Friday, September 29, 2006

Are "best practices" really any good?

Why did somebody pick the term "Best Practices" to describe something very often constituting a local optimum in efficiency space? I find it very hard to believe that all approaches described as "best practices" are equally good or even fulfill the label "best practice" at all. Lets for example examine two approaches that seems to be fairly popular, and seem to at least think they represent "best practices". The first, patterns, is fairly technical in its offering and close to the code while the second, ITIL is more management related.

Patterns have a clear area where they are applicable limiting their scope. Patterns are can be used, copied and most importantly improved by anyone. Patterns are in a sense open for improvement. Patterns seems to have spread rapidly to use into real life applications, some patterns obviously more than others. Embracing patterns has been made fairly easy. Inefficient code can be reimplemented using patterns by a technique called refactoring. Some tools are even claimed to automatically refactor for you at the press of a button.

ITIL is described as a collection of best practices, but is it really as efficient as it can be? I would state that it is too early to say although ITIL has been around for some years. ITIL is however only in the process of being broadly adopted. ITIL seems more proprietary and does not seem to welcome feedback to the same extent. This limits the people working on improving the offering to only those that work for the agency. In stead ITIL seems more focused on providing training and certification at a price. Migration to using ITIL processes is left to the organization perusing excellence. ITIL also seems fairly vague in terms of limiting applicability.

A "best practice" should logically be something that is coming fairly close to being as efficient as possible. Many patterns fulfill this requirement. ITIL i would say is a good practice, at least in some respect, but in others seem fall short of being a "best". I don't think the difference in technical dept between the two examples i picked is fully responsible for all differences.

Some are often baffled by the fact that a bureaucratic approach like ITIL is even considered a good approach. Everything however depend on the problem you have at hand. If you need to only manage a single server used for a non critical application used by a single user to serve his own blog entries ITIL is probably just as overkill as writing this application using every existing pattern ever documented. For a major fortune 500 enterprise in Europe ITIL may however be a very good approach to fulfill legally mandated governance of financial applications.

What i mainly disappointed in is the failure of "best practice" promoters to recognize and efficiently communicate the known limits. One major key to efficiency in IT lies in knowing what is suitable. In a similar way one of the major reasons for failure is belief that one approach would be suitable when it in reality is not. Marketing seldom gets the limit across. In the mean while until there is a non subjective declaration of content for each approach the best solution is to be skeptical of all "best practices" and carefully evaluate their merits. And yes, i would prefer that the "best practice" promoters would in stead start to talk about good operating practice.

No comments: