What exactly are “Best Practices”?
” Cliche: ..expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect..”Wikipedia.
My previous article mentioned the incongruency in marketing ERP system when they are promoted both as based on best practices (doing things as others do) and as innovation tools (doing things different from the rest).
But what is understood by “best practices”?
Best practices accordingly to SAP*
SAP’s best practice knowledge base is a compilation of process flows and notes on system installation and configuration. You can have best practices loaded into a new system, as a basic configuration of a generic business.
The process flows are sequences of transactions to accomplish an objective, for example, plan a material. They can also include a few variations, for example, planning with make-to-stock or make-to-order strategies.
In my view, implement best practices in SAP is to do things the way the system has been designed to work. Following best practices in that sense is the same as keeping to the standard.
Keeping to the standard makes a lot of sense when the system is first implemented. First implementations are difficult and expensive, so avoiding customization improves the probabilities of successfully going live.
This approach makes sense even if it doesn’t include customized functionality that is valuable and unique to the business (implementation gaps) as long as they are reincorporated to the template as soon as the system is stable. This seldom happens.
What is implicit is that best practice are common and widely used by customers to archive positive results.
Best practices are not necessarily the best
If you agree that the concept of best practice is fundamentally keeping to the standard, then the word “best” in that phrase is misleading. It suggests a unique way of doing things. There cannot be more than one “best” as best is a superlative. However, in ERP terms, “best” is one of many possible options.
I like to see ERP best practices in evolutionary terms.
For evolution, “best” doesn’t mean the highest level of a trait – faster, stronger or clever – but a feature in an organism that best matches its environmental constraints.
Darwin’s biggest academic backlash was not because evolution conflicted with creationism, the fossil record was difficult to disregard, but because it implied that there was no progression towards an evolution apex with man at the top. In his view, a bee was as evolved as homo sapiens.
In the same way, an ERP best practice does not necessarily aim for higher market share or profitability. It is instead the configuration that better aligns a business to its market and internal processes.
The phrase best practices can also suggest that it is immutable, that a good match today can be a solid template for future success.
Again, as in evolution, a good strategy can quickly become a drawback when the environment changes. The process of adapting is more important than a particular feature. The ultimate best practice is to be flexible.
I’m a firm believer that a continuous improvement initiative and an adaptive ERP is key to stay ahead of the competition.
There is also the argument around the internet that there is no evidence that best practices give an advantage. That many companies struggle after an ERP implementation even if they implement only standard functionality and sometimes due to best practices tendency to soften the competitive edge.
A cliche in Marketing and Consulting
The best practices concept is routinely used to sell ERP systems. Salespeople extrapolate the benefits achieved by previous customers to businesses they don’t fully know. The phrase “Best Practices” just has a too good ring to it.
In consulting best practices can have an even more narrow definition. If a consultant has limited experience it may label any configuration that has worked in a previous project as best practice. I have seen a specific configuration being copy-pasted from client to client regardless of the actual requirements and subsequently creating large problems in the implementation.
Best practices can also work as a consultant’s shield to deflect any customer requirement for a functionality that is complex or hard to provide. Consultancy firms have in general a tendency to stick to the standard to reduce their risks and simplify the post-go-live system support, even if the business could benefit from a more bespoke approach.
Nowadays, many clients are aware that best practice doesn’t necessarily mean the best for them and they can even react negatively to a phrase they feel is a cliche.
For a long time now, I feel phoney if I use it with a client unless I combine it with air quotes. I now prefer to use “common practice” or “what I have seen…” instead.
* SAP is my ERP. I have been bringing bread to the table for 20 years by creating solutions based on its platform, so most of my views about the ERP world is through SAP glasses. I highly respect its engineering and in equal measure dislike its current marketing tactics, so I will be mentioning SAP frequently in my writings.