Best Practices – Lazy or Strategy

I rarely get nostalgic and think of the “good ole times”, but perhaps this is one of those times.  We at Enkitec still joke about the constant use of the term “Best Practices” as the attempts of vendors to sell more product.  While we began to hear the term more and more, it always seemed to be a fun discussion when we talked to engineers and friends from Oracle about installing an engineered system.  These discussions typically ended with our providing our experience and execution to our friends for consideration.  However, lately the ballad of “Best Practices” has left the engineering discussion and moved to consultants.

The latest incident occurred a few weeks ago at a customer location.  The vendor’s pre-sales consultants engaged us, and the customer, in a 4 hour discussion about the installation of four engineered systems.  This discussion focused around the physical installation; however, did not discuss the application requirements, system requirements or the customer’s infrastructure abilities.  After the four hour meeting, these “engineers” left and generated a 13 page document citing “Best Practices” recommendations.  What was missing from this document was things like “customer / application requirements”, physical data points, application observances.  During the discussion with these consultants, they could not provide solution benefits or experiences, they simply stated “Best Practices” as the answer to each question.  I left the meeting desperately wanting those four hours back.

Now, as I ponder this, I lament … “Are the days of actually talking with a customer and defining the best solution for the customer’s situation … gone? “

The jokes around the Enkitec office circled around the laziness of installers, but I am starting to believe the use of “Best Practices” is more of a strategy than plain laziness.

Are “Best Practices” necessary?

I may be alone here, but I believe they are necessary.  As a performance engineer for a vendor, I participated in many TPC and AIM benchmarks.  Those benchmarks provided a decent baseline for performance in a controlled environment.  I think the same is true for best practices.  The concept for best practices identifies a baseline of a perfect system or application in a perfect configuration installed by an engineer that did not have anything else to do. As we all know, this is rarely the case within a customer’s infrastructure and application environment.  However, the customer can evaluate the solution and the comments at the end of the best practices documentation.  These comments provide the pros and cons of each solution.  So yes, best practices are necessary, but they are not an excuse.  Full disclosure is required.

Is it Lazy?

As I mentioned earlier, we used to joke about the use of best practices.  We thought, at the time, that the individual citing best practices were simply using someone else’s work as a reference.  Unless the consultant could provide the full disclosure associated with the best practices comment, we generally knew two things: 1) the consultant has probably never installed the solution and 2) the consultant has probably never experienced the solution in  the wild.  They could stand behind the work of someone else and claim “Best Practices” without having to provide an adequate defense.

So, an inexperienced consultant could provide a “solution” without 1) providing a defense, 2) collecting or gathering data and 3) performing physical analysis of data.  Then, to beat everything else, they also relinquish any responsibility for the “solution”.  In the past, yes, we would call that lazy.  But now, I think it has become a strategy of the consulting firm.

Strategy to level the playing field?

As I sat in my Georgia Tech MBA class on Global Product strategy today, I started wondering if it was not a smart strategy.  I began to think, how can a vendor that does not have a history of experienced consulting compete against experienced consulting firms?  Utilizing consultants with less than 5 years of operational experience to deliver a sound solution is challenging.  However, if you provide the consultant an “equalizer”, such as “Best Practices” in every document, then it is easier to sell the “solution” as a sound solution for the customer.  Therefore, the vendor no longer requires a solid staff of experienced engineers, it simply needs to define a generic solution and socialize the solution as a Best Practices solution.

Are Vendor Best Practices real?

The solution is real in most cases and in most cases, a good idea.  I believe some one sat in a lab and performed the processes defined in a best practices document.  I am also sure that the solution, if performed correctly, provides the benefits as indicated.  But, are they really best practices?  After all, one primary characteristic of the “Best Practices” definition is the term – Widely Accepted – which means that the solution is widely accepted by the community.  However, most vendors publish best practices at the same time a solution is published, which challenges the “widely accepted” requirement of defining a best practice.  So, as we implement systems and solutions for customers, we should be wary of the term “Best Practices” as it comes from the specific vendors – as they may be accepted by the vendor, but not widely accepted by the community.

Why be wary?

With respect to citing “Best Practices” as the only way to go, is this a bad thing?  As indicated above, there is a tendency to call new technology a type of best practices, although it is not widely used or accepted from the community.  Also, utilizing the mantra of best practices, it validates consultants that may not ultimately understand the technology or the use of the technology.  The inexperienced consultant will cite “Best Practices” as the reason for implementing a solution, regardless of the benefit or detriment to the client.  Therefore, as with anything else, we have to do our homework to make sure a solution is widely accepted  and is in the best interest of the customer.

It’s all about the customer

Why do we care about the socialization of best practices?  Because, in the end, we end up having to rescue customers from the latest “Best Practice”.  Most customers don’t have the luxury of a test lab and some don’t have the skilled resources dedicated to the solution.  Most customer resources play the role of utility player, knowing how to support an assortment of products at a high level.

How do we approach a customer to know when to implement the best practices stated by these vendors?  As consultants, we should do as we have always done:

  • Listen and understand: Listen to the customer and understand what their team can implement and support.  Just because a best practice is written, does not mean that it will fit in a customer’s environment.  Our role as consultants produces the expectation to provide the best solution for the customer’s environment.

 

  • Understand the technology: Don’t recommend a product because it is the latest technology.  Recommend the product because it support’s the customer’s requirements and provides flexibility.  Sometimes a best practice uniquely leverages a vendor’s product, which limits the flexibility for growth or integration  with other products.

 

  • Read the fine print: Most best practices come with multiple implementation options – just as most technologies.  Although rarely stated by consultants, probably because they don’t understand, these options come with benefits or deficiencies.  Some of these indicate the solution is complicated to implement or support.  The issue may include a costly implementation due to licensing.

As I step away from my computer, I will maintain the traditions of most experienced consultants.  I will continue to evaluate technology in terms of how it helps customers.  Technology is a tool for us to use to meet our requirements and provide us benefit.  Too often, technology sold to a customer becomes an entrapment into a vendor or solution and becomes a cage.

I guess, as I look at it, the above 3 bullets become the “Best Practices” for consultants.  Remember, success is gauged by a successful customer implementation, not a technology implementation.  There have been many successful technology implementations that served little purpose.

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