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Is the consulting model broken?

The Digital Champions Club recently celebrated its third birthday. At our most recent bootcamp, I shared with members the story of how the program came to be. Prior to starting the Digital Champions Club, I had spent a few years working as a consultant. I would go into organisations and work with them to map their internal processes and information flows. From this we would identify improvement opportunities where technology could create a competitive advantage. On the back of the process mapping, I would then often get asked to come back and help implement solutions.

But somewhere around three and a half years ago I became increasingly disenchanted with the approach I was taking. Although I would always enter into a consulting relationship with the best of intentions, I realised there were systemic issues with the approach that would always stop me from creating the best outcomes.

My goals weren’t necessarily aligned with the client’s goals
The client was looking for long-term sustainable change, but as a consultant I was generally paid a fixed price to deliver short term outcomes (either the mapping process, a report, or ‘implementation’). As it is difficult (and often unappealing) to structure consulting arrangements with long term incentives (consultants don’t like being tied to outcomes they have little control over and businesses generally don’t like paying consultants to do more work than absolutely necessary) the structure of most consulting agreements encourages consultants to do ‘just enough to be invited back’ rather than ‘everything they can’.

I left and my expertise left with me
One of the biggest challenges with consulting relationships is that at the end of the agreement the consultant leaves, and when they leave most of their expertise leaves with them. But perhaps even more perversely the consulting model incentives consultants to keep their intellectual property secret. The more they share the less the consultant is required next time.

As a result, it makes little sense to hire consultants for work that is critical to long-term success and enduring in nature (consultants are most suited to providing specific expertise in small amounts over short periods). For critical, enduring work we are better off employing someone directly or developing the skills internally. Given the increasingly significant role that technology plays in organisations, I felt the identification and implementation work really needed to be managed internally (even if I might be needed for some technology-specific expertise).

I didn’t know the organisations intimately
As an outsider there was always much information and many people I didn’t know. This meant I was generally guessing when I gave someone a proposal. It was an educated guess based on what had mostly worked for similar organisations in the past but it was a guess none the less. You could quite accurately describe this as a ‘cookie cutter’ solution.

The nature of the relationship also meant I had a vested interest in diagnosing a ‘problem’ and recommending a ’solution’ that aligns with my expertise, even if it wasn’t the primary problem the client was facing. This was not something that was done unethically but the limits of my expertise would have undoubtedly blinded me to alternative ideas.

Finally, a lack of intimacy would always negatively impact implementation. Without a deep understanding of an organisation’s systems, how they were used, and the people who used them, it was always difficult to know where to focus change efforts and to do them in a way that stuck.

From consulting to coaching
This was the catalyst of moving from consulting to coaching. I realised that all these three issues could be addressed by working with my clients to develop internal champions to do the work that I had previously been doing. Much like the software as a service model where you pay for software on a monthly basis (and stop paying if you stop getting value) coaching resulted in a longer term engagement that better aligned my goals with the goals of the client.

This approach also ensured that expertise was developed and retained internally. Not only did this provide clients with a certain peace of mind, it also meant that change happened continuously and, as a result, became easier. The coaching model also solved the problem of intimacy. By training up internal experts who already had knowledge of the organisation’s systems and the trust of their colleagues it meant that the right opportunities were identified and individual needs could be better understood and addressed.

I think the idea of coaching to develop internal experts over hiring consultants makes sense intuitively. It’s perhaps why all three of the clients I was consulting to when I launched the Digital Champions Club were all willing to make the move to a coaching approach.

This is not to say we should have a world without consultants. There are undoubtedly situations where access to short-term specialist expertise is required (in fact members of the Digital Champions Club are often encouraged to engage them on specific projects). But rather it is reminder to understand the limitations of the consulting model and appreciate there are other approaches that have the potential to offer better value and greater long term success.

This blog post has been syndicated to www.digitalchampionsclub.com.au. For comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The challenge of explaining what you do

I had an awkward moment with a close friend recently. I’ve known Harsha for more than a decade and she’s someone I’ve leaned on every now and then for marketing advice around the various programs I offer. The awkward moment arose because, after five years of telling Harsha about the Digital Champions Club, she still had to ask me what it was exactly that I do.

At the time I found it quite disheartening, that someone who is clearly switched on, someone who genuinely cares about me and what I do, someone who I’ve spent hours talking to about my work still didn’t have any real clarity about what the Digital Champions Club is or why it exists.

My initial response was a sense of frustration — initially directed outwards at Harsha’s failure to listen, and then directed inwards at my own inability to clearly articulate my proposition. So why is it that we struggle to convey things clearly?

