Benchmarking has been widely used in the business world as well as in the private industry, where managers are looking for better ways to do business by using benchmarking as a management improvement tool. Today, productivity and quality management is not just a matter for private businesses, but also for public agencies.
In the park and recreation field, public agencies are under pressure to improve their service quality and effectiveness, especially when faced with budgetary pressures and uncertain economic conditions. Under the pressure of fiscal retrenchment, public agencies must keep up with fiscal changes, and administrators must become better managers of limited financial resources. Benchmarking is a significant element of the quality management technique that allows organizations to cope with changes and continue to meet citizen expectations (Bogan & English, 1994; Keehley et al., 1997).
In parks, recreation and leisure services, there have been some efforts to use benchmarking techniques to improve service quality and management at the municipal and state government levels. However, the documentation of the process has been very limited. There is a need for more research in this area, and agencies should begin to learn benchmarking technique and its potential applications in the park and recreation field.
The idea behind benchmarking, i.e., learning from others, is not new. For centuries, people have observed those good ideas and practices around them, then adopted those ideas into their own practices to meet their own needs and improve. Modern concepts of benchmarking did not gain prominence until Xerox started using a process of learning from its Japanese partner in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Camp, 1989; Spendolini, 1992; Zairi, 1998; Zairi & Ahmed, 1999).
In 1979, Xerox started a benchmarking process by tearing down the mechanical components of the copiers produced by its competitors. Xerox not only evaluated the physical composition of mechanical components, but also the manufacturing costs and how the competitors achieved much lower costs. Then, Xerox's manufacturing quickly adopted these set benchmarks into its business plans. At first, only a few of the operating units used them. By 1981, Xerox adopted benchmarking as a corporate-wide effort.
Xerox, as one of the pioneers in modern benchmarking practice, defines benchmarking as "a continuous, systematic process of evaluating companies recognized as industry leaders, to determine business and work processes that represent 'best practices' and establish rational performance goals" (Cross & Iqbal, 1995, p.4; Zairi, 1998, p.13-14). Other benchmarking experts, such as Robert C. Camp (1989), Spendolini (1992) proposed similar definitions. In essence, benchmarking measures and compares against "the best" and concentrates on achieving superior performances. It is a systematic process and a structured methodology that requires systematic data collection and investigation.
It should be noted that "best practices" have different levels. In the real world, the ideal type of benchmarks, the "world class products, services or work processes" may never be found due to limited resources, costs, time and other factors. Sometimes, only relative or local optima may be found as benchmarks. Therefore, benchmarking is not only a process of searching for the best, but also a process that permits setting realistic performance goals in the environment by incorporating feasible practices into operations.
Jarrar & Zairi (2001) conducted a global survey of 227 organizations in 32 countries to assess the trends and future directions of benchmarking. The findings revealed that benchmarking was widely used worldwide and across various industries, from manufacturing to government to educational institutions. The findings also showed that benchmarking was capable of producing significant benefits including: improving quality; increasing speed of service; improving processes; understanding customer requirements; setting internal standards; influencing strategic decision-making process; managing resources more effectively; deploying resources; and improving personnel management and changing leadership style within the organization. …