January 22, 2014 3:07 PM   Subscribe

I have now heard several managers utter the buzzword "Best Practices" when describing why they do the things they do. What is the source of this new buzzword, and why is it so prevalent?
posted by shipbreaker to Work & Money (42 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It was a common phrase when I was working in the mutual fund industry (on the legal side). That was a dozen years ago.
posted by janey47 at 3:11 PM on January 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

It isn't new. It's been a part of managerial-speak for at least a couple of decades now.

It's used to justify whatever stupid move they are about to make. It's so prevalent because it provides implied cover for said stupid move. Think of it as the management version of "All the other kids are doing it!"
posted by Thorzdad at 3:14 PM on January 22, 2014 [25 favorites]

I don't think it's new; I recall it becoming common at least eight years ago. It seemed to arrive at the same time as "going forward" to mean "in the future".

It might just recently have arrived in your particular industry, though. I was in heavy industrial electronics sales and marketing.

Buzzspeak is an intriguing feature of fast-moving language.
posted by Kakkerlak at 3:14 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's not a new thing in any way - I've been hearing it for years. At first, I heard it more in industries where validation / regulation were a big thing (in particular, at pharm companies and places that make medical equipment).

As to why it's so prevalent - it's as prevalent as any piece of business-speak. You're likely noticing it more because of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't know the source, but I don't think it's really new. I'm pretty sure I've heard it in various contexts for years.

As for why it is prevalent? Because it's a good damn idea, that's why.

My company holds best practice meetings in order to standardize the way certain things are done company-wide, across divisions and departments and locations. Prior to this everybody did their own thing and drove everyone else crazy.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2014 [20 favorites]

I've also heard it for years (at least since the late '90s), but tend to notice an uptick in its usage when management decides to pay attention to workflow issues and/or wants a reason to bring in consultants.
posted by scody at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2014

The first I saw it was in civil engineering, where BMPs refer to design practices commonly recognized to mitigate something, usually stormwater runoff.

It makes sense there. I don't know when it started taking on buzzword overtones.
posted by Llamadog-dad at 3:16 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's far from new, and it's not always an evil buzzword.

Used for good, it means this: "Instead of making up a new way to do this that might or might not be ideal, and instead of doing things the way we've done them in the past, we're going to go with the way of doing it that our industry/group/area-of-practice has settled on as either the best way of doing things, or at least a really good default way of doing things that you should probably stick with unless you're very confident you can improve on it."

Used for evil, it means this: "I heard a consultant say it once, or I am a consultant, and I want to change things because I said so."
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:16 PM on January 22, 2014 [53 favorites]

"Best Practice" has been around for a while. It's shorthand for "we are in this business, doing this thing, but there is another company in the same business doing the same thing and they are doing it more profitably, so they are obviously doing it the best way, and so we need to do it the best way also".

I've also heard it used in the context of talking about ISO stuff as well. If it's ISO, it's ipso facto "best practice".
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:17 PM on January 22, 2014

Yeah, just chiming in to say that I've heard this term for ages, and that it's actually a useful concept.
posted by jayder at 3:19 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

A more concise way of saying it, on further thought, might be this:

"A good way of doing things that isn't re-inventing the wheel."
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:24 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Interesting. In my experience (software development), it's a term used by developers to non technical managers to inspire confidence and has been used as far back as I remember. Software project managers are fond of tried and tested patterns.
posted by unbearablylight at 3:25 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

For example, here is a link to the Investment Adviser Compliance Best Practices Summit -- the 15th Annual. And you know they wouldn't start a "summit" until the words had been in use for a while.
posted by janey47 at 3:27 PM on January 22, 2014

Common for years, especially in anything to do with the FDA.

FDA Warns Cantaloupe Industry to Follow Best Practices

You can also translate it as "do it this way, unless you can prove your own way is better".
posted by benzenedream at 3:32 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

At some point in the last few years it made the leap from business-speak to useful term in web software development: it's a way to distinguish between "how do I get this working" and "what is the right way to get this working". I've taken to including it in my google searches and have found a marked improvement in the sorts of results that turn up. (I haven't seen a link to w3schools in, like, months!)

