Best practice or good work

Recently I was taken with a blog post from Gurprriet Siingh (@joyandlife) challenging the current fascination with the idea of best practice. Siingh observed that what might be good practice for me may not be best for you. I wrote about this in my own blog.

This week I’ve been reading a number of papers from the 1980s and was impressed by the way in which a number of them seem to address a world not dissimilar to the one we are facing right now – pressure on budgets driving calls for greater productivity and so forth seemed to at the top of the agenda for writers at that time.

I was struck, therefore, by a comment from Anant Neghandi (1983) writing in the Asia Pacific Journal of Management

There is no ‘best’ way of doing things. The principle of equifinality applies to the functioning of social as well as business organisations. Managers may achieve given objectives through various methods.

In part of my work as a media consultant I am regularly invited to provide media ethics training for media practitioners and journalists working in emergent contexts. I wrote in my journal recently of my sudden recognition that I come from a media context currently in ethical crisis. What right do I have to assume that the ethical practice that I represent is by any means good or best practice? Sadly we often do not engage with our partners to identify their ethical frameworks or to ask what it is that concerns them. Rather we respond to their request for assistance by assuming our ethical position and reasoning is, at least theoretically, adequate and that our experiences have equipped us for the training task. We offer a model of practice that we present as best practice even as British newspaper ethical practice is visibly collapsing as each day of the Leveson public inquiry continues.

This comment from nearly thirty years ago challenges the notion that there is a single ‘best practice.’ If Neghandi was correct there is rarely an approach to our practice which we can describe as being in some way, uniquely, the best.

To do so implies that other approaches are to some extent less than the best and this in turn raises the question of what might be good enough. It may be good enough to achieve the task or objectives but it not going to be good practice or even best practice (King, 1995:50). Edge and Richards (1998:569-570) are stronger declaring the concept of best practice to be “an illegitimate importation from an inappropriate paradigm.” Its use, they suggest, has potential to undermine the very improvements in practice it sets out achieve.

I don’t know if Negandhi was suggesting that good enough was sufficient but it seems that there are many excellent practices available in most situations we face. I can encourage good practice amongst journalists and perhaps, together, we can discover ways of knowing what is right, good and proper.

If it is true that we may achieve what is needed by various means then perhaps there are lots of good practices to be noticed, made sense of, applied and become Good Work.

Edge, J & Richards, K (1998).  Why Best Practice is Not Good Enough. Tesol Quarterly, 32(3), 569-576
King, I (1995). I Used To Be A Learner … But It’s All Over Now… Journal of Further and Higher Education, 19(2), 49-57
Negandhi, A. R. (1983). Management in the Third World. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 1 (1), 15-25.
This conversation started life in Andrew Steele’s personal blog

3 comments

  1. Thank you, Andrew, for your reflections on the current obsession with best practice.  You’ve triggered several thoughts, some of which I will develop in a separate blog, explaining why I don’t follow best practice.

    In the meantime your reflections highlight a problem with both words in the term ‘best practice’.  The word ‘best’ has a note of finality about it (if something is the best then it cannot be improved upon).  As a practitioner I don’t recognise this condition.  There is always something new to learn.  And the word ‘practice’ has several different meanings. There is a big difference between “that is the best way to do something” and “that was the best practice I have had in ages”.  This ambiguity, I suggest, is constructive.  However well I may do something I try to approach every action as a rehearsal for the next one.

     I was struck by your experience as an itinerant media trainer and the dilemma you face in teaching good practice in emerging contexts, when the ethical practices in your own context are deeply suspect.  If good work is stimulated by good questions, as I have suggested in an earlier blog, what are the questions that might shape your practice in the future?  Here’s one for starters.  Are you passing on a code of conduct that can be distributed in a handout (however tarnished it may be by its abuse by some practitioners in your own context), or are you helping your trainees develop their own ethical compass?  This question shifts the emphasis away from the content of your training to its pedagogy.

    And this, it seems to me, is ‘good’ practice.

  2. Good work is always original. In that sense it means going back to the beginning. I just came across this quote from Gustav Mahler that illustrates the point. While working on his 4th symphony, Mahler wrote to a friend:

    “This one is quite fundamentally different from my other symphonies. But that must be; I could never repeat a state of mind – and as life drives on, so too I follow new tracks in every work. That is why at first it is always so hard for me to get down to work. All the skill that experience has brought me is of no avail. One has to begin to learn all over again for the new thing one sets out to make. So one remains everlastingly a beginner!

    (Quoted in Fox, Original Blessings (1983) from Knud Martner (ed) Selected Letters of Gustave Mahler (New York 1979)).

  3. I think my practice is increasingly shaped by questions rather than answers. I find that the questions offer the options to select the good practices or at least to name them and once named and spoken they can be tried, rejected, adapted or embraced as most useful.

    The posing of the questions is, I think, what causes my ethics students to engage with what is good practice for them even though they often want me to offer a ‘handbook’ to which they can refer. Ultimately they do recognise that the questions are longer lasting, more flexible and more reflexive than a book of rules or how-tos.

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