I recently attended a meeting to discuss some emerging ideas on leadership and performance in the public sector. At one point, the topic of “best practice transfer” arose. This was unsurprising, given that this features in most of the high-profile enquiry reports that have been produced over recent years in the wake of perceived failures in practice. The seemingly common-sense argument is that processes, systems, and procedures that are perceived to be successful in one part of an organization should be sought out and implanted elsewhere, to transform the performance of others faced with similar challenges.
Reflecting on this discussion some time later, I recalled a workshop that I’d facilitated a few years earlier, when I was working with a great group of people in Germany. At that session, I challenged the idea that the transfer of so-called best practice within and between organizations was a credible way to improve performance. More often than not, I suggested, the reality falls well short of expectations. Typically, the approach ignores the importance of organizational context and takes little or no account of the dynamics of local interaction through which these so-called best practices are continuously (re-)enacted.
One of the participants then described this phenomenon beautifully, in terms of what he called the “logic” and the “magic” of organizational practice. The conventional notion of best practice transfer focuses exclusively on the logic. That is, on replicating the formal, structured, and visible aspects of what is assumed to be the source of the superior performance. This should be no surprise. It ticks all of the boxes in terms of its focus on those elements of organization that are considered to be tangible, programmable, measurable, controllable, and so on.
But it’s the magic that makes the difference. It’s the magic that brings the presumed logic to life.
The idealized designs, that others studiously copy, are only made meaningful through the ways in which people take these up in their local interactions and enact them in their local practice. It is in the midst of these (largely hidden, messy, and informal) dynamics of everyday organizational life that the outcomes viewed as “best practice” emerge and come to be recognized as such. These local exchanges take place continuously – between specific people, at specific times, and in specific situations. And it’s in the unknowable interplay of these interactions that the magic of ‘best practice’ lies.
This magic can’t be “captured” and then transplanted, grafted on, or otherwise transferred. Organizational members must make their own, through their everyday conversations and interactions with each other. Where the aim is to learn from others’ experiences, the critical process is one of translation, not transfer. The more opportunity that people get to have these conversations – both within and ‘beyond’ their own immediate sphere of operation – the more likely it is that magic will happen.