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What is a Best Practice?

Recently I’ve been being bumped into by things that are claiming to be best practices. In some cases they absolutely are, and in other cases it’s more questionable. As I’m preparing for a SharePoint Saturday event in Chicago this morning I’m wearing my speaker shirt from the SharePoint Best Practices Conference. (A conference where many best practices are indeed shared.) I’m skimming through blog posts and emails and I see a note from Eric Shupps about a “best practices” article (that isn’t). I’m reminded of a recent conversation about an article in MSDN magazine titled “10 Best Practices for Building SharePoint Solutions” – which has some summarily bad advice, some poorly communicated advice, and a few nuggets that are helpful.

The articles above sparked a lot of conversation about whether the articles were really best practices or whether they were bad advice. Because the answer was so clear that there were things in them that were bad advice we quickly left the conversation about best practices. So quickly in fact that we didn’t clearly articulate what best practices even are.

In the general software development improvement presentations I used to do I had a tendency to quote James Bach “There is no consensus about what practices are best, unless consensus means ‘people I respect also say they like it.'” (No Best Practices: How to Think About Methodology). I like this quote because it reflects what most people think of as a best practice and points out the slippery slope that we’re on when we’re talking about best practices.

Help Your SharePoint User

Dictionary.com has this definition for a best practice “a practice which is most appropriate under the circumstances, esp. as considered acceptable or regulated in business; a technique or methodology that, through experience and research, has reliably led to a desired or optimum result.” That’s a fine definition but it’s not much help in the key problem – knowing whether something is a best practice or not. Before I go there, I have to pause and say one of the points that my buddy Ben Curry makes is that Best Practice may not be best for you – you should evaluate whether the “best practice” is really appropriate for your organization – that’s an important point. The standard disclaimers should apply to all “Best Practices”. (Your mileage may vary; past performance is no indication of future returns, etc.)

So how do you determine whether something is a best practice? You open it up to peer review. One of the great things about the way that the patterns & practices team is working on their guidance is that they solicit feedback from an advisory committee and anyone that wants to talk about a code drop that they make available. In my work with the SharePoint Guidance team I can say that the input from the advisors is critical to helping to determine what guidance is provided. They’re careful not to call their work best practices, but the process they’re going through in talking through various approaches and finding what seems to be the best is the right process.

From my perspective, what makes a Best Practice a best practice is that it has been vetted with industry experts and talked through. In the computer security industry it’s expected that new cryptographic algorithms will be open so that they can be examined and tested by the industry. The same process should apply to best practices throughout the computer industry. We should raise ideas as potential best practices to have others validate or reject our perspective on the approach.

The really sticky part about this is that you have to communicate an approach that you think may be a best practice before you can be sure it’s a best practice. In general this means that the person putting forward the idea should say something like “This is what I do because I think it’s best” and should follow that with “Does anyone here disagree?” However, many folks want to skip the validation step. (How many developers do testing?) They want to believe their approach is the best practice and put it forth as a postulate. Of course, life is rarely this simple.

This leaves us with a simple challenge for anyone claiming best practices (thanks James) – “Who says it’s a best practice, that I trust?” (or besides you). Thought of another way (thanks Ben) – “Who says this practice is best for my situation?” In either case, saying something is a best practice doesn’t make it so. (Unless you implicitly trust the author.)

I should now fully disclaim that no one has yet said that this article is a best practice. If you want to participate in making this article a best practice, feel free to comment below on why this is (or isn’t) a best practice for identifying best practices ;)

8 replies
  1. Arno Nel
    Arno Nel says:

    Totally agree with the article. I have taken the words ‘Best Practice’ from the articles and asked author to vet articles first. I have also added a disclaimer to the site.

    p.s. I personally hate the words ‘best practice’

  2. Liam
    Liam says:

    Great article.

    A best practice for evaluating best practice? I think its certainly on its way… It’s not about being “right”, it’s about knowing enough to know that you’re wrong, and knowing how to find the answers.

  3. Andy Burns
    Andy Burns says:

    Even peer review still leads to some ambiguity – reviewed by whom – but yes, I reckon that that is the best definition I’ve seen yet. If you can describe what you think best practice should be (for a certain situation) to a group of capable peers and nobody shoots you down, then it probably is at least ‘Pretty good practice’ (at least, as is known at that time).

