Best Practice May Not Be Good Practice

Emulation of best practices has been central to the development of diversity and inclusion in the United States. Myriad conferences, on-line resources and print journals, even distinguished organizations are devoted to promulgating best practices. Yet, a focus on best practices may be stymieing the development of diversity and inclusion.

Best practices can be counter-productive in four ways. First, best practices may lack an evidence base. Exactly who is the judge of whether a diversity practice is a best practice? Evidence, based on rigorous, systematic, objective evaluation, is often weak or non-existent. At the very least, organizations that seek best practices need a set of objective criteria against which to judge diversity and inclusion best practices.

Second, what is a best practice for one organization may not be a very good practice for another. Best practices, while they may be instructive, must fit the context, culture, business or organizational model, and personnel of the organization in which they will be implemented.

Third, best practice flies in the face of sustainable competitive advantage. The prime business value of diversity is that it differentiates an organization in its talent and product/service markets, those markets in which it competes for talent and for customers and clients, giving the organization competitive advantage. The mechanism of differentiation is that, in part, employees select and remain in an organization because the diversity environment and practices of that organization are superior. And, in part, consumers and businesses select and purchase from one organization over another because the selected organization’s products and services and how they are sold and delivered are more sensitive to their cultural needs and business or personal requirements. If most organizations have the same or similar best practices, then those practices will no longer differentiate them and they will lose whatever competitive advantage they have achieved.

To be sustainable, the distinctive features of an organization’s workplace, products, and services must be very difficult to replicate or surpass. The moment that competitors are able to replicate or advance upon the practices that differentiate an organization is the moment when that organization loses its sustainable competitive advantage in talent and product/service markets. To establish sustainable competitive advantage, organizations must create barriers to talent and product/service market competitors by making their diversity practices difficult or expensive to replicate or by evolving them so rapidly that others cannot catch up. Adopting the best practices of others neither establishes barriers (if you can copy a best practice, others can too) nor leads to rapid evolution (by definition, a best practice is the exemplar of the status quo) and opens the door to loss of differentiation power.

Finally, and perhaps most insidious, putting best practices on pedestals slows down the evolution of diversity and inclusion. The benefit of market competition is that it drives constant innovation to sustain or capture a leadership position. If organizations are simply matching each other, rather than trying to leapfrog each other, diversity practice will advance more slowly. To advance the practice of diversity and inclusion and sustain competitive advantage, organizations should pursue innovative next practices.

Best practices can certainly play a role in developing next practices. The danger is the complacent use of best practices. Insofar as organizations have and effectively apply the capability to qualify and adapt best practices and, then, rapidly transform those best practices into next practices, they will be able to establish sustainable competitive advantage.