Decision Support for Best Practices Lessons Learned

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Decision support for best practices: Lessons learned on bridging the gap between research and applied pratice.

Today, everyone is looking at best practices for developing a system or making the right choice in acquiring system components. If the right best practices are applied, they help to avoid common problems and improve quality, cost, or both. However, finding and selecting an appropriate best practice is not always an easy endeavor. In most cases guidance, based on sound experience, is missing; often the best practice is too new, still under study, or the existing experiences do not fit the user's context. This article reports on a program that tries to bridge the gap between rigorous empirical research and practical needs for guiding practitioners in selecting appropriate best practices. 

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Many program managers would agree that using time-tested "Best Practices" can help to avoid common problems and increase the quality of a system, reduce development cost, or both. For instance, in a short survey at the 2004 Conference on the Acquisition of Software-Intensive Systems, 48 senior systems and software managers supported the use of Best Practices. However, the same survey indicated that it is hard to find such Best Practices. The survey identified the following reasons for this problem: 

* Best practices often do not exist (i.e., they have not been publicly documented), 

* People do not know of a certain best practice, or 

* Best practices are not easily accessible (i.e., there is no central place to look for best practices). 

The last point matches a more general study by the Delphi Group in which more than 65 percent of the interviewees agreed that finding the right information to do their job is difficult (Delphi, 2002). 

Further research conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) concluded that barriers for the adoption of best practices included: 

* the lack of selection criteria among practices within cost-constrained programs, 

* the lack of confidence in the value of such practices by the program offices, and 

* the inability to relate practices to the risks and issues programs were facing. 

In summary, recognizing good practices and disseminating them to the workforce seems to be a key issue. To address these issues the DoD Acquisition Best Practices Clearinghouse (BPCh) program, sponsored by several offices of the DoD (DS, ARA, National Information Infrastructure [NII], and Defense Procurement & Acquisition Policy [DPAP]), was initiated in 2003 (Dangle, Dwinnell, Hickok & Turner, 2005). 

The Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering, Maryland (FC-MD) was chosen to develop the initial "proof of concept" for a system to document, evaluate, and disseminate Best Practices. In collaboration with other organizations within the DoD and industry (including Northrop Grumman IT, the Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC], and the Systems and Software Consortium [SSCI]), a prototype system has been built and piloted. It is currently operated and hosted by the Defense Acquisition University (DAU). 

THE VISION FOR APPLYING BEST PRACTICES 

The DoD vision for the BPCh initiative is to provide more than just a list of Best Practices. It is to provide an integrated set of processes, tools, and resources which will enable information seekers to identify emerging or well-proven practices that have been implemented and proven effective. Practices in the BPCh serve as an information resource to individuals looking for ideas on how to improve quality and become more effective in their job. Clearly, the vision of the BPCh is not to create another "data cemetery," but to develop an information-sharing network around the BPCh repository which will foster relationships between individuals within DoD and also partnerships between DoD and industry leaders. The following types of questions illustrate usage examples: 

* "I just heard about accelerated life...
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