There’s something about the phrase best practice— to mean the (notionally) optimal way of doing things—that sticks in many people’s throats. Is it a subliminally conceited allusion to the use of practice to mean the important work of a doctor or an artist? Or is it perhaps the way that calling it best practice to begin with brooks no argument about whether this way of doing things is, in fact, best after all? It’s rather impolite to claim that what someone else has just called best practice is stupid. And so the phrase best practice shuts down dissent before it can get started.
Best practice is surprisingly new, first recorded by the OED in an accounting textbook of 1984. But perhaps the definitive account of what it really means is offered by the business theorist John Kay in his celebrated 1993 work, Foundations of Corporate Success. There he explains: “There is a mechanism for formulating strategy which is apparently simpler than selecting from a menu of generic strategies in the light of a well-formulated assessment of the business environment. That is to look at what other firms do, and copy it. This strategy is more felicitously expressed as adopting best practice.”
And so to adopt best practice is really a euphemism for a kind of forelock-tugging plagiarism. We’re going to slavishly emulate this other company, but we’re sure they won’t mind, because in doing so we’re calling them best. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
Top of many people’s hate-list is this now-ubiquitous way of saying “from now on” or “in the future.” It has the added sly rhetorical aim of wiping clean the slate of the past (perhaps because “mistakes were made”); indeed it is a kind of incantation or threat aimed at shutting down conversation about whatever bad thing has happened. Going forward you’ll forget about it, if you know what’s good for you. This aspect of the phrase proves to be especially attractive to politicians, who like to accuse their critics of being mired in the past. For a [End Page 42] democratic leader—perhaps especially a “progressive” one—every day is a fresh start. Not coincidentally, the official pronouncements of Barack Obama’s administration are littered with going forward or its sibling moving forward, which at the time of writing have been deployed nearly six hundred times in the past year in official White House transcripts and press releases.
For most of the twentieth century, only particular things could be said to be going forward: people receiving prizes, litigation, military operations. Surprisingly, the modern standalone usage does not appear in the archives of Time magazine until 1998, when there is a rash of initial examples such as “The category killers are going to have to live with lower profit margins going forward,” and “Home sales will be treated vastly differently going forward.”
Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic progress, and moving forward perhaps even more so—even though none is likely to be made as long as the workday is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like “going forward.”
But it does boast the potential for being deployed in ways that are breathtakingly disingenuous. A splendid example came in July 2013, when a spokesman for payday–loan companies was asked on the BBC whether the lenders inquired about customers’ existing income and expenditure before making a loan. “Going forward they will,” he said brightly. In other words: No, they don’t!
“We are moving forward to fully interface with our key stakeholders, to really drive business outcomes in a changing environment.” So runs one actual business announcement supplied by a despairing source. Personally, when I interface with people, I like it to be outside the office, and I’d be nervous if they were holding stakes.
This use of the computing metaphor to interface—which the New Yorker charmingly noted in 1969 was “a space-age verb meaning, roughly, to coordinate”—is another way in which the messy humanity of people is smoothed over by...