Skip to content
Create an account for full access.

Evolution of practices

As always in the case of evolution, we simply introduce another time scale in system changes:

  • time of practice initiation (time of practice mastery in the creator, "maturity of practice"), which usually happens quite fast.
  • time of practice execution (time of creator's life in the role of practitioner, "life of practice", where it will either lead to a successful life, or the practice in a recognized variant will turn out to be unsuccessful and it will either need to be changed or forgotten),
  • time of practice evolution (changes in knowledge about practice - practice memotype. All the necessary literature on this topic was presented in the course of systems thinking).

Everything we know about evolution, in the evolution of practices also applies:

  • If a practice exists for some time, it can be considered somewhat suboptimal (meaning it's not absolutely optimal, but better than many others).
  • Small "mutations," deviations from what the discipline prescribes, changes in technology will very rarely lead to significant improvements (evolutionary shifts), and this is usually associated with transitioning to changes in superpractices, practices become more complex, merging into increasingly complex methods (as sets of practices allowing to achieve certain results "on key"). Most often, these "mutations" will deteriorate the practice ("lethal mutations"), relatively often they will be neutral.
  • There are numerous practice variations that give approximately the same suboptimal results - which is why in most cases it is not necessary to carefully choose a specific discipline and technology from more or less similar ones, due to inevitable mutations their performance will be roughly equal. However, it should be noted that practices are multi-level, requiring multi-level optimization (solutions are chosen based on practices that help resolve conflicts between different system levels. For example, if we take management practice as a fast and accurate way to achieve a goal, "centralized management systems" will allow achieving the goal quickly and imprecisely, decentralized ones - very accurately, but not quickly. It is necessary to have a multi-level management system with multiple feedback loops, and this dictates the discipline of management practices to us^).

Sometimes in practices they talk about trends and fads. A trend is when a new practice appears and mastery of this practice quickly spreads among agents. And it stays that way. For example, some time ago (early 1960s) the practice of wearing miniskirts appeared, and it has remained till now. In the 60s, it was a "trend." But in the 1920s, women drew eyebrows that extended outwards and downwards - this quickly passed and was forgotten, this can be considered a "fad," an unsuccessful mutation. All these "styles," whether more or less successful, also follow the laws of evolution, just like practices with their evolution of knowledge memes, and the evolution of technologies closely related to memetics (just as biological evolution is linked to genetics). Memes determine the types of practices just like genes determine biological species: species come and go, new species emerge, species live different lengths of time, unexpectedly dying out or appearing for some reasons. Trilobites and dinosaurs became extinct, mammals survived, humans appeared suddenly, and insects have been around for a long time and will seemingly remain for a long time. Everything else should be considered in a similar way, including practices as a result of memetic evolution. An organizational meme (like a genome, but from memes, not genes) consists of memes defining the organization, but roughly the same can be said about personality, where the non-biological part is huge, and about communities, and society. Memes come and go. Here is an interest in some common practices (in February 2022)^:

(illustration not included)

The term Web 2.0 came and went out of circulation, but the practice remained, it was not a fad, it was a sharp trend! Social networks (user-generated content) and recommendation systems, where ratings are collected given by readers-listeners-viewers, are still with us, they have not gone anywhere. There were "portals," now they are "social networks." It's just not a "trend" anymore, so the name has disappeared from searches on social networks, there is no interest in the general trend - from those times only the words "Google" and "social networks" remain. It is easy to imagine many people googling "miniskirts" (if Google had existed then) in the 1960s, but it is difficult to imagine people googling about them now, it is no longer news. Web 2.0 has a similar story, but with Web 3.0 it's a different story. It was at the end of the '00s that the forecast of semantic networks as a new "big trend of the internet" emerged, then the term faded into obscurity, as semantic networks "did not take off," but now there is a small spike in new use of the term, now it means metaverse, virtual three-dimensional worlds, another contender for a "big trend." Artificial intelligence came out of the sharp trend at the end of the 1980s (the so-called "winter of artificial intelligence"), but after the emergence of computing accelerators, interest in it was renewed following the successful artificial neural networks in 2012, and continues to grow. But of course, it was not as much of a sensation as Web 2.0 - indeed, Web 2.0 turned out to be a very strong shock, giving every person the opportunity to become a writer, journalist, TV station, radio station without intermediary organizations. It was a civilizational shift, widely discussed. But after the emergence of ChatGPT, the situation changes, artificial intelligence is actively discussed, chatbot practice is just another name for this trend.