    Personally, I hate the term “Best Practice”. It’s almost always an oversimplification, and often a way of someone covering themselves.

    http://www.novolocus.com/2009/03/09/what-the-heck-are-best-practices/

  4. Kyle H.
    Kyle H. says:

    It’s definitely one of those topics that could be debated for hours. Working in a very large organization, I find that those things that really become “best practices” are those that we’ve deemed inside the organziation to be rules, guidance, or policy more so than purely IT-Industry suggested practices. I just spent a few months writing internal best practices, guidance, user guides, etc… As I reflect on that now, much of it has it’s roots from industry practices, but many of them were tweaked or changed to better fit our company and our architecture/strategy.

    Constantly we in enterprise IT are slapping hands of business groups that were guided in a best practice by a blog, consultant, or tech article that couldn’t be further from a “best practice”, guide, policy, or rule inside the company.

    So I would agree best practices is a loosely defined term and I believe it to be more relevant in an organziational structure or setting than an entire industry…not to say that there are not times and places for such industry best practices to exist though.

    As with everything published on the internet, I believe it’s all the perspective you come from or the glasses you are wearing.”Best practices” published on the internet very well may be the best practice for you, or in several situations could be the “worst practice” for you.

    Thanks for the article…it made me think.

  5. Richard Harbridge
    Richard Harbridge says:

    Interesting article Robert. I agree with everything you state here more or less. It’s a really necessary discussion that we should always have with ourselves when using certain phrases or keywords.

    I do however find the entire concept of “best practices” to not be as clear cut as you define here. Really if anything open to peer review, revised and adjusted was considered best practice then literally massive amounts of ‘good, alright, and bad’ content would be considered in some way a best practice. For some reason this doesn’t strike true with me. Perhaps best practice as you suggest also infers a level of trust. So in order for something to be a best practice it also must be trusted by the recipient or end user?

    In my mind the part that is missing from this line: “So how do you determine whether something is a best practice? You open it up to peer review” is a statement identifying some sort of measurable level of peer review.

    It has to be constructive peer review from many people, with different experiences and levels of focus. I am even tempted to say “NON” peer review. Since your peers will (most of the time) be less critical and more often will agree with your statements/debates/practices. Especially since often our peers are people we like and respect because they have similar mind sets (IMO).

    Would love to consolidate this a bit more so that I feel comfortable and confident when using the term best practices in the future. :)

    Thank you,
    Richard Harbridge

  6. Larry W. Virden
    Larry W. Virden says:

    Good morning. I apologize for dropping this note here, but I don’t see an easy reference to an email address. Just wanted to mention a minor editorial nit on the front page of your “shepher’s guide to sharepoint” page. You write:
    Welcome to the companion site for The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. The book was written by Robert L. Bogue, and is written in a direct step-by-step style that walks you through the things that you need to know how to do with SharePoint, whether you’ve forgotten where you need to go — or your doing something for the first time.

    In that last clause, the word “your” should be “you’re”.

    Thanks for the great articles – I am new to SharePoint and InfoPath and have found interesting articles in your blog already. It is great to see people with knowledge on a complex system willing to share that info.

  7. Gary Tinnes
    Gary Tinnes says:

    A prior company that I worked for instructed the consultants not to use the term “best practice” in RFP responses or reports (after years of doing so). I think it came from the legal department to avoid a possible lawsuits if a “best practice” turned out to be not so “best” for the organization. The rationale was that a “best practice” for one organization may not necessarily be a “best practice” for another organization (the usual: cultural, cost, politics, hidden agendas, etc., preventing the “best practice” from succeeding).

    We were instructed to use the term “good practice” especially in an RFP where you may not know the organization’s cultural and political situation.

    If there is no corporate guideline and you know the organization well enough to be 100% sure there is no underlying impediment for the “best practice” to succeed, I suppose it could be used. Gary.

  8. Paul Culmsee
    Paul Culmsee says:

    If you subscribe to the notion that the best solution to a problem is the one that has the most shared commitment to seeing it through, then one can argue that applying a bad practice with massive buy-in and support is indeed a ‘best practice’, whereas applying a ‘best practice’ that no-one uses is actually a ‘worst practice’.

    “Best” practice is context and culture dependant and more an ethical issue than anything else.

    I have plenty of times when I have to wade into messes that started out by well intentioned “best practice” that has blindsided people from using their own critical thinking.

    regards

    Paul

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