Over recent months I keep hearing the phrase “Good practice is a bad traveller”. I’m not sure why, but it reached a stage where last month I heard exactly the same phrase four times in two days. It got me thinking.
In particular it got me thinking whether practice, good or otherwise, should reasonably be expected to travel at all. As somebody who studied anthropology I’m acutely aware that practices are embedded in cultural and socio-economic webs that give those practices meaning and value. To understand practice, we need to understand the context from which those practices emerge. So what happens where practice travels alone without accompanying socio-economic and cultural learning and exchange?
You will probably have heard or read of the tribe in the south Pacific that worship Prince Phillip. That worship is part of a phenomenon known as ‘cargo cult’. To summarise, both US and Japanese used various Pacific islands as military bases, bringing with them goods and material wealth the likes of which the native population had never seen. When the war ended, the soldiers left, the bases closed and the new material goods stopped arriving.
Local leaders developed cults, seeking to bring back the cargo. And to do so, they copied the practices of the Japanese and USA. Literally. They mowed out runways, built wooden planes and control towers and made headphones (as worn by ground traffic controllers) from coconut husks. They stood waving home-made paddles at the sky. In short, they adopted what they saw as good practice in an effort to lure the cargo back. But, of course the planes, and the cargo they carry, never arrived at the makeshift airports.
I often wonder if, across public and private servies, focusing on copying practices amounts to a form of ‘cargo cult good practice’. Is trying to move practice from one area to another without the institutional, historical and cultural context while expecting the same results really that far removed from the Melanesian cargo cults?
One of the practical examples that really got me thinking on this was the promise of a continental style drinking culture in the UK that emerged in the late 90s/ early 2000s. We had 24 hour drinking and the emergence of ‘cafe quarters’ in cities across the UK. It hapened in Wind Street in my home town of Swansea. I remember Wind Street in the old days. I used to love its slightly seedy side and played many gigs in the cellar of the biker bar The Coach House. When the old haunts were closed down and the area was renovated, the continental practice was transferred: cafes and bars with seats outside, serving a mix of food and drink over extended hours. Yet the end result was the same Swansea binge drinking culture that always existed. A culture a local councillor described as ‘debauched’. . I don’t doubt that the change to Wind Street has delivered many benefits for the Swansea economy and has indeed regenerated what was a fairly run down part of town. But I’m writing this from central Madrid and I can promise that the café and drinking culture of this part of the continent is nothing like the boozing culture of Wind Street.
I don’t doubt that in some limited cases (like flying a plane or doing heart surgery) there is a transferable best way of doing things. But in most cases, the world is too complex to hope that transplanting practices from one place to another will work. Instead, we need to look for sharing of learning, principles and maybe even a bit of wisdom that can help guide as we tackle common problems in different environments. So to summarise, the main messages I’m trying to convey are:
(1) Practice is itself deeply embedded in local social, cultural and historical webs that give that practice meaning and value
(2) Transferring practice from one area to another offers no guarantee of success and indeed may be a distracting waste of time
(3) Real learning means getting beneath practice to the underlying ideas/ value system and principles and working out how that applies to local circumstances – the end result may be that shared learning results in fundamentally different but similarly successful practices
(4) Wind Street may still be debauched but it was much cooler when the Coach House and its alternative/ biker clientele weren’t pushed out!