That said, to Tomorrowful's "used for good" and "used for evil" definitions, I'd add a "used for mediocrity" version: "We don't really understand this so let's just do it the way everyone else does and hope for the best." See also "No one ever got fired for buying IBM"
posted by ook at 3:36 PM on January 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

Claiming to do "best practices" is usually meant in the context of peers - so, say you're a ditch digger, "best practices" would be to do work that's in accord with how peers in ditch digging do their work that is done with and results in the best outcome.

When I was working in hospitals, I'd hear that IPPB (a kind of powered breathing treatment) was once a "best practice" for the treatment of pulmonary edema, but was no longer so - so best practices really are about comparing the work being done with the peer group.

What's interesting is when this term gets used with practices that suck. "Robo signing" was once thought to be a great innovation and a kind of "new" best practice. Then see the usage here: Historic 'Robo-Signing' Foreclosure Settlement Mandates Corporate Best Practices For Financial Institutions.

If your field is mostly mediocre practitioners, "best practices" may just be mediocre. Most fields have professional bodies or standards that work gets measured by, when "best practices" applies to those kind of metrics, the term can have real meaning.
posted by artlung at 3:36 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you spend much time in the corporate world, or on conference calls, this linked article is pretty much "must reading". It is hilarious, yet painful. For a while I had a manager that would direct our conference calls who said "at the end of the day" like some nervous tic. I tallied he said it 17 times during one conf call. Our sport was whoever instant message their other cohort listener "ATEOTD" first whenever he said it would get a point. That day I was highly caffeinated and won by 11-6 I believe.

posted by jcworth at 3:41 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want some more fun corporate/management lingo, check out this and this.
posted by amaire at 3:49 PM on January 22, 2014

I've heard it in the sense of "Our whole group is working on foo but we don't really have a consistent approach. Let's get together, compare and contrast the different approaches, and agree on our best practices so that we can all be on the same page and consistently delivering a quality result."

Ideally it means "practices that are known to be most effective."
posted by bunderful at 3:53 PM on January 22, 2014

"Best practice" or "best practices" is a phrase used heavily in medicine to refer to what is known to be the best way to do something now (with the implication that it might not always be). Journals such as the Best Practice and Research titles translate academic research to practice for clinicians.
posted by jb at 4:01 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is not just a buzzword. It usually refers to a written policy. There may be "best practices" for a number of different processes within an area of work. If a manager refers to a best practice, that process has been agreed upon by a team usually convened to define the policy. Best practices keep things consistent in a busy process, i.e., so everyone follows the rules. When used correctly, "best practices" should mean the opposite of an arbitrary or spontaneous decision.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 4:06 PM on January 22, 2014

Whether "best practices" is a meaningless buzzword or an actual phrase with actual meaning varies a lot from context to context. I can easily see it as a way to provide a vague-but-positive-sounding justification for doing something just because you heard someone else is doing it too, but sometimes it has a specific meaning. Sometimes it even has a legal definition.

(I am neither a lawyer nor a doctor, though my mother is the former and my father is the latter. The following may not be legally precise but hopefully the gist of it is correct.) In a medical malpractice suit, "best practices" is one of the standards that is used to judge whether or not the doctor being sued acted correctly or not.

In medicine there are usually certain standards that apply to certain procedures and situations, which have been agreed upon by doctors/hospitals/licensing organizations as being the right thing to do. Often this is because studies have been done showing that they lead to the best outcomes, though just as often it's just because it's the way people have always done it and it stands to reason that it's a prudent thing to do. There's frequently a range ways that a doctor can respond to a given situation based on his or her best judgment without violating best practices, but if she or he does something totally off the wall then that's not OK and if harm occurs then the doctor may be held liable.

