What the heck are 'Best Practices'?

Since moving to working with SharePoint and in the Microsoft arena, I seem to keep coming across this phrase ‘Best Practices’. It bugs me – I’ve been working almost exclusively with SharePoint 2007 since it was out in Beta 1, and you know what? I still have no idea what best practice is.

I was quite chuffed that others are thinking the same thing. I was clearing through my RSS feeds, and I noticed that

With the European SharePoint Best Practices conference coming up, I’d be quite interested in knowing just what the heck ‘Best Practices’ are. I’d recommend reading all of those posts, as they all make valid points.

I think that the main point that I took away is that ‘Best Practices’ are a term used to hide an oversimplication, usually of both the question and the answer.

Spence is right that there is a gap between what we’re supposed to do, and what actually gets done – but sometimes that’s fair enough. Sometimes, doing something ‘right’ isn’t worth the effort over ‘good enough’. That’s a concept I struggle with (it’s not natural), but it comes down to the question of who pays…

I like that Adam points to some of the things that good practice depends upon – industry, company culture, company IT capabilities. I actually think that many of the issues with ‘best’ practice stem from – what are you trying to do, and how do you operate? A lot of the things that are ‘given’, well, they get done without discussion as “best practice”. (Or at least, they should do.) As Eric points out, it tends to be the ‘woolier’ subjects, the more subjective subjects (!) that aren’t as easy to define a best practice, and there tends to be more discussion of these practices than the more certain, technical ones.

For (a silly) example, it’s a bad idea to monkey with the existing files in the _layouts directory. Microsoft won’t support you, upgrades and service packs become an issue – you shouldn’t do it. It is possible, though, and I have seen (working, live) systems where ‘SharePoint Consultants’ have done just that. But we don’t talk about that as a best practice – it’s just a given. Don’t do it, period.

On the other hand, and the woolier side of the fence, everyone ought to consider an information architecture – but what should it be? How will people use the system to find information? Much more vague. How’ve they worked in the past, what training will they get, what are they looking for, how much information… … there’s a lot to consider, and no fixed answer.

Further, SharePoint 2007 hasn’t been around long enough for the ‘Best Practices’ to become established. It’s a huge product, and with so many people working with it, and developing on it, ‘Best Practice’ will be an unattainable moving target. To be honest, I reckon that identifying ‘Best Practice’ for SharePoint 2007 won’t be achieved until well after SharePoint vNext is out. And that’s fair enough – it should be a moving target.

So, why the simplification? Why isn’t it just ‘Good Practice’? Well, I think it comes from a few places:

  • It makes people feel safe (or maybe just safer). I recently read the phase “We used Best Practices to…” and wondered “Says who? How did they know it was best? And best for whom?” But nobody ever got fired for following ‘best’ practices.
  • “We use Best Practices” – nice marketing phrase. “Best Practices” is better than “Good Practices”. ‘Nuff said.
  • “Best Practices” is a nice way of hiding all that terrifying complexity and thinking. If you’re not certain, just ask for the best.
  • If Microsoft offer to suggest Best Practices, then it reduces the range of configurations that they’ll see amongst customers at support time. And actually, I do think that has value – but no more than having a range of ‘good’ practices.

I suppose, in short, that if there is a ‘one-size fits all’ best practice, whaddya need me for? You’re employing SharePoint consultants to help you choose from a range of options, to find the practice that fits you the best. So let’s call them “Good Practices”, and then decide which one works for you.

Personally, I’m thinking that I might start doing everything as “Incredible Practices”. That’s nicely ambiguous! 🙂

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What the heck are 'Best Practices'?

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