Theknowledgecore's Blog

Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

The problem with Best Practice in KM…

‘Best practice’, this term is thrown around with wild abandon in KM circles.

In a recent example, I have been working with an Admin Manager within a well-known Middle East oil company.  He wanted to promote a recent KM success story in the Admin Department as ‘best practice’ for the whole of the company – In his opinion, implementing this process would save the company millions, perhaps tens of millions of dollars and it needed to be implemented immediately.  This new process had not been tested for portability, which, when risk assessing his ‘best practice’, could have the opposite impact to the one he hoped for – increasing project spend and possibly irreparable damaging his reputation.  To cut a long story short, two months down the line and the ‘best practice’ has not been implemented across the organisation as its portability is restricted by cultural factors.

So, where am I going with this?

Too often in KM we rush to market with ‘best practice’ without considering what ‘best practice’ is, to say nothing of issues of risk or portability.

So, What is best practice?


This is from the UK government (


“Best practice means finding – and using – the best ways of working to achieve your business objectives. It involves keeping up to date with the ways that successful businesses operate – in your sector and others – and measuring your ways of working against those used by the market leaders”

Want a KM example of misleading ‘best practice’?  Look no further than Nonaka! Nonaka’s (1991) work is entrenched in a local culture, which could inhibit its portability across cultural and discipline boundaries.

“Much as manufacturers around the world have learned from Japanese manufacturing techniques, any company that wants to compete on knowledge must also learn from Japanese techniques of knowledge creation” (p. 97).

Japanese techniques, like Quality Circles perhaps?

Nonaka is telling us this even though he knows that knowledge is culturally, geographically, socially and historically bound, which can inhibit portability. Yes, we can observe, we can learn, but we cannot blindly champion a concept that is critically flawed both theoretically and practically.

If I could change one thing about our field, especially when it comes to symposium events, KM advice forums and conferences, it would be this; SECI is not ‘best practice’!

Browsing through KM forums it seems that too many of us are slipping into the ‘best practice’ trap – promoting the global potential of process that by their very nature are just not portable.  I can accept that many of the processes being championed are examples of successful practice, but they are far from ‘best practice’.

Best practice requires reflection and risk assessment.  We as KM analysts, practitioner and theorists cannot succumb to blind ignorance; this is what is destroying our field.  Practice cannot be simply transported from one company, one sector, one country and applied in ‘cookie-cutter’ fashion within another.  Do this and you are risking your reputation and that of KM in general.

KM responds to the needs of the individual organisation and its people.  KM is a process that binds the needs of the two.  KM processes are bespoke because individual organisations have different needs and different resources available to them; this is how they develop competitive advantage.  They also have different people, who will respond differently to those in other organisations according to cultural, historical, spatial, geographical and structural influences.

We can learn from each other and from our practice, but this must be tempered by reflection and this must include a risk assessment.  There is no room for blind ignorance in our field, the stakes are too high.

Does ‘best practice’ really exist…perhaps not.  perhaps what we are talking about is successful practice or good practice…

And, if we can agree with this, where does it leave ‘best practice’ technology platforms…


3 comments on “The problem with Best Practice in KM…

  1. Ian Thorpe
    March 15, 2011

    You might be interested in a related explanation I wrote recently about why there is no such thing as “best practices” and why we don’t use them:

    It provoked some interesting discussion inside ad outside the organization. It’s a continual battle to dissuade colleagues from loosely using this term to describe things they are doing because saying something is best sounds so much better than saying something is promising or good in certain contexts.

    Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework also tackles this issue. Basically he says that “best practices” are only applicable in “simple” systems where outcomes are predictable and linear. Even in complicated systems you need “good practices” (i.e things that have actually worked in a variety of contexts – but are not guaranteed to work everywhere which you can try and adapt to circumstance).

  2. theknowledgecore
    March 15, 2011

    Hi Ian,

    I totally agree here. I’ve just finished a report, being published By Ark later this month, where I focus on the argument between complex and complicated systems.

    The problem is that too much KM practice is being driven towards the view of KM as a complicated process, when the very nature of knowledge tell us that is has to be a complex process – this is my problem with technology based KM ‘solutions’, they just can’t work.

    I have also just read your take on this and, again, I totally agree with what you are saying – also enjoyed reading some of the feedback.

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion…


  3. Pingback: E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Open Business Strategies – Helping Someone Else Achieve Their Goals

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2011 by in Uncategorized.
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