In this context, as I understand it, "best practices" refers to "what another competent doctor, placed in the same situation with the same information at hand, might reasonably choose to do". That "another competent doctor" is sort of a notional entity, though quite often in malpractice suits other doctors will be consulted and/or called to testify regarding whether or not they think the doctor being sued acted in accordance with best practices, i.e. whether they think their choice of action or their interpretation of the evidence was a reasonable one that fits with current medical wisdom.

I believe that in that context, the term has been around for a long time. I also use it in my own work (biological research) as a shorthand for "I'm doing this because despite the fact that it's a little different from the way most people do things, and despite the fact that it creates a little more work for me, my understanding is that this is the best way to do this procedure/run this analysis/interpret this data and that it's worthwhile because it will increase my success rate/provide a more robust analysis/make my interpretation less error-prone, and if you want me to I can back up my choice with a more detailed rationale". People seem to understand it when I use the term in that context.

So anyway it's not a new term and it's definitely not always meaningless – in fact, sometimes the meaning is very precise and specific indeed. However I can certainly see it rising to great popularity among mediocre businesspeople who want a handwavy excuse for following along with whatever trend has floated across their consciousness recently. It sounds positive, it sounds businesslike, and if it's new and people aren't used to the term being abused that way then it might still work as a general-purpose excuse.

If you suspect that somebody is using "best practices" to say "I don't really know but I don't want to admit it", one thing you could do is ask them to explain why their particular choice is considered best practices. The thing about the term "best practices" as an actual meaningful shorthand is that it implies that there are specific, well-established reasons why that particular practice is considered the best. If they can't back up their assertion with a more detailed rationale, then they're just blowing smoke.
posted by Scientist at 4:13 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the Oxford English Dictionary online, listed under "Draft Additions March 2007":
best practice n. chiefly Business (as a mass noun) the practice which is accepted by consensus or prescribed by regulation as correct; the preferred or most appropriate style.

1984 C. Hitching & D. Stone. Understand Accounting! xvi. 315. Some of these have for long been regarded as ‘best practice’, and most have already been defined within the accounting standards.
(It goes on to list a few other, later, citations.)
posted by mbrubeck at 4:20 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Baldrige Award does not think it's a meaningless buzzword and is an extremely high honor for a company to achieve. Performance Excellence departments certainly vary a lot in whether or not they do a damn thing, but the word itself isn't just jargon.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:22 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

best practice n. chiefly Business (as a mass noun) the practice which is accepted by consensus or prescribed by regulation as correct; the preferred or most appropriate style.

I used "best practices" in this sense just yesterday. I don't consider it to be jargon or a meaningless buzzword.

Common for years, especially in anything to do with the FDA.

When I worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing we followed current good manufacturing practices/cGMP which are essentially "best practices" elevated to the level of formal regulation. Notably, we had a mandatory cGMP training course which all plant staff had to complete on their first day--which hadn't been updated since the early 1980s. It's not simply managerial argot--there often really is a solid but continually evolving consensus about the best way to do a certain thing.
posted by pullayup at 4:50 PM on January 22, 2014

The idea, in large part, is to conceive and follow an accepted set of practices that is regarded as optimum, higher than just the minimum, to emphasize quality and to get out of the mindset that concludes that something that is legal should be OK since it has not been prohibited.
posted by yclipse at 5:04 PM on January 22, 2014

Large organizations do well because they have good processes in place -- they aren't dependent on particular individuals. Or in the context of doctors, if something is frequently by a large number of people, there are presumably better or worse ways of doing it.

If something is referred to as a "best practice" it means that someone has considered different ways of doing something and people are deliberately doing things in the "best" way, rather than haphazardly taking the path of least resistance.
posted by leopard at 5:14 PM on January 22, 2014

I work at a company where, due to the org structure, often one group of people will be tasked with completing a task that is at its core identical to a task that someone elsewhere in the company has already been doing for a while (whether this is an efficient org structure is left as an exercise for the reader). In any case, in this context, when we talk about "best practices" it means that the group of people that is now embarking on doing X should consult with other people who have been doing X for longer, so as not to attempt to reinvent the wheel and waste time and resources in the process.

