Best practice is a lie; but if true, best practice is boring. What is best for any situation depends on many factors within the context.
Once all factors are established and certain, sure, I’ll submit to best practices existing. If the stakeholders, time, place, operating environment, leadership, and what people had for breakfast that morning are all set, I’m sure best practices could be identified. But then the world would be solved and we’d all be drones with exact plans of action for any scenario.
But otherwise, there is no best practice, only good practice.
Good practice depends on good leadership
Can the leader inspire a shared vision around the good practice? Can they motivate and encourage creativity around the practice? Can the model the good practice rather than just preaching it?
Good practice depends on stakeholders and place
Every community is unique. Every organization is unique. Every individual is unique. The uniqueness lies within history, interrelationships, culture, social norms. Best practice is not an ointment to be applied as directed in the instructions on the tube.
Good practice depends on the external operating environment
What works in boom times doesn’t always work in a recession. What works in times of emergency doesn’t work in time of peace. What’s going on in society – are people leaning left or right, looking out for themselves or others, recycling or wasting, etc. etc. Even so, I would say (of the top of my head without any direct evidence) that what often exists as a norm today came out of something radical and “bad” practice in the past.
Best practices in one specific context can be useful beyond that context. They can give you ideas. They can build the literature around principles of good practice. They help with community, organizational, or individual praxis. But they aren’t a holy grail.
In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).
The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.
Collaboration and Social Movements
So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.
You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.
This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.
Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis
Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)
Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.
Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure
So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.
Millennials and Structure
Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.
I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.
So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.
Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.