Insular Best Practices Create Mediocrity

Best practices is a term frequently used by organizations to suggest they know what they are doing or that they have checked to see what other people are doing.  Lawyers understand best practices – in essence, it is finding the precedent and applying it rather than using losing arguments.

I was recently involved in an organizational review that required me to do comparisons with other libraries.  There were some specific deficiencies that appeared in the review and it seemed relatively clear that they were not desirable.  The comparisons highlighted that, while these practices weren’t desirable, they were relatively common.

This would seem to suggest that the organizations being compared were not seeking to improve.  On the contrary, it was clear that the organizations had participated in professional conferences and information sharing.  Where is the disconnect then between doing something suboptimally and learning from peer organizations to do things better?

In the case of law libraries, my working theory is that the sharing of best practices is limited to the law library community.  Instead of looking outside law libraries, and even outside libraries generally, small networks of law libraries are sharing their practices and others are adopting them.  The insularity of the group – through a reactive mindset, not that they are proactively ignoring external examples – ensures that so-called best practices propogate throughout the network.  Peer organizations compare or benchmark themselves against peers and adopting their practices is safer than veering out into the unknown.

The law libraries I considered had adopted similar practices, collection layouts, and surprisingly similar cultures.  Unfortunately, instead of being examples of how to improve, they merely showed that poor practices were common.  I scratched my head for why this might be, because the organizations had different budgets, locations, and other characteristics that would have suggested their approach to legal information delivery would be different.

My working theory, as I said, is that we are adopting what our colleagues do, when they are successful, without really considering whether it represents the best practices for customer service or service delivery in a broader sense.  There would seem to be missed opportunities when the pool for ideas is relatively small and insular.  If that’s the case, the participants should feel obliged to look beyond their peers and colleagues to confirm that there aren’t better examples available.