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OPINION: One size does not fit all: the myth of benchmarking and best practices

By Dr. David S. Cohen
| www.cos-mag.com

Leo Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Perhaps this quote can shed light on explaining why many consultants today misunderstand the individual needs of the corporation. Like families, no two companies have the same sets of problems, issues, and causes of unhappiness. Each solution has to be unique to the company itself; in other words, every unhappy and inefficient corporation needs a solution unique to its own characteristics.

Yet, many a corporate human resources leader and management consultant believe that one standard fix works for everyone.  After all, they indicate that their ‘years of experience’, ‘extensive global network’ and ‘groundbreaking research’ have resulted in the holy grail of solutions. Essentially, they’d have you believe that what works for many will work for one.

This notion of how different companies are recently struck me during a trip to Southeast Asia, followed by a trip to India.

During my visits to four different cities and meeting with many different companies, the focus seemed to be the same for human resources leaders and CEOs: what can be done to have heightened employee engagement and  more meaningful performance measurement. How can we improve productivity? Many of the organizations have also engaged consulting firms to articulate specific behavioural competency statements for their firms. The most honest way I can express my own sentiments on the one-size-fits-all / cure-all behavioural competencies statements is this: I just don’t get it.

But that seems to be the prevailing attitude on the subject from leaders with whom I met and exchanged ideas. They seem to believe that if it is ‘sold’ by a big-name international company, then it has to be ‘right.’ In doing so, they accept that the ‘off the shelf’ behaviour competencies that traditionally work in North America will have the same positive impact or desired effect in Southeast Asia.

Reflecting on the opening quotation, no two unhappy families are exactly alike, I would further suggest that no two happy families, or groups of employees, share many similarities, even in the best of times. While you might put forward the argument that happy families and happy firms do share some similarities, these are usually just superficial. So naturally we must wonder, how can behaviours that are predefined for every firm, everywhere in the world, work for everyone, everywhere, all the time?

Perhaps the irony in all this is the recent trend by the leaders of human resources to celebrate diversity; to recognize that a variety of perspectives is better then a unanimous, unquestioned approach.  But the paradox comes to play when the same people claim they want to celebrate diversity and differences, but usually rely on costly cookie-cutter solutions that are rationalized away in cost and by the consultant’s extensive ‘research.’ They want benchmarks that tend to shed little light on their own reality, and expect to achieve a competitive advantage using the same psychometric tests the competition is using to evaluate people.

How can employees in a variety of industries and locations be expected to demonstrate the same behavioural competencies to achieve business success? They can’t!  And this is perhaps the most glaring misconception in consulting today, ultimately resulting in poor customer service, quality, safety, and profitability.

Cultural dissonance

Let me explain.  During the course of a public workshop on structured behavioural interviewing in Jakarta, one of the participants shared with the group a copy of the behaviours assigned to an entry-level employee in his organization. The statement, in effect, called on an entry-level employee of this company to stand up and have the courage to ask questions of others that manage them. To no surprise, during the previous week, that same concept, almost the exact same wording, had popped up the in Kuala Lumpier during the workshop there. When I returned to Canada, to conduct the same structured behavioural interview program at York University’s Schulich School of Business Executive Education Program, someone shared a similar statement.

Since I had the presence of mind in Jakarta to ask the following question, I also asked it in Toronto. “Would an entry level person, demonstrating this behaviour, as it is stated in the competency model, be considered a positive and successful employee?”

The differences in reaction between Southeast Asia and Canada were night and day; as they should be.  I asked the participants in Jakarta if they believed this statement would hold true locally? The group consensus was that this created a bit of a cultural dissonance, and none of them, even as middle and senior managers, would be likely to do that behaviour with the next higher level of management. It would be a career-ending move.

Yet they accepted the statement being included in their performance management process, and commented that a Western-based consultant implemented it. The consultant insisted it is a key behaviour for success elsewhere.

