photo of business person dropping paper in photo on published January 20, 2016 by John Sumser titled Best Practices are a warning sign photo credit Pawel Kadysz

“I have yet to see someone make the claim of having best practices while simultaneously being able to prove that it’s actually THE best practice in any particular circumstance.” – John Sumser

The HR and HRTech industries are exploding with dramatic assertions about how things work and what matters. Even though no one can agree on the definition of engagement, nearly everyone seems to agree that it is the fountain of youth for HR in the 21st Century. That level of hype around an ill defined idea is what causes people to think HR folks are lightweights.

If we don’t agree on what engagement is, it’s very difficult to prove that it does anything to anybody. And, no one agrees.

There also seems to be a massive claim to the value of so-called ‘best practices’. When someone tells you they know about the best practices in a certain case (or even more suspect, have embedded these practices into their software), hang on tight to your wallet.

If you push. you’ll get the same answers that I do. I have had conversations like this with a broad range of tech providers over the past 18 months

Them: We are big believers in best practices.

Me: How do you know they are best practices?

Them: From data and surveys.

Me: So, can you prove the connection between best practices and some sort of business result?

Them: Well. no. But any rational person could see that this is the best way to do it.

Me: So, you’re saying that you don’t have best practices at all, right?

Them: Oh, maybe they aren’t best practices if you want all that.

So far, I have yet to see someone make the claim of having best practices while simultaneously being able to prove that it’s actually THE best practice in any particular circumstance. And, no one has shown me a sure-fired best practice that works in all settings. Mostly, best practices are a bunch of arm waving from people who should know better than to make unsubstantiated claims in a data driven economy. If they tell you it’s the best way, don’t rest until they’ve proved to you with numbers. If they say it’s the best practice, they should be able to prove that it is in your actual case.

So, what does work?

There are a very few research operations who are gingerly moving towards statistical benchmarking. The idea there is “if we can’t tell you what’s best, we can surely tell you what other people are doing and how you compare. There is good work to be done in this arena.

But, there is an important caveat.

HR is not a one size fits all discipline that works the same for everyone who touches it. Rather, it is a system of practices that are unique to the culture, industry, region, size and business model of a particular company. In addition, HR tends to answer the question “What have you been sued for?”

HR installations are unique snowflakes. Finding a best practice would be a lot like finding a best snowflake. This is true of HR as a whole and each of its subset silos of expertise. You could probably collect enough data to say something like “under these circumstances, here’s what an average snowflake looks like.”

Even then, you’d have to remember that the average of anything is a very long way from the truth. It’s okay for navigation but not so good for validation.


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