I was recently part of a meeting where the topic of discussion was a possible reorganization plan. But this was in a university, where—unlike in most companies—reorganizations don't happen very often (thank goodness).

As usual, someone suggested we do a “best practice” investigation by identifying how the other major schools were organized. The problem is, though, that the major schools are organized in several various ways, and there is no particular “best” practice.

Frankly, I've always thought that publicizing the “best practice” idea was simply a way to sell conference tickets and books. The problem, as I see it, is that it's not clear what it means for some practice to be “best”? Best at what? And by what standard? What's best for me might not be best for you, and so on.

But rather than relying on my personal opinion and conjectures about the problem at hand, we had the fortune of having a well-known research colleague who knew the data on organizational structures extremely well. If there really were a best practice, then it would have been borne out over thousands of careful empirical studies and observations. So we asked him what had been learned that we could apply right now.

Our colleague reflected on the question and said careful research shows that the best way to organize a department or business depends on… drum roll, please… what problem you are trying to solve.

Are you trying to solve conflicts between departments, or solve a problem with communications, and so on? The point is that it depends on your specific organization and your specific situation. In short, the concept of best practice was nonsense.

If Johnny Jumped Off a Cliff

This story reminds me of a warning I received when I was young—your parents probably said something like this to you, too (after you did something stupid with friends)—“If Johnny jumped off a cliff, does that mean you should too?”

That idea is not too different from that of best practices and the case studies of other companies' successes. In fact, something might have worked well for one of your competitors or another company. But does that mean you should do the same, and will you get the same results? Following in the footsteps of other companies is called mimicry, and while it might be flattering, it is often very dangerous.

Let me give you the example of case studies. If anybody knows about case studies (and I don't mean those that show how to use a company's product or service—they are something altogether different), it is those of us who use case studies to teach MBA students for a living.

When teaching with a case study approach, one thing you learn very quickly is that many case studies use sanitized data because companies don't want their competitors to know what they are really doing. (So whenever I see a case study being offered on the Web, the first thing I always wonder is, Would someone really want to tell their competitors what they are doing?)

The second, and more important, thing is that a case study is simply a single instance, or what one company in their usually very unique circumstance was able (or not able) to pull off.

Inductive and Deductive Learning

Nonetheless, many people adore case studies because of their “real-world” emphasis. Best practices and case studies are real world, to be sure (unless the data and results have been sanitized or fudged, of course). These people like to learn from the specific instance to the general… that is called inductive learning.

This isn't a bad way to learn, but it can be a long way to learn in this fashion, and can lead you down very suspect paths. Why? Because all you have are single examples. You really need more than one example (in fact, you need many, many examples) to develop a powerful and useful understanding of anything.

It's like watching the single example of Tiger Woods hitting a golf ball. Impressive, to be sure. But to develop your own swing, merely following his swing would work well… if you had the exact same talent, body build, tempo, speed, and had a host of other similar characteristics.

Other people like to think from the top down. First, you understand a general concept and then see specific examples. This is called deductive learning. This, in fact, is a shorter way to understanding, since general concepts can be most useful for a wide variety of situations, and the specific examples are just nice reminders along the way.

Warning Signs

The point is that an instance (a case study, for example) will get you only so far. So, if this how you like to learn, regardless of my comments, at least you should ask yourself the types of questions such as the following:

  • Do I have the same type of customers? The subject of the case study or best practice might have a very loyal group of customers, or price-insensitive customers. But do you? These customers might be in totally different industries, or have different backgrounds, that make them more or less susceptible to offers, and so on.

  • Do I have the same type of competitors? The subjects of some case studies have no real competition that can bid away any advantages. But do you?

  • Do I have the same skills and financial resources in my company? Often I see case studies about, say, what the Wall Street Journal has done to build subscriptions. It's an interesting story, but unless you have millions of dollars to spend, and a history of over 100 years, it is probably best viewed as just that—an interesting news item. So ask yourself if you really have the same skills and resources as the company in the case study or so-called best practice.

  • Is my company at the same level of market development? Look at how easy it was to get venture capital money back in 1998 and how high advertising rates were on the Web. People were thrilled to see case studies of how so-and-so got funding, and you really didn't need to know much about marketing to survive. But the common thing was that this was a new market, and in new markets most new firms can easily exist (e.g., a high tide raises all boats). But when the market matures, the entire game changes.

  • Do I have a similar cultural environment? Some companies are successful because they have the right type of organizational culture, and their customers exist in the right type of culture.

  • Is the timing of the best practice or case study the same as mine? Viral marketing got a huge boost when Hotmail grew by giving away its accounts for free and making it easy for people to refer others to a Hotmail account. Great… but that was at a time when email was virtually unknown to many people. Viral marketing is a whole lot harder today!

In the end, case studies and best practices might be useful, and by no means am I saying to avoid them. But look at them with a very critical (even skeptical) eye. Make sure you don't do what another company has done unless you are in the same place. Focus only on the most general insights, since these are the only things you might use in your unique situation. (Of course, you can find most of these insights already on the MarketingProfs site.)

Remember, when you're facing some type of marketing problem, you can follow what another company does. But a far-better way is to figure out what works best in your own unique situation.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is MarketingProfs founder and CEO, positioning consultant, and emeritus professor of marketing. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.