What are the characteristic timeframes of trends in practices? Just like in evolutions, nothing can be said here, but you need to be very attentive: the same project management practices very quickly drift from classical network methods of pre-planning that work well with "purely waterfall" life cycles in some typical construction, towards case management, which works well with a flexible/agile life cycle, which is well adapted to development that is difficult to plan in advance.

If we take enterprise engineering practices, i.e. management, the situation there is more or less the same. Trend - is when a practice comes, and it stays. But there are also fads. Here is the use of the term "total something management" in the database of books, it is visible that the practice of total cost management appeared earlier than total quality management, the essence of totality was that all employees of the enterprise should deal with price management directly at their workplaces. This idea/meme gained popularity for a dozen years, and then slightly decreased in popularity, but overall remained. It was a trend. Additionally, this idea/meme mutated and became an idea that quality too should be managed totally: everyone should deal with quality at their workplace. And this "secondary trend" turned out to be more powerful than total cost management, if you compare the graphs in the same scale - to see the shape of the graph of the growing popularity of the idea of total quality management that appeared earlier compared to the idea of total cost management is almost invisible, you need to present the graph in a different scale to discern its shape.

The internet has led to ideas/memes spreading extremely quickly. The development of industry and computer technology allows fast reproduction of these meme implementations in the physical world (just as the genome is implemented in cells and organisms, so too memes in personalities, organizations, communities, societies, and even humanity, form the phenotype). And if twenty years ago in the pre-internet era we saw an "evolutionary term" for the emergence of practices and the waning of either trends (but the practice remained) or fads (the practice died out, turned out to be evolutionarily unsuccessful) in twenty years, today this is clearly no longer than ten years, tomorrow it will be 3 years (or maybe we already can see it?), and in the near future, we can expect technological singularity, one of the definitions of which states that these are times when everything changes so fast that no person can orient themselves in what is happening, the world changes at such a rapid pace.

Practices with their disciplines and technologies define a lot more in you, your organizations, communities, societies than you can imagine, you need to take them seriously - you need to track them. For example, the results of introducing new management practices at BHP Billiton over one and a half years:

(BHP Billiton was able to reduce the cost of drilling and completion of wells by 50% in the Permian Basin and 49% in the Eagle Ford Basin by mastering lean management practices (operational management, minimizing unnecessary work)^. Similar results were shown by other oil and gas companies that applied lean management practices. The lean practice appeared under this name in 1988, and it "came to stay," evolving into lean manufacturing, lean construction, lean project management, and further taking a form suitable not just for industrial production, but also for development (this will be studied by you in the course of system management).

So, with practices the same situation is as with biological species: their total number and complexity grow, population sizes of these practices change significantly over time, many new practices appear every day, and many old practices die out. For example, here are some organizational trends and fads of management practices collected by Thomas Davenport and Larry Prusak in 2003, how many of them do you recognize? Many of these practices have become extinct since then, turned out to be fads - but their names still appear in literature. Dinosaurs have become extinct, but the word "dinosaur" appears much more often than words for species that are alive today! The same applies to practices, be attentive. This list is two decades old:

(...list of practices...)

And this is only what the authors of the list gathered twenty years ago and what seemed to them sufficiently well-known and popular. In reality, you should understand that you can expect to find hundreds of ways to clean teeth, but thousands and thousands of management practices - it is easy to get confused in them. Understanding that most practices will give you quasi-optimal results should somewhat comfort you. But some will lead to evolutionary shifts and lead to new levels of performance optimization. In management (organization engineering) manufacturing as division of labor, conveyor, lean "came to stay" - they are already not "trendy," they just exist. And the evolution of practices as memetic evolution continues, from evolution, one can always expect surprises. Be vigilant, track new practices.