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Best practice

Two words: “practice” and “best”. Practice refers to the way things are done. It encompasses the notion of tacit knowledge that is bound up in the way we do things, knowledge that has evolved over time. This knowledge makes sense in the context it was born in. It is also firmly anchored in personal experience. To share that practice – especially on a large scale - requires it to be formulated, shifting it from tacit to more formalised knowledge. This shift produces greater awareness of the ways things are done, but it also goes hand in hand with a loss of flexibility and of appropriateness. At the same time this shift is accompanied by a certain loss of vitality as knowledge is moved away from personal experience towards advice, instruction and theory. It is as if the knowledge were severed from the person and the context it sprang from.

The word “best” implies a choice, making a selection based on values, intent and context. When people evolve new ways of doing things, they make the choices themselves. Whereas in the drive to generalise the use of best practices, there is a tendency to rely on an external expert body to define the criteria for what is good and not good. In so doing the personal process, based on experience and experimentation, is shifted out of the hands of the actors themselves. Practice, when it is “best”, migrates from being an integral part of the situation and the person to being an “object” that can be taken down from the shelf, handed round and applied.

The overriding intent behind promoting the development of “best practice” is to capitalise on personal experience in developing exemplary ways of doing things so as to improve the ways everybody does those things. And beyond this intent is the drive to accelerate change and improvement in a highly competitive environment. The strategy chosen could be called commoditisation of practice. Personal experience is selected according to externally set criteria, stripped of its personal and contextual nature and then package such that it can be widely circulated and used by other actors. This strategy has a number of unfortunate consequences. It shifts the onus of knowing what is best in given circumstances away from the actors themselves and into the hands of external experts, resulting in a disempowerment of the actors that leads not only to rigid if not inappropriate ways of doing things but a also to a crucial loss of motivation on the part of actors. This strategy also shifts attention away from personal (and collective) experience as a rich and vibrant source of knowledge towards a dependency on pre-packed knowledge provided by others who are “experts” in developing such knowledge.

My initial reaction was to try to shift the expert intermediary out of the equation by having the actors themselves formulate and share best practice. Doing so has the added advantage of increasing their awareness of what they do and how they do it. It also means that they reflect about their own criteria of quality. Despite these advantages, I suspect that practice will still get commoditised in the process, because the central aim remains the conversion of experience into useful “objects” of learning involving standardised descriptions of what is being done and how to do it. What is required is a way of sharing experience without loosing all its vitality and particularity such that it can inspire others to think about how and what they do. This is why I like the interview. It is a discussion between two people that can be used to give a form to the person’s story. The dialogue inherent in the interview allows the attentive listener to draw out underlying values and assumptions in a non-threatening way such that they become an integral part of the story.

Alan McCluskey, Santa Luzia, Portugal.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: August 28th, 2004 - Last up-dated: August 28th, 2004