In Praise of Practice

Today we look at three topics linked by one word: "Practice". We throw that word around all the time, as in "best practice" and "good practice", without enough thought as to what it actually means, and without enough appreciation of the power of this lovely word.

According to the Oxford Dictionary (i.e. THE dictionary), "Practice" as a noun means:

- the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it
- the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something
- repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it

So "Practice" has three powerful uses in ITSM:

1) It delineates blue sky thinking from what people are actually doing. There are bits of ITIL that ought to be colour-coded to warn readers that they are not actually good or best practice because people don't widely do it - it's a theoretical aspiration for what ITSM might look like in the perfect world. CMDB/CMS for example.

A "Practice" isn't hypothetical, theoretical, or even bleeding edge. "Practice" means it is actually done and done widely, generally, customarily.

2) It describes a general area of ITSM: it gives us a word for the chunks of ITSM, a word we don't need to argue over. Why do we persist in using "process" for these chunks when they are not? Why do we have grey areas where we can't decide if it is a process or a function? Decause the areas we talk about are almost always both, and more.

Business Relationship, Strategy, Finance, Portfolio, Design, Acquire/Build, Test, Change, Incident, Asset, Run, Facilities... They're all practices: they include roles, responsibilities, metrics, management, processes, procedures, tools, reporting, data, standards and so on. I discussed this recently with Stuart Rance who likes the word "capability". It's a good word, but to me it has a sense of something static,a resource, a future potential. "Practice" is now, happening, active. And broad and general enough that hopefully nobody in their right mind is going to argue with its use to describe the chunks of ITSM.

3) It reminds us we don't do enough practicing in IT, in the third sense of the word. We have emergency fire drills regularly. Some places have emergency nut-with-a-gun drills. Yet not enough IT shops have Disaster Recovery drills, and it is almost unheard of to have Major Incident or Emergency Change drills. Maybe a one-off rehearsal, but that is not the same thing.

My Dad ran a data centre in the 1970s. I was there after school one day when he casually walked up to the fire board, inserted his key, turned it, and clicked a stopwatch. All hell broke loose. When he walked outside 47 seconds later the staff saw the stopwatch and only then knew it was a drill. I believe the OSH lunatics don't allow us to do that any more, but I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Practice the response to any time-critical situation. Practice it regularly. Debrief and work out how to make it better. Track performance and report it. Practice big things like disaster recovery and practice little things like determining the service impact of an outage.

"Practice". It is such a powerful, useful word in three different contexts. Appreciate it and use it.

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