Of all the manager speak I put up with on a daily basis (most of it verbing nouns beyond all recognition), I consider it benign and even useful.
posted by telegraph at 5:39 PM on January 22, 2014

I don't think it's new nor do I think it's a buzzword. "Best practices" simply refers to using tried and true methods that have been shown to work over time. A related cliche may be, "We don't need to reinvent the wheel." The idea of using best practices isn't a term used in just managing and business, it can be applied to anything.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:04 PM on January 22, 2014

"Industry standard" means we do it the same way every other company in our field does it. "Best Practices" implies that we are looking at current research in our given field and applying a combination of "Industry Standard" and current research to give us some additional insight. It implies a level of maturity to a department or organization such that they are not only "fighting fires" but are thinking in terms of the "bigger picture".

For one company that I worked for, that meant that we were building media mix models, we were using dorfman-steiner to optimize the balance of our media, we were building regional models, had rebuilt our direct mail model to use bayesian inference and applying those same techniques to geographic segmentation as well. In addition we were benchmarking, meaning making sure that these were the techniques that were used by the best performing companies, and that we were trained to do these things. Moreover, we also outsourced certain aspects of our projects to consultants, who would review our methodologies and generally tell us whether we were on track. Similarly, we would also review our consultants work to make sure that they were producing usable and relevant models.

At the end though, this meant that we set the game plan, worked the game plan, and then evaluated whether the game plan performed appropriately. Even more importantly, at the end of the day, we also able to produce synthesized results showing what random chance would have provided (think - what does simple or sub-optimal direct mail modeling produce as results?). As such, we were generally able to quantify whether it was worth investing in our department with a fair degree of certainty.

Not every company invests the same time and money into making sure their budgets and performance have some basis in rigor.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:09 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

nthing that it's not new. I abhor business-speak, but this is one term that (sometimes) has a shred of real meaning. It can certainly be used stupidly, but in many fields there really are practices that have been identified as widely applicable and advantageous. Best practices are the opposite of shitty, kludgey, duct-tape-and-chewing-gum practices.

I work in web development—some of the "best practices" in my industry field include:
  • When dealing with dates and times, store all values in UTC (Greenwich time, basically) internally, and convert to the user's local time zone for display. (Dealing with time is an error-prone nightmare otherwise.)
  • Make sure that you validate and properly escape all input. This prevents your database from getting cluttered up with malformed or bogus data, and also protects against certain kinds of security attacks.
  • Don't assume that your users will have the latest browsers and plugins. Instead, build your site so it's at least functional for the lowest common denominator of users, and then add features that will make it friendlier or more appealing to those users who do enjoy support for the shiny new stuff. (This approach is called "progressive enhancement").
  • Write code that's self-documenting—use variable names that tell you what they are, function names that tell you what they do, etc.
A seasoned developer might call this stuff "common sense", but "best practices" is a succinct and politically neutral term that means, more or less, "doing things the right way". I wouldn't use the term when talking with another developer—but if a manager asks me why I prefer a particular approach, I might say "well, it's a best practice", and s/he would understand that to mean "it neatly avoids some potential pitfalls that could bite us in the ass otherwise".
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:09 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've also heard the term used for decades. It does mean "already proven practice", but is also often just used whenever for whatever.
posted by xammerboy at 7:17 PM on January 22, 2014

In the non-profit/human services sector the term refers to a program or a method of delivering service that has some research and evidence to back up its effectiveness as an approach.

Which doesn't mean that the term can't be misapplied. Best practices of this type are often context sensitive which means they may work with a certain population, but not others; or certain socio-political situations and not others, etc.

My personal distaste is reserved for those founders who ask for "innovative best practices". If it's a best practice, it's been around long enough to be studied, replicated, and documented - so it can't be innovative anymore.
posted by nubs at 7:39 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

If google n-grams is to be believed, this term jumped in and out of existence a few times, stuck around for good in 1910, peaked in 1930, and didn't really take off like a dumb, corporate rocket until the 1980s.
posted by pwnguin at 8:05 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it came from medicine, but it's pretty explicit what it means in the clinical setting: evidence-based, standardized protocols for the practice of medicine, nursing, and allied health.

