Defining “Best Practices”

The term “best practices” is often bandied about as a “catch phrase” to indicate what some people hope is a panacea of methods that will solve all their problems. Other people use it as a replacement for saying “do it my way”. Still others correctly use the term to identify commonly proven practices that have both stood the test of time as well as review.

 

It is important, then, that a definition of what “best practices” means in the context of vendor-provided software. This is particularly true of a product like Endevor, and as such, best practices with any 3rd party software can be typically found with the following characteristics:

1 – It makes use of the software’s implicit designs and methods. All software comes with an implicit intention for which the vendor designed it for and, arguably, how the vendor intended it to be used. Any software can be bent to “technically” do other things (such as holding data in Endevor versus source code), but if you start doing things it was not really intended or designed to do, you can find yourself hitting a “wall”. By virtue of the fact there is a “wall” to hit is a clear sign that what you are doing is not a best practice.

In the case of Endevor, I am a firm believer in exploiting its innate capabilities and using fields/definitions in the tool for what they are labeled to be used for.

2  – It exploits the software’s native ability without undo customizations. Some customization is inevitable, although arguably the term “customization” may be a tad overused and confused with “configuration”. Telon provided various “custom code” invocations, CoolGEN provides for “external action blocks”, and Endevor provides for processors, interfaces, and exits when used appropriately.

The danger point comes when the customization begins to try to replace functionality already being performed by the software OR when the customization is a reflection of “how” rather than “what”. “How” problems can generally be addressed in software through alteration of process/procedure to match the implicit design already likely considered in the software. It is the rare software solution that hasn’t already encountered most, if not all, the situations that are likely to arise in the discipline of field it is designed to address. Ways and methods of resolving the core problem being encountered, then, need to be adapted accordingly, not by “changing the software”. Again, by virtue of “changing the software”, you cannot possibly be following “best practices” as the implication is that every site that has installed the software has had to change the software the same way.

Appropriate use of exits, processors and other interfaces, then, is where it enhances the basic functionality already being performed by the software. Adding additional data to a logged event, for instance, or picking up additional data from external files for processing are generally appropriate examples.

3 – Are marked by making things obvious rather than obscure. In other words, a best practice is never a euphemism for “black box”. Everything from data modeling techniques that preach data normalization to experience with effective human interaction devices (VCRs, ATMs, Windows) tells us that the more obvious you are and the more control you put in the hands of the person will be met with greater acceptance than making things a “mystery”.

Hiding a vendor’s software behind “front ends” is usually done to prevent the need for education. In other words, an approach has been taken whereby the implementers feel they know what the end-user wants and needs, so they will automate everything for them. Unfortunately, this leads to heavy customizations again as they try to anticipate every need of the end-user and force the back-end software to comply. It is rather like the old “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” syndrome. Custom-built front-ends require constant care and attention as well as retro-fitting to ensure upward compatibility. Again, by virtue of this added labour, it cannot possibly be considered a “best practice”.

4 – Is supportable by the vendor’s technical support organization. When help is required, the vendor has no choice but to support what they know. What they know, by extension, is the product as shipped from the vendor’s site. Since a best practice, by definition, implies rapid resolution of problems and quick support, any practice or implementation that deviates from the vendor’s implicit design cannot, by definition, be considered a “best practice”.

 

In contrast, the characteristics of non “best practices” can typically be identified as follows:

 

  • Complicated invocations, implementations, or installations. If processes are defined that require the developer to visit a number of places or an installation is conducted that requires extensive external files or procedures, it cannot be considered a “best practice”. This approach has, in essence, broken all 4 definitions of what “is” a best practice.

 

  • Long and involved customizations. While the customizations might fit “how” a site wants to perform a certain function with the software, it is definitely a customization specific to that site and cannot be considered an industry “best practice”. Again, all 4 definitions or criteria for a best practice have not been met.

 

  • Requires extensive training beyond (or instead of) the vendor’s standard training. This is the clearest sign that best practices could not possibly have been followed. If a vendor cannot come on-site and immediately relate to both the installation and methods by which the site is using their software, it cannot be considered a best practice. Again, it may be site-specific, but it is not something the entire industry would support or every education engagement would be “custom” and no material could possibly ever be re-used!

 

  • Hides the product from end-users. This is typically in direct violation of characteristic (3). Hiding the software behind front-ends, if it were a ‘best practice’, would have to be done by every site. If this were the case, no site would buy the software in the first place OR the vendor would revamp the software to fit the needs of its clients.

 

  • Change’s the products implicit design into something it was not designed to do. As iterated in characteristic (1), all software comes with an implicit method and design for its use. Arbitrarily changing the usage of fields for something they were not intended to be used for or changing the meaning of fields to something else cannot possibly considered a “best practice”.
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