What is a best practice?
Tell, Teach, Involve
Training and Learning Techniques for Emergency Notification and Incident Notification Personnel
“Tell me and I forget, teach me, and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Every discipline has best practices. These are the behaviors and skills that contribute the most to success. They aren’t objectives; you don’t “complete” a best practice and then you’re done. Best practices are perspectives and disciplines that you apply every day to make you better at what you do.
What is a best practice?
There is a lot of debate about what a best practice is and whether best practices exist. I have a colleague who believes there are no best practices but only general recommendations. I disagree.
One thing a best practice should not be is an opinion or bias. It should not be done because it’s always been done that way. In an article on NetBackup best practices, W. Curtis Preston tells a story about why we need to examine the basis for a best practice:
“A friend of mine tells a story about cooking meatloaf. A mother was teaching one of her children on how to make Great-Grandma’s famous meatloaf. One of the very important elements of the recipe was that you have to cut off the ends of the meatloaf when cooking it. The child didn’t understand and asked why you do that. The mother assured her child that it was important, but the child refused to accept this ‘requirement’ without a good reason why. So the mother called her mother and asked her why. The answer was, ‘That’s what my mother told me to do.’ In frustration, the mother called her grandmother and asked about the cutting off of the ends of the meatloaf. Her grandmother’s answer was simple: so it would fit in the pan that she cooked it in.”
Sometimes we do things just because we always did them that way. Before abandoning a given best practice, be sure to examine your motives for doing so.
A best practice should also not be confused with common practices. I live near a major highway that goes into Boston. The common practice is to drive 65 miles per hour or faster on the road under any conditions. The best practice is to reduce your speed based on the road conditions and speed limits. Speeding tickets or accidents validate the best practice. (For those who are interested, a quick review of other Boston driving “tips” was done by “Doc” Searls.
A best practice is measurable, designed to foster success, enforced by regulations, repeatable, and tied to a goal of keeping your driver’s license and life. These criteria for a best practice are provided by Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas.
The ability to measure the best practice’s effectiveness is critical. The standards can vary from extremely strict to “it mostly works.” To be able to measure the success and reliability of a best practice requires recording what was done, analyzing the after-action reports, and reviewing any stored records on performance, safety, and resource use.
Where I work at Everbridge, the results of major mass notifications or incident management events are examined in detail. Based on the facts derived from the actions and methodologies used during the events, best practices can be proposed, tested, and validated.
Designed to foster success
Sometimes there is no completely successful practice. A best practice may require selecting the best option in a difficult situation. During a major disaster, helping every citizen would be ideal. However, triage may be the best practice due to limitations in staff, resources, time, and facilities.
What fosters success in the real world situation you face? In a mass notification, it would be ideal to send out hundreds of thousands of messages instantaneously. But that ignores resource limitations. As an example, a notification system could overwhelm a private branch exchange (PBX) or a local telephone carrier central office (CO). Adding a way to “throttle” calls so that the PBX or CO can handle calls and still have throughput left would be a best practice.
Enforced by regulations
This particular aspect of a best practice was not mentioned in the University of Kansas article, but it is an important point nonetheless. Best practices should promote meeting regulations and guidelines. Driving at the speed limit as a best practice can reduce costs due to speeding tickets and insurance charges, and save lives.
A hazardous materials spill in the United States, for example, has strict reporting and notification requirements. Best practices for notification systems should help the users meet these regulations, not lead them to accidentally or purposely bypass them.
It may be impossible to replicate an event, program, or activity, but it should be reviewed in your own context. Does the best practice fit in your environment, business, institution, or practice? Can you use it and reproduce the effects? This is why testing with both small- and large-scale drills is so important. Does the best practice being tested meet the requirements of your environment? What may work for a small community may not work for a large international organization. Best practices to optimize performance and resource usage for a 500,000-contact notification may not be needed for a notification involving 50,000 contacts.
Tied to a goal
A best practice should be tied to your goals. Who will be notified? How will you measure success? How quickly must the notifications be sent? Your goals and requirements need to be referenced with the recommended best practices. For example, if you want to be sure that all contacts get the message, then using a multi-modal notification sequence with expected confirmations is a best practice that helps you meet your goal.
Develop best practices for your organization’s notification system to avoid communication failures during emergencies. To learn more about best practices for notification systems, check out this webinar.