Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Click or tap image to download a .pdf of this article.Benchmarking

Ok, I admit it. Back in the day I did my share of benchmarking studies for consulting clients.

You collect data about a client’s process operations or expenditures. You compare them with the same industry’s “best practices.” Then you make recommendations about where the client needs to improve based on various comparisons such as, “You spend X% on IT and comparable companies in your industry spend Y. To make up for the difference you need to do Z.” 

It sound good in theory. But have you ever actually compared one company with another, even within the same industry?

The minute you start to make such comparisons you can run into problems, even when supposedly unbiased sources of comparative expenditure data are available for different types of operations or processes.

You start to wonder, how reliable are these comparative data? Were they self reported, based on a survey, or were they actually based on some real 3rd-party research? How comparable were the definitions used to classify functional or process expenditures? And perhaps most important, does it really make sense to compare even similarly sized companies in the same industry if they have significantly different structures, histories, or governance models?

It’s like comparing Apple and Samsung. Both have manufacturing facilities in other countries but the US company has a much more restricted product line than the Korean company. How do you compare the two?

Best Practices

I started thinking of these questions when I read Graham Oakes’ recent article Is ‘best practice’ really best? His basic criticism of targeting “best practices” as a guide is that organizations – and the technology they depend upon – change too rapidly. He says, 

My theory is that most organisations are struggling to handle rapid change in technology. Cloud challenges the way they manage infrastructure and applications. Big Data challenges the way they manage data. BYOD (bring your own device) challenges the way they manage devices. And mobile adds a whole new layer for them to be managing.   

People manage change by focusing on things they can control. This is one of the reasons why “best practices” approaches to management have proliferated. A major assumption is that the “practices” that are being improved will actually stand still long enough to be measured, modeled, compared then improved. As Oakes suggests, that may not be a good assumption to make.

Best People

My proposed alternative to using “best practices” as a management tool is to focus instead on “best people.” Here’s what I mean: 

  1. In each functional area important to your organization find out who the leading organizations and thinkers are.
  2. Media- and community-wise, find out where these individuals and organizations “hang out.”
  3. Encourage your people to engage with these people and organizations using available media, communication, and collaboration channels.
  4. Reward your people for doing so — and for applying what they learn to your own organization. 

Advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of this approach include potential speed, relevance, and agility. Potential improvements can be picked up directly by those with the ability to put them to work  without being filtered by outside change agents. If the number and variety of individuals engaged via social media and other channels continue to grow, the potential for enhanced professional engagement grows as well.

The disadvantages are the time required to establish relationships, potential competitive issues, and a perceived lack of control of what is learned by employees.

These advantages and disadvantages need to be carefully weighed. One significant management issue concerns employee expectations. If management introduces such an approach and encourages employees to identify improvements through their engagement (via social and other media) with industry experts and other organizations, employees will expect action. If management then fails to act its own credibility is damaged.

Also, following such a strategy implies  that employees are “on the same page” with management through a shared understanding of strategic goals and objectives. This means that management and employees themselves need to be engaged with each other. In some traditional or hierarchically structured bureaucracies, overcoming such barriers will be a challenge.

Government transparency

A possible special case for applying the “best people” approach would be with government programs that lack the same competitive or confidentiality pressures as private industry. Why not encourage government employees to engage with experts in their professions in order to identify potential improvements?

Management of expectation wil be important here. If you encourage a staff member to engage with outside experts with the expectation that he or she will try to identify potential improvements, the employee needs to expect receptivity to such improvements, not bureaucratic resistance.

Final thoughts

Identifying the “best people” to interact with in order to identify potential improvements to apply to one’s employer sounds one-sided, and put that way, it is. Engaging with others professionally has always been a two way street; after all, that’s why professional associations exist, to foster communication and information sharing.

If you as a manager encourage employees to engage with others, they need to understand that engagement, either via traditional or new media, can’t just be one way. That’s why push advertising on networks like Twitter and Facebook is so annoying; you don’t want your people to get the reputation for never contributing.

At the same time, there is nothing wrong with encouraging employees to actively look outside the organization for better ways of doing things. Why you would want to discourage this?

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at or by phone at 703-402-7382. 

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