What’s the Best Practice to Stirring a Pot?
There was some chatter on twitter this week between Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett) and Jarret Pazahanick (@SAP_Jarret) regarding best practices. This caught my eye because I’ve had this particular blog in draft for nearly 15 months and I’ve been struggling with how to communicate my disdain for the phrase, particularly with how it is used in the SAP industry. But it’s a touchy subject so I’ve been spending plenty of time trying to substantiate my opinion with references from other industries lest some six sigma black belt tracks me down and chops my head off. I’ve googled down links and references and had to read up on SAP’s Best Practices so that I could properly distinguish the generic phrase from SAP’s offering. After all that work and then reading their tweet-backs I realized I should just rant about it because what I need to say doesn’t require that type of research. The flaw in the system is more evident.
This is all relevant because the phrase “best practice” is one of the most often used phrases in the SAP ecosystem and has been for the past several years. Anyone disagree? I suppose we could brainstorm a complete list and throw in words like NetWeaver or Collaboration and rank them all but I’ll let someone else blog on that.
Back to the Tweets
To catch you up, Dennis tweeted that best practices don’t exist for everyone.
There is so much truth to this and I agree with his sentiment 100%… the sentiment being that Best Practices are not universally applicable. Best Practices are merely a guide or process that is believed to be more effective than an alternative processes. Note that they are not *the* solution even though most everyone in the industry equates one with the other. When interpreted from this more moderate (realistic?) viewpoint, they serve as a good reference point for SAP customers. Considering the large number of SAP projects that fail to live up to pre-implementation expectations and deliver sub-optimal solutions, it would seem that the industry would be falling over itself to continually refine these best practices. Part of that process would be to correctly interpret the phrase from the get-go but the industry doesn’t seem to care about that. The differentiation between a best practice, a de-facto standard, or merely a workable solution is murky in the SAP trenches that I work in.
I’ve found that even if you narrow down your evaluation of a best practice to two customers of similar size, global reach, and industry, you’re still likely to find major differences in what they do in SAP. I’ve worked a great deal in Oil&Gas here in Houston and found that several of these companies don’t do invoice verification the same way. They don’t do project settlement the way. Their chart of accounts look different and how they setup their PCA hierarchies are different. These are not trivial differences that reflect the companies percularities, but rather significant differences touching some of the most important master data and transactional processes in all of ERP. I know of two O&G customers in particular where one has 2,000 profit centers and the other has over 25,000, yet they are similar in size, scope, and operational reach. But which one abides by the gospel of best practice? Hard to tell — and that’s why so many people get frustrated with the phrase.
Even Wikipedia highlights the following:
“As the term has become more popular, some organizations have begun using the term “best practices” to refer to what are in fact merely ‘rules’, causing a linguistic drift in which a new term such as “good ideas” is needed to refer to what would previously have been called “best practices.””
Exactly. What was previously a good rule, is now glorified as a thoroughly researched and widely adopted best practice.?.? Says who?
Back to twitter. Jarret tweeted the following which re-focused me on exactly where my frustration lies.
Why I hate the phrase ‘Best Practice’
OK, OK. Maybe hate is too strong but I really can’t stand it and for reasons that are different than what Dennis pointed out. I dislike the phrase because I routinely see consultants using it as a shield. By that, I mean that they use the phrase “its best practice” as a way to justify what is, in fact, just their opinion. This seems to come mostly from people who can’t justify their answer on their own. They can’t explain the rationale behind why their solution is better / easier / quicker / more stable / etc. Either they don’t fully understand the functionality or process in question, or they aren’t aware of all of the alternative solutions that are available, and therefore can’t justify their answer based on merit. They take the easy way out… they recommend a course of action based on the little that they know and then append “its best practice” to it as if this will legitimze the inaccuracies of their answer. Then they sweat bullets as they prey that the other party won’t press them on the issue.
They’ve taken two words that can be useful in guiding customers through the labyrinth that is an SAP project, and they’ve turned it into a shield to cover up their lack of product knowledge or industry experience. It burns me up to hear about these encounters second hand.
How to Penetrate the Shield
Apart from wanting to just rant about this topic so I can re-focus on my work today, I also want to pass along some information so that others can deal with this.
If you’re a customer reading this, you need to be on guard against this behavior. If a consultant is consistently using the Best Practice Shield, you need to knock it down. It comes down to behavior patterns… if they use the shield once and get away with it, they’ll do it repeatedly. Customers lose in that situation.
There are many ways to penetrate the shield, but I’ve found that the trick to exposing people like this that work in a knowledge intensive industry such as SAP is to ask open-ended questions. It’s simple and always works for me. It’s a great technique in interviews, too. Any question that gets them to explain their point of view will do the trick so long as it’s not a yes/no question. Consider:
– WHY is it a best practice?
– Are there any alternative solutions?
– Why is this preferable to this other solution? <<– this is key
– What’s thehistory of this solution / work-around?
– If you’ve done this at a past customer, is there any documentation you can show me? A testing log perhaps?
Of course, none of this is unique to the SAP industry or the consulting profession. People will often grasp something that will hide their ignorance. But that doesn’t mean it’s right and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t knock their excuse down and get an honest answer. Best Practices have their place in SAP, but they have to be properly differentiated from someone’s opinion first.