The idea of ‘best practices’, ‘best in class’, and ‘benchmark’ studies seems to have become the dominating trend for human resources practices as disseminated by consultants. It caused me to wonder ‘why are people so willing to take the supposed research of others and adapt it as their own yellow brick road to success?’  

Are they ‘best practices’, really?

I decided to test this hypothesis that ‘best practices’ has taken hold as the ‘right’ way of doing things during a recent visit to Bangalore. I asked some of the region’s top human resources managers if they would suggest to an entry-level employee to follow this consultant’s advice; would they encourage them to speak up and challenge the status quo? The response ranged from a broad smile to the more direct ‘are you crazy?’ So why were all locally based companies, many with multi-national reach, so willing to adopt the behaviours that were designed elsewhere, without any thought for specific culture and working environment?

I took a look into the acceptance of behaviour of the West one step further. Another universal desire is to have a highly engaged workforce. As a result, employee engagement surveys are being conducted around the globe. I asked a question about the appropriateness, in the Indian and Southeast Asia companies, of asking the question about having a best friend at work. The suggestion was made by some of the human resources professionals that the question did not reflect a meaningful measure of engagement in their work environment. They felt the low scores the company had on this and similar questions were not truly reflective of engagement from the employees’ point of view. 

Now herein lies the crux of the issue. Senior management did not demonstrate the supporting behaviour to our earlier example with the entry-level employee. When they questioned the results because they questioned the correctness of the very questions to define engagement, senior management acted with deference and respect to the consultants.  It is all cyclical or should that by cynical or both. If in these regions of the world there is deference to the ‘expert’ then questioning the suggestion of the highly paid and globally recognized ‘expert’ would not be an acceptable practice. In such perpetuating the integration into behavioural competency models of inappropriate actions and interpretation of employee engagement scores, which were misleading.   


8 points to consider when using ‘best practices’

Some points for all companies, regardless of geographic location, to consider when engaging in using activities that are ‘best practices’ or ‘best in class’ or just successful with another company:

  1. Base all activities on your own actions that lead to success, not from a universal selection of the definitive definition of behaviours or questions, some if not all of which are not relevant to your reality. One size fits all is good for athletic wear but not corporate success.
  2. If you want to know if employees are engaged, use metrics that employees themselves say are the correct measures of engagement.
  3. If you seek to define behavioural competencies that work for you, look inward to what has driven success and what will perpetuate success that works within your corporate history, strategy and culture.
  4. Forget benchmarks because unhappy companies, like families, will need to forge their own unique path to success, not someone else’s recommendation based on what worked for others.
  5. If consultants don’t want to allow you to modify the wording to meet your needs, change the actual language to your local language, or to respect your local and geographic differences, find a different consultant.
  6. Benchmark points can be an interesting discussion point. But more importantly, firms must discuss where they are, and where they want to be for themselves, not based on other company experiences.
  7. Remember a translation is the interpretation of the translator so not all translations are accurate. As a result don’t accept the translation from the English to your local language as a step in the right direction, if might not be.
  8. You might learn more of what NO TO DO from the benchmark or best practice that was successful for other then what to do.


One more thought. Some might be reading this and thinking that this notion conflicts with the concept of globalization, and a shrinking world. Some might think the concept of think global and act local is been replaced with think Western local and act accordingly.

Globalization is not something new. It did not start with Coke or with the US Army bringing basketball to places around the globe during WWII. It has been around even before Marco Polo brought back noodles from China to Italy.  Globalization started with the first humans migrating from home, we just do it in hours, if not seconds, instead of millenniums. We have been preparing for this for some time. But if culture still trumps strategy you need to get your culture alignment and behaviours according to your needs not the needs of others.


Dr. David S. Cohen is president of the Toronto-based consulting firm Strategic Action Group Ltd. Contact him at david@sagltd. David’s book

Inside the Box: Leading with Corporate Values to Drive Sustained Business Success

is available from Wiley Books, at www.wiley.ca.

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