The meeting was to introduce a KM-related initiative, which had a lot of information management components in it. In vain did we lay claim to the value of the initiative for creating an enabling environment – information management consistency supporting the ability to gain access to other people’s knowledge. Collaboration and sharing informally was nice, but inferior if the product of that sharing was not captured, condensed and codified. The notion of latent or emergent knowledge in a community could be similarly dismissed. The book or the paper or the dissertation ruled supreme.

More than that, a focus on internal knowledge management was much less relevant (for the most authentic outcomes of KM) because it was focused just within the organisation. “Real” knowledge management strives to create social value and new knowledge across boundaries, and could not be limited to the organisational limits. Anything else was “just” information or document management.

What was implied but never actually argued (that would perhaps have been too confrontational for an Asian context and a very nice person) was that in this person’s view we would be much better advised to focus our efforts on the “best” form of knowledge management available. Sharing, condensing and codifying knowledge, outside – not inside the organisation. With minimal constraints.

In principle many of the beliefs stated by the librarian were perfectly reasonable. They were authentically stated and passionately believed, and probably put into practice, inspiring other people to create strong social value.

From the pragmatic point of view of trying to improve the knowledge sharing and knowledge reuse issues of the host organisation (there were many), the introduction of the notion of “best” is the killer. Oftentimes you can’t get at basic knowledge issues except by influencing the information environment, and by constraining behaviours as well as enabling them. You have to do mundane things as well as grand things, in fact sometimes grandeur lies at the end of a very mundane road.

Bestness here has become an impediment to supporting action in anything less than best. We see this in politics all the time, where public positions are taken and opposed based on perceived bestness rather than pragmatic value (skilled politicians render their pragmatism wholly invisible).

We see it in the simplistic advice handed out by supposed management gurus for the one true path or the universal salve for all ills, or as Matt Moore says of Steve Denning:

“He also has a worrying tendency (along with many other popular management writers in the US) to offer fixed recipes that allegedly cover every situation. This makes it easy for the reader to digest and gives them to confidence to apply the advice but life isn’t always that simple. For example, the weakest chapter of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling is the chapter on innovation. Storytelling gets advanced as pretty much the only way of advancing innovation within organisations and it all gets a little silly.”

The tendency is worrying, because the implication of bestness and a one true way is closing your options for applying a portfolio of responses for a portfolio of needs – which is typically what any complex human systems intervention like knowledge management needs. Knowledge management is most of the time about juggling a number of interventions in a shifting ecology of needs. There are no simple recipes and there are no single best approaches.

If bestness limits your options for action – or limits your actual range of action – then it’s a very unhealthy notion to have indeed.

4 Comments so far

Luke Naismith

Patrick - I think this is the best blog post you have done!!  wink

Posted on August 17, 2008 at 06:20 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Oh dear…

Posted on August 17, 2008 at 08:02 PM | Comment permalink

Alice MacGillivray

Wonderfully told and written in a way--I believe--that can be valuable for the experienced practitioner or the novice.

The librarian story reminds me of a presentation I did for a delegation of about 12 people from a prestigious network of educational institutions in an Asian country. The head of the delegation--a librarian--was quiet until the end, and then spoke definitively. At one point during the translation (I do not speak or understand her language at all) I was sure that the translator had added a phrase. One of our group happened to be bilingual. On the trip home, I told her of my hunch and she asked me what the phrase was. “From my perspective as a librarian...” I replied, and she confirmed this was the only translator interjection she had noticed. Something about consistency or subtle body language must have tipped me off.

I had seen the translator’s eyes sparkle many times during the presentation, and perhaps he was trying to encourage me by bracketing her view of KM much as you described it in your post.

Thank you Patrick, and I look forward to hearing more on anti-bestness progress.

Posted on August 23, 2008 at 12:37 AM | Comment permalink

Why I avoid using the term “best practice” in favor of “useful practice.”

Useful Practices

Posted on September 16, 2008 at 07:23 AM | Comment permalink

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