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Organizational Consultation XIV Generating Information from Outside the Organization: Appreciative Benchmarking

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A Deficit Approach: “Falling Short”

In virtual all cases the primary focus of the benchmarking exercise has been to compare one’s own practices with those that are exemplary: the “best,” “world class,” “best-in-class.”  This “best practice” orientation was firmly established by IBM and Xerox, and in particular by Robert Camp, a logistics and engineering expert at Xerox. Camp wrote what is widely considered to be the definitive statement on benchmarking. His 1989 book is appropriately titled The Search for Industry Best Practices That Lead to Superior Performance with its emphasis on identifying ways in which one’s own practices fall short of best practices.

We would suggest that this focus on best practices is deficit-based and is in need of an appreciative corrective. It is deficit-based because the organization doing the benchmarking is purposively seeking out and comparing itself to an organization with superior practices. By definition, the benchmarking organization is focusing on its deficits: where it falls short of the comparative organization. This deficit approach to benchmarking can serve very effectively as a motivator. Employees see in concrete terms that some product or service can be of higher quality, despite the constraints that other organizations like their own tend to face. Employees can’t dismiss an ambitious goal if a comparable organization has already achieved this goal. Furthermore, a deficit approach appeals to both the American spirit of competition and the American fondness for pragmatic, action-oriented solutions.

The connection between benchmarking and competition was evident from the very first in the United States. Initially the term competitive benchmarking was often used to describe the comparative process. Throughout the 1990s, benchmarking gurus spoke and wrote about the competitive advantages associated with this procedure. Pragmatism also abounds in contemporary American benchmarking. Leaders of American organizations have always made a simple practical request of their gurus: “Show me what’s wrong and tell me or give me the tools to fix it!” “Tell me what I need to do to beat out my competitor and I’ll do it!”

We are reminded of the great success found in the rational problem-solving processes offered during the 1970s by Kepner and Tregoe. In their widely embraced process of problem-analysis, Kepner and Tregoe focused on the gap between the situation as it existed when there was no problem and the situation as it existed when there was a problem: What is different? What has changed? Once you have identified the nature of the gap, then the problem can readily be solved. Similarly, in the case of benchmarking, all one must do is identify the nature of the gap between one’s own practices and the practices of superior organizations. This gap tells us all we need to know about the path to be followed in the improvement of organizational functioning.

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