I think firstly it’s because it’s hard to get out of our own heads. What I mean by this is it’s hard to explain things without the context of a whole bunch of other stuff that may also need explaining but that you aren’t aware enough to realise. As a result, the explanations which sound whole and well rounded to us are hollow and incomplete to others.

Second, I think the packaging can get in the way of the product. Our desire to create things that are unique, memorable and exciting brings us to use language that is unnecessarily complex and difficult to follow. Unless it’s meant to be a genuine surprise, perhaps it’s best that we dispense with some of the gift wrapping.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like a bit of a dick talking about myself. Which means I generally don’t do it, and therefore when I do it’s all a little off the cuff and just kind of sounds a bit awkward, which in turn makes me feel like a bit of a dick…and the cycle continues.

So Harsha set me a challenge: articulate the Digital Champions Club in a way that people could actually understand and then share it with all the other people who, like her, are currently unsure of what it is I do.

I’ve been procrastinating on this for a couple of weeks because, apart from the dislike of talking about myself, it feels a little awkward to be openly broadcasting my inherent uncertainty and lack of clarity in a world where ‘experts’ are meant to have endless reserves of both.

Yet perhaps in a small way this is a form of therapy, so Harsha, after hours of struggle and refinement here it goes….

I support small and medium-sized organisations who are struggling to build momentum in the delivery of their technology projects (sometimes referred to as digital transformation). I do this through a combination of monthly coaching (to provide support and accountability), one day workshops (for deep learning) and peer-to-peer sharing (to reduce risk). Collectively, these are delivered as a technology-focused, continuous improvement program called the Digital Champions Club.

So how did I do? No, honestly, I’d genuinely like to know…and it really does still sound hollow and incomplete (or even if it doesn’t) feel free to download it my latest white paper “When Technology Fails to Deliver” which explains a whole bunch of the other stuff that goes around in my head.

P.S. I’ve already been back into LinkedIn to edit this…twice.

Why our fear of technology is greater than our fear of death

In 2015 Chapman University in the United States undertook researchers to find out what Americans feared. 1,500 participants ranked 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). So, what did they find?



It turns out people (or American people at least) are more afraid of technology than they are of death.

​Of the top five fears in the survey, three were technology related. Cyberterrorism came in at number two, corporate tracking of personal data came in at number three and Government tracking of personal data came in at number five. In fact, robots replacing the workforce (25), trusting artificial intelligence to do work (34), robots (38) and artificial intelligence (40) all ranked above ‘death’ which didn’t make an appearance until position 43.

​So why are so many people more scared of technology than they are of death?

​In general, the things we fear have three common characteristics:

​Firstly, the outcomes are undesirable. People who suffer from acrophobia, or a fear of heights, don’t fear heights per se, they fear what would happen if they were to fall. We are more likely to fear things where the outcome would be to either lose something we already value or miss out on something that we really want.

​Secondly, the outcome is somewhat uncontrollable. Galeophobia, or a fear of sharks is compounded by the fact shark behaviour appears unpredictable, they are much faster swimmers than humans are…and it’s hard to see them coming. To assert control people with galeophobia are likely to avoid going in the water altogether (and for extreme sufferers this might extend to avoiding inland lakes and rivers even though there is no possible risk of sharks being present).

​Thirdly, the outcomes feel unavoidable. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears because in our day to day lives spiders are so hard to avoid. You might argue that people with galeophobia can avoid their fear by avoiding swimming at the beach, but as soon as they go near a large body of water, even an inland lake with no possibility of sharks, their fear once again comes to the surface.

​At this point it is also worth defining the subtle difference between fear and anxiety. Although closely linked, one way of understanding the difference between the two is familiarity. Fear is a based on genuine, well understood threat whereas anxiety is a mostly unfounded feeling of concern. From this perspective a fear of heights, sharks and spiders can be seen as quite legitimate, on other hand, very few people are familiar enough or informed enough about artificial intelligence to be genuinely fearful. It is more likely that they are suffering from a bout of digital anxiety.

​Now back to our comparison between the fear of death and our fear (or anxiety) around technology.

​It is fair to say that both technology and death can create undesirable outcomes (though death perhaps more so) and in our current reality both technology and death are unavoidable. The real difference between the two is that we have a greater sense of control over death than we do over cyberterrorism, artificial intelligence and robots. This is not to say that we can cheat death over the long term but on a daily basis we have a fairly well tuned sense of how to avoid it happening prematurely (such as looking before we cross the road and not drinking paint stripper).

​But it’s not just at a societal level that these anxieties about technology are being experienced, they are just as likely to occur within organisations. Some of the fears identified in the survey can be directly linked to the workplace (robots replacing the workforce, trusting artificial intelligence to do work). In addition, there are also more immediate issues that people are dealing with such as how to use the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or who might read what I write on Slack/Yammer/Microsoft Teams.

​It is perhaps unsurprising that in the current era of organisational digitisation (or digital transformation) has seen an escalation on technology related anxiety. The desire to roll out multiple technology solutions quickly means that people are being given less time and less support to build familiarity with the technology they are expected to use. This lack of familiarity means people are both less likely to see the opportunity that such systems offer but also, they are more likely to catastrophise the outcomes of getting it wrong. This in turn leads to them exerting what limited control they feel that they have over technology, they take every opportunity to avoid it. As a result, organisations are experiencing an increased sense of ‘push back’ on technology deployment.

​This anxiety around new technology is not new. We have most recently experienced concerns about WIFI frying our brains, prior to that it was the risks associated with sitting too close to the TV, before that it was concerns about telephones being the communication device of the devil (and this was prior to the inception of telemarketing) and earlier than that again was a belief that the speed of steam powered train travel would make our bodies explode.

​In each case people have eventually managed to overcome these anxieties and as a result take advantage of the opportunity that each of these technologies represented. Eventually our experience of artificial intelligence, robotics and CRM will be no different. The question is, are we willing to wait for this anxiety to dissipate naturally over time (in which case we forgo the short-term benefit that such technologies bring) or do we intervene to help people overcome these anxieties sooner?

​A successful intervention is fundamentally based on helping people building familiarity. To build familiarity we need to provide users a safe and supported environment in which to experiment and test out new technology, and if we want people to start actively experimenting we first need them to believe that doing so is worth their time. What this means is that ultimately, if we want people to overcome their anxieties and adopt new technology we first need to help them identify what’s in it for them, not necessarily what’s in it for us.

​Most technology decisions are so often made by a small handful of people for benefit of the organisation. This approach is based on the premise that employees have no choice as to what technology they use but this is not true at all. People always have a choice, they have a choice to avoid, a choice to subvert, or more drastically, they have a choice to leave.

​If we want our digital transformation programs to succeed, if we want people to adopt and use the technology solutions that are being deployed, if we want to build an innovative culture that helps us retain our best talent, then we will first need a rethink on how we engage with, understand and support our people to use the incredible technology that is now available to them. 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The power of choice

The power of giving people a choice lies in what their decision tells us. If we insist that people use a particular piece of software or work in a particular way, we may find out that there are better ways for things to be done.

The PC era of technology was defined by the standard operating system. Computers would be preinstalled with Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. People were largely expected to do their work with just a handful of solutions, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. This used to make a lot of sense, firstly because there weren’t that many other options to choose from and secondly, end users mostly lacked the knowledge and skills to identify other options and use other options.

But we are now operating in a new era where much of the software we need is now web based and can be purchased on a subscription basis. There is now an incredible number of options that can be accessed cheaply and easily, and from any device we choose to use. But most organisations provide little or no opportunity for people to have a say in the technology they use.

Now we could pretend that people don’t have a choice. That, as employees being paid a salary, they should be expected to use whatever technology and tools they are given, but the truth is people always have a choice. The first, the smallest, and perhaps most common choice they have is to abstain, to actively find ways to avoid using the solution they’ve been given. The second, medium sized choice is to go and source an alternative (and in a world of web based software that you can purchase with a credit card this is not all that difficult). And although it seems a rather drastic response, the third possible choice is to resign. In fact research shows that when high performers don’t get the technology they need to do their best work they are twice as likely to leave the organisation.

Once we accept that people always have a choice, the next question is ‘how can structuring these choices help provide meaningful feedback to the business?’ Providing people a certain level of choice as to what technology they use (or even whether they use the technology or not) helps organisations understand whether the tools being provided are what people want and need. Clearly, if our people adopt and actively use the technology solutions they are provided then we are doing a pretty ace job. But each of the alternatives: abstinence, seeking alternatives and abandonment give insight into what might be wrong.

Abstinence suggests that either the espoused or actual value proposition for the end user doesn’t stack up. If someone is unwilling to try the solution at all, or tries it and then discards it soon afterwards, then we need to accept that for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be a good use of their time.

If someone is seeking alternatives then it reflects a belief that there are better, more useful or usable solutions available than the one that’s been provided….and if they are also unwilling to tell you about