Tag Archives: technology environment

Consulting doesn’t work any more. We need to reinvent it.

What does it mean to be in consulting these days? The consulting model that’s evolved over the last 30 – 50 years seems to be breaking down. The internet and social media have shifted the way business operates, and the consulting industry has failed to move with it. The old tricks that the industry has relied on — the did it, done it stories and the assumption that I know something you don’t — no longer apply. Margins are under pressure and revenue is on the way down (though outsourcing is propping up some) as clients find smarter ways to solve problems, or decide that they can simply do without. The knowledge and resources the consulting industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. Sell outcomes, not scarcity and rationing.

I’m a consultant. I have been for some time too, working in both small and large consultancies. It seems to me that the traditional relationship between consultancy and client is breaking down. This also appears to be true for both flavours of consulting: business and technology. And by consulting I mean everything from the large tier ones down to the brave individuals carving a path for themselves.

Business is down, and the magic number seems to be roughly a 17% decline year-on-year. One possible cause might be that the life blood of the industry — the large multi-year transformation project — has lost a lot of its attraction in recent years. If you dig around in the financials for the large publicly listed consultancies and vendors you’ll find that the revenue from IT estate renewal and transformation (application licenses, application configuration and installation services, change management, and even advisory) is sagging by roughly 17% everywhere around the globe.

SABER @ American Airlines

Large transformation projects have lost much of their attraction. While IBM successfully delivered SABER back in the 60s, providing a heart transplant for American Airlines ticketing processes, more recent stabs at similarly sized projects have met with less than stellar results. Many more projects are quietly swept under the carpet, declared a success so that involved can move on to something else.

The consulting model is a simple one. Consultants work on projects, and the projects translate into billable hours. Consultancies strive to minimise overheads (working on customer premises and minimising support staff), while passing incidental costs through to clients in the form of expenses. Billable hours drive revenue, with lower grades provide higher margins.

This creates a couple of interesting, and predictable, behaviours. First, productivity enhancing tooling is frowned on. It’s better to deploy a graduate with a spreadsheet than a more senior consultant with effective tooling. Second, a small number of large transactions are preferred to a large number of small transactions. A small number of large transactions requires less overhead (sales and back-office infrastructure).

All this drives consultancies to create large, transformational projects. Advisory projects end up developing multi-year (or even multi-decade) roadmaps to consolidate, align and optimise the business. Technology projects deliver large, multi-million dollar, IT assets into the IT estate. These large, business and IT transformation projects provide the growth, revenue and margin targets required to beat the market.

This desire for large projects is packaged up in what is commonly called “best practice”. The consulting industry focuses on did it, done it stories, standard and repeatable projects to minimise risk. The sales pitch is straight-forward: “Do you want this thing we did over here?” This might be the development of a global sourcing strategy, an ERP implementation, …

Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set
Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set

This approach has worked for some time, with consultancy and client more-or-less aligned. Back when IBM developed SABER you were forced to build solutions from the tin up, and even small business solutions required significant effort to deliver. In the 1957, when Spencer Tracy played a productivity expert in The Desk Set, new IT solutions required very specific skills sets to develop and deploy. These skills were in short supply, making it hard for an organisation to create and maintain a critical mass of in-house expertise.

Rather than attempt to build an internal capability — forcing the organisation on a long learning journey, a journey involving making mistakes to acquire tacit knowledge — a more pragmatic approach is to rent the capability. Using a consultancy provides access to skills and knowledge you can’t get elsewhere, usually packaged up as a formal methodology. It’s a risk management exercise: you get a consultancy to deliver a solution or develop a strategy as they just did one last week and know where all the potholes are. If we were cheeky, then we would summerize this by stating that consultancies have a simple value proposition: I know something you don’t!

It’s a model defined by scarcity.

A lot has changed in the last few years; business moves a lot faster and a new generation of technology is starting to take hold. The business and technology environment is changing so fast that we’re struggling to keep up. Technology and business have become so interwoven that we now talk of Business-Technology, and a lot of that scarce knowledge is now easily obtainable.

The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology
The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology

The scarce tacit knowledge we used to require is now bundled up in methodologies; methodologies which are trainable, learnable, and scaleable. LEAN and Six Sigma are good examples of this, starting as more black art than science, maturing into respected methodologies, to today where certification is widely available and each methodology has a vibrate community of practitioners spread across both clients and consultancies. The growth of MBA programmes also ensures that this knowledge is spread far and wide.

