In defense of HR Best Practice

The concept of ‘best practice’ is so yesterday. So I am told. Although I fully understand where the critics are coming from, I think they are too negative on the concept. Let me expand…

Yes, ‘best practice’ has come under some criticism lately and quite frankly also with some justification. It is impossible to go to a conference, read a white paper or just look through the blogosphere today without being overdosed with best practice by consultancy companies (such as yours truly), who are trying to make their products and services sound better than it really is or are selling it to their customers as ‘this is how all the best are doing it and see how much money they are making’.

Jane Watson formulates it well when she says:

“Best practice” has become a largely meaningless label an individual applies to one or more business practices that they hold in high regard; practices that they, or their industry or profession, consider to be ‘best’, presumably in comparison to other practices previously or currently in use. There might be theoretical underpinnings or research that illustrate the efficacy of these practices, but quite frequently there is not. It seems to me that in cases where such supporting data is lacking, the evidence used to justify the labeling of a practice as ‘best’ is the degree to which it is popular amongst similar organizations, especially if those organizations are successful (e.g. profitable, recognized and positively viewed). Often these practices are advanced as ‘best’ by the very organizations that employ them, or by consultants, thought leaders or professional bodies that champion the adoption of the practices in question. Given these questionable motives, it can be difficult, I think, to assess whether a ‘best practice’ is effective, or simply the latest craze.”

Spot on Jane. I totally agree.

As I see it, best practice can be criticized from five angels:

  1. Lack of evidence. Frankly most of the so called Best Practice are hailed as such without any real evidence, research or anything substantial to back it up.
  2. You will not be better than your competitors. By adopting best practice (assuming it is), you will still not be better than your competitors. Indeed all you are doing are imitating them and probably doing it worse than them.
  3. Lack of context. Because something is working in a young start-up in Sillicon Valley does not mean it will work in your old mid-western production company.
  4. Based on (very) few cases. It appears that a best practice often is the result of one or two companies doing something which works for them. Also, it seems like it is the same few cases which are doing the rounds.
  5. Illusion of simplicity. Reading best practice cases – such as Zappos and Google – it gives the illusion that it is actually quite simple to replicate. What they do is smart and easy to do. Wrong. The best practice cases never seem to capture how long time and how much effort it has taken to make it work.

BUT BUT BUT wait a minute before you discard best practice all together. It is easy to criticize but instead of saying that we can’t use best practice cases at all we should recognize it for what it is (and importantly also for what it is not) and then use them intelligently.

There is nothing wrong with listening to what others do, be inspired by it, adopt it to your particular context and use it how you see fit.   Let me illustrate my thinking:

15 years ago I decided to run a marathon. I didn’t know how to prepare for such an event as I had never run long distance before. I decided to buy a book. It was written by someone, who had completed more than 50 marathons. In the book he gave details about nutrition, running program, do’s and don’ts, equipment and advice on what to expect. As I was travelling quite a lot at the time, I had to adapt the training program significantly. Also much of what he suggested I should eat was not easy to prepare while travelling, so I had to adapt that as well. I know there are many ways to prepare for a marathon and his was only one way. Indeed many successful running experts may even had disagreed with some of his advice. Who knows. Also, he was not the best in the world. His fastest time would not have made the top 50 in the world. But he was pretty good and certainly better than I was (and still am). But I learned a lot from the book. I improved and most importantly I completed the marathon. Along the way, friends gave me advice which contradicted the advice in the book but by and large I stuck to his advice.

I guess my point is: don’t think that best practice is the only or even the best way to do something. It is not. And what works for one company will most definitely not work in exactly the same way for another. But best practice cases are about companies and people who have done something with success and are passing on some key learning points. Take those learning points. They can be a source of inspiration. Listen to it, adapt it, use your common sense and see what you can learn from it. There may be value in best practice after all.


  1. Hi Morten

    I enjoyed your article, you make a great point. I wonder also whether we should switch the naming from “best practice” to “success practices”. The notion of best is quite static and definitive – a claim that is rarely true when it comes to people and organizations.

    Success is more fluid and yet does highlight what you point out that these practices have led to success for some and may hold nuggets of insight and inspiration that you can apply to your own situation.



    1. Hi Ian,

      Thanks for your comment.
      I agree that the term ‘best practice’ may be unfortunate. The word ‘best’ suggest that this is the best – and only – way to do things and that’s my point exactly that it isn’t. Success Practice may be a viable alternative-
      Excellent point.

      Glad you liked the post


  2. Hi Morten, thank you for quoting me in your post! I definitely don’t disagree with your take on this, given that you emphasize the importance of adapting best practices to your own organization. My main issue is with the assumption that best practices can be implemented with little customization or consideration of unique organizational needs, but somehow reproduce the results these practices were credited for at another, different organization.

    Forgive me, but when it comes to your marathon example, I can’t resist playing devil’s advocate. It’s difficult to assess the impact of the ‘best running practices’ you adopted without a control episode to compare it to…hence my suggestion that you consider running another marathon without adopting any of these tried and true training techniques…all in the name of HR research, of course. I’ll be right behind you 🙂

    1. Hi Jane,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Agree that there is an assumption that best practice is easy to implement with little customization. However is that not only from the writers point of view? In practice, I have not experienced any HR executive who believed that something was that easy to introduce or do.
      Finally, the chance of me running another marathon is as great as HR becoming evidence based anytime soon…sorry

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