A whole family of medical journals Elsevier published under the Bailliere-Tindall imprint were renamed "Best Practice & Research: Clinical (Anaesthesiology, O&G, Haematology, whatever)" in 1994. The evidence-based medicine movement was really getting in swing around that time. The notion of standardized, evidence-based protocols had been around since the mid-eighties, though.

As nubs notes, "innovative best practice" is an oxymoron.
posted by gingerest at 9:04 PM on January 22, 2014

Or maybe nubs and I are wrong about the intersection of innovation and BP:
Sheng-Chia Chung and colleagues report in The Lancet that, in their comparison of short-term outcomes in patients with acute myocardial infarction, unadjusted 30-day mortality was more than a third higher in the UK than in Sweden during 2004–10. They suggest that this difference is due largely to the divergent speed of implementation of policy initiatives to improve care. Chung and colleagues compared the UK data with those for Sweden because the two countries have similar health systems for, and spending on, acute myocardial infarction, but diffusion of evidence-based changes to practice and new technologies has been notably quicker in Sweden
(Gale and Fox, The Lancet Early Online 23 Jan 2014, link)
posted by gingerest at 9:28 PM on January 22, 2014

Not new. In a business setting: Best practices = often mediocre, but better than all the stupid shit people have tried before and will surely try again if ever a manager fails to maintain eternal vigilance.

Best practices are, at best, good enough, but sometimes good enough isn't good enough. I think that is what centers of excellence are for.

The one best practice to practice when it comes to questioning best practices: Pick your battles wisely.
posted by Good Brain at 12:15 AM on January 23, 2014

Better practice. Not best. That would suggest there's no room for improvement. That's pretty unlikely.

Better practice means 'Not sure what you're doing? Or want to see if there's a way of doing something better? Try this. It's been shown to work well for other people in your circumstances. Why bumble around making mistakes when you can do it right from the start?'

It also has a darker side in the risk / assurance / audit space: 'You'd better have a pretty good reason for not doing it this way, especially if things aren't going well.'

The Australian National Audit Office publishes 'better practice guides'.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:16 AM on January 23, 2014

There's room for improvement, but until you can demonstrate that your innovations are more fruitful than following established best practices, the existing "best practices" will remain "best." It's similar to "our current scientific understanding" of any given thing: as good as it gets for what we've got right now.

Practice and experimentation are two different things, though there is a troublesome problem in western medicine with practitioners following their own guidelines and essentially experimenting without collecting data.

I first heard the term in an IT context but I also first gained professional "white collar" employment in an IT context. It just means "guidelines that you really ought to have a good reason for not following if you choose not to do so" in that context and encompasses things like requiring passwords to be a certain length, how much storage to buy in advance when setting up a major database, etc. Since then I've taken it to mean basically this: the rules you need to learn and follow before you can properly break them. They are leadership proceduralized and written down as a recipe. "Do it this way until you figure out a better way."
posted by lordaych at 2:12 AM on January 23, 2014

It is a meaningful , useful, phrase.

However, there is a tendency by some managers to keep saying it over and over again even though it's clear they have no idea what it actually means. That may be more an artifact of recent managerial literature and culture.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:27 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I work at a food manufacturer. "Best practice" for us is linked directly to food safety measures and compliance with food safety rules. It's mostly used in developing the procedures and policies around lab testing, cleaning and sanitizing equipment and general sanitation measures. It can be as basic and obvious 'it is best practice for employees to wash their hands and wear a hair net when coming onto the production floor' to more complex and industry tested methods for cleaning the storage vats.
posted by Jalliah at 5:49 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

What is the source of this new buzzword, and why is it so prevalent?

Our subjective impressions of such things are often wrong. Your "new" and "prevalent" could easily be examples of Recency Illusion and Frequency Illusion (AKA Baader-Meinhof phenomenon).
posted by stebulus at 6:32 AM on January 23, 2014

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