A quick Google search for “social media best practices” reveals 102 million results. If you narrow that down to “social business best practices,” you’ll end up with still impressive 82 million results and change. If you start digging down the results, you’ll find something even more interesting: advice apparently as conflicting as:
“Focusing on adoption as a success metric will likely lead to failure because it engenders resistance” (Deloitte, “Social Software for Business Performance,” 2011)
“Ultimately, adoption is the leading indicator of social business success” (Forrester, “Mapping the value of social business and collaboration,” 2013).
As you try to make sense of what industry analysts, business consultants and the so-called social media experts are recommending, you start wondering if there is anything that can actually be called “a best practice,” or if anybody out there really knows what they are talking about. Is the concept of “best practices” just a myth, a fabrication out of our MBA schools? Should we downgrade them to more modest “good practices”? Or even a non-commital “it-worked-for-us” practices? It turns out that we need to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bath water.
According to Wikipedia, a best practice is supposed to be “a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.” In other words, it’s a pattern, in the sense of “a discernible regularity in the world,” where its elements “repeat in a predictable manner.” We tend to like patterns, because they allow us to make sense of the world in logical chunks, instead of seeing everything as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. Unique events stress us out, as we feel unprepared for them, and fear that what we don’t know may hurt us. Some patterns, like the seasonal weather changes, are clear and well established, while others, like the boom and burst cycles of the stock market are harder to wrap our heads around. Seeing from this perspective, it seems that a search for best practices is just a logical way to optimize our decision making processes: by adopting practices that are proven to work well, we can focus our efforts on items where the patterns are still emerging or not recognizable at all.
However, over the last few years, the term “best practices” has become a poster child for meaningless business-speak. A Forbes.com article last year short-listed it as one of “the most annoying, pretentious and useless business jargon” of late. Well, the bashing of business consulting jargon, also known as MBAese, is nothing new. Back in 2005, Fedex had a hilarious ad making fun of a pompous MBA graduate who considered a shipping task beneath himself: “FedEx.com makes shipping so fast and easy, even an MBA can do it.” The use of terms such as “core competency,” “buy-in” and “empower” make many people cringe, but the fact that they are still widely used today suggests that they may be harder to kill than Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th series.
When we stop calling a problem by its name and switch to euphemisms such as “a challenge” or “an opportunity,” we’re doing ourselves a disservice. A problem is a problem, a challenge is a challenge and an opportunity is just an opportunity. But a “best practice” is actually a useful concept. In my first winter in Canada, I learned the hard way that shoveling your driveway was much easier when the snow is still fresh, and could be a back-breaking exercise if done after it accumulates. We adopt plenty of winter best practices without even giving them a second thought, but that was a result of centuries of experience braving the elements in high latitudes.
Comparatively, the use of social technologies at the workplace to improve the way we communicate and collaborate is extremely new. So new that’s still difficult for us to distinguish actual patterns from outliers and unique events. Furthermore, human iterations on social networks form a complex system with thousands of variables resulting in millions of micro-outcomes, giving us the false impression that everything is random, and that lessons learned in the past or by others are not applicable outside that original context.
Make no mistake: there are best practices in social business, but it may take us many years to distill the complexities of some of those patterns. Not too long ago, forecasting weather changes seemed to be more magic than science, but even then, we could notice some of the large patterns. A warm October day like the one we had in Toronto last week (77 F) would not fool anybody to believe that winter would be cancelled. So, before shutting down your brain the next time you hear “social business” and “best practices” used on the same sentence, you may want to listen up. After all, what’s crazier: believing that everything in social is unique and unrepeatable, or striving to learn from each other the nuances of emerging social business patterns?