Technology has followed a similar path, with the detailed knowledge required to develop distributed solutions incrementally reified in methodologies and frameworks. When I started my career XDR and sockets were the networking technologies of the day, and teams often grew to close to one hundred engineers. Today the same solution developed on a modern platform (Java, Ruby, Python …) has a team in the single digits, and takes a fraction of the time. Tacit knowledge has be reified in software platforms and frameworks. SaaS (Software as a Service) takes this to a while new level by enabling you to avoid software development entirely.

The did it, done it stories that consulting has thrived on in the past are being chewed up and spat out by the business schools, open source, and the platform and SaaS vendors. A casual survey of the market usually finds that SaaS-based solutions require 10% of the installation effort of a traditional on-premsis solution. (Yes, that’s 90% less effort.) Less effort means less revenue for the consultancies. It also reduces the need for advisory services, as provisioning a SaaS solution with the corporate credit card should not require a $200,000 project to build a cost-benefit analysis. And gone are the days when you could simply read the latest magazines and articles from the business schools, spouting what you’d read back to a client. Many clients have been on the consulting side of the fence, have a similar education in the business schools, and reads all the same articles.

I know and you don’t! no longer works. The world has moved on and the consulting industry needs to adapt. The knowledge and resources the industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. I see this is a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. As Jeff Jarvis has said: stop selling scarcity, sell outcomes.

Updated: A good friend has pointed out the one area of consulting — one which we might call applied business consulting — resists the trend to be commoditized. This is the old school task of sitting with clients one-on-one, working to understand their enterprise and what makes it special, and then using this understanding to find the next area or opportunity that the enterprise is uniquely qualified to exploit. There’s no junior consultants in this area, only old grey-beards who are too expensive to stay in their old jobs, but that still are highly useful to the industry. Unfortunately this model doesn’t scale, forcing most (if not all) consultancies into a more operational knowledge transfer role (think Six Sigma and LEAN) in an attempt to improve revenue and GOP.

Updated: Keith Coleman (global head of public sector at Capgemini Consulting) makes a similar case with Time to sell results, not just advice (via @rpetal27).

Updated: I’ve responded to my own post, tweaking my consulting page to capture my take on what a consultant needs to do in this day and age.

From doctrine to dogma: when did a good idea become the only idea

When does a good method become the only method? The one true approach to solving a problem; the approach which will bind them all. The last few decades has seen radical change in our social and business environments, while the practice of business seems to have changed relatively little since the birth of the corporation. The problem of running a business, the problem we work every day to solve, has changed so much that the best practice of yesterday has become an albatross. The methods and practices that have brought us to the current level of performance are also one of the larger impediments to achieving the next level. When did the yesterday’s doctrine become today’s dogma? And what can we do about it?

Our methodologies and practices have been carefully designed to help steer our leviathan ships of industry, tuning their performance to with five and three year plans. The newspapers of today, for example, hold a marked resemblance to the news papers of 100 years ago, structured as large content factories churning out the stories with some ads slapped in the page next to them.

The best practices evident in companies today represent the culmination of generations of effort in building, running and improving our businesses. The doctrine embodied in each industry in a huge, a immensely valuable body of knowledge, tuned to solving the problem of business as we know it.

doctrine |ˈdäktrin|
noun
a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group : the doctrine of predestination.
• a stated principle of government policy, mainly in foreign or military affairs: the Monroe Doctrine.
ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French, from Latin doctrina ‘teaching, learning,’ from doctor ‘teacher,’ from docere ‘teach.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

However, a number of fundamental changes have taken hold in recent years. The pace of business has increased markedly; what used to take years now takes months, or even weeks. The role of technology in business has changed as applications have become ubiquitous and commoditized. The assumptions which existing doctrine were developed under no longer hold.

Today, most (if not all) newspapers are watching their as revenue is eroded by the likes of Craigslist, who have used modern web technology to come up with a new take on the decades (if not centuries) old classified ad.

Let’s look at Craiglist. I’ve heard people estimate that they are doing close to $100mm in annual revenues at this point. Many say, “they could be doing so much more”. But the Craigslist profit equation is interesting. They apparently have less than 30 employees. That’s about $4mm/year in employee costs. Let’s assume that they spend another $6mm per year on hosting and bandwidth costs and other costs. So it’s very possible that Craigslist’s annual costs are around $10mm/year. Their value equation then is 10 x (100-10) = $900mm. That’s almost a billion dollars in value for a company with only 30 employees.

Fred Wilson, A VC

Craigslist has taken a fresh look at what it means to be in the business of classified ads, and used technology in a new way to help create business value, rather than restrict it to controlling costs and delivering process effencies; an approach Forrester have labeled Business-Technology.

The challenge is to acknowledge that the rules of business have changed, and modify our best practices to suit the new business environment because, as Albert Einstein pointed out “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If we can’t change our best practices to suit, then our valuable doctrine has become worthless dogma.

dogma |ˈdôgmə|
noun
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true: the Christian dogma of the Trinity | the rejection of political dogma.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via late Latin from Greek dogma ‘opinion,’ from dokein ‘seem good, think.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

Enterprise architecture (EA) is prime example. As a doctrine, enterprise architecture has a proud history all the way back to John Zachman’s work in the 70s and the architecture framework which carries his name. EA has leveraged large, multi-year transformation programs to deliver huge operational effencies into the business. These programs have delivered a level of business performance unimaginable just a generation ago.

The pace of business has accelerated so much in recent years that the multiyear engagement model these transformations imply is no longer appropriate. What use is a five or three year plan in a world that changes every quarter? Transformation projects have been struggling recently. Some recent transformations edge across the line, at which point everyone moves onto the next project exhausted, and the promised benefits are neither identified or realized. Some transformations are simply declared a success after an appropriate effort has been applied, allowing the team to move on. A few explode, often quite publicly.

This approach made sense a decade or more ago, where IT was focused on delivering the next big IT asset into the enterprise. It’s application strategy, rather than technology strategy. However, the business and technology environment has changed radically recently since the emergence of the Internet as a public utility. The IT departments we’ve created as application factories have become an albatross for the business; making us incapable of engaging anything but a multiyear project worth tens of millions of dollars. They actively prevent the business from leveraging in innovative solutions or business opportunities. Even when there is a compelling reason to do so.

Simply put, the value created by enterprise architecture has moved, and the doctrine, or at least our approach to applying it, hasn’t kept up. For example, a common practice when establishing a new EA team seems to involve hiring architects to fill each role defined TOGAF’s IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions to provide us with complete skills coverage. Driving this is a desire to align ourselves with best practice, and ensure we do the job properly.

Some of TOGAFs IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions
Some of TOGAF's IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions

Most companies don’t need, nor can they can afford, a complete toolbox of enterprise architecture skills inside the business. A strict approach to the the doctrine will result in a larger EA team than the company can sustain. A smarter approach is to balance the demands and available resources of the company against the skill requirements and possible outcomes. We can tune our approach by aligning it with new techniques, tools and capabilities, or integrating elements from other doctrines—agile or business planning techniques, for example—to create a broader pallet of tools to solve our problem with. This might involve new engagement models. We can buy some skills while renting others. Some skills might be sustainable at a lower levels. It is also possible multi-skill, playing the role of both enterprise and solution architect. Similarly, leveraging software as a service (SaaS) solutions can also force changes in our engagement model, as a methodology suitable for scoping a three year and $50 million investment in on-premises CRM might not be appropriate for a SaaS solution which only requires 10% of the effort and investment as the on-premises solution.

Treating doctrine as prescriptive converts it into dogma. As John Boyd pointed out, we should assume that all doctrine is not right—that it’s incomplete or incorrect to some extent. You need to challenge all assumptions and look outside your own doctrine for new ideas.

Our own, personal resistance to change is the strongest thing holding us back. It seems that we learn something in our early to mid twenties, and then spend the rest of our career happily doing the same thing over and over again. We define ourselves in terms of what we did yesterday. If we create an environment where we define ourselves in terms of how we will help the organization evolve, rather than in terms of the assets we manage or doctrine we apply, then we can convert change from an enemy into an opportunity.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. For all the talk of the end of newspapers, some journalists are banding together to create new business models which can hold their own in a post-Craigslist world. Some old school journalists have taken a fresh look at what it means to be a newspaper. Young but growing strong and profitable, Politico’s news room is 100 strong and they have more people in the white house bureau than any other brand.

As TechCrunch pointed out:

Journalists still matter. A lot. Especially the good ones.

The challenge is to focus on what really matters, get close to your customers and find what really drives your business, question all the common sense (which is neither common or sensible in many cases) in your industry’s doctrine, look into the doctrine of other industries to see what they are doing that you can use, and use technology to create a business which their more traditional competitors will find it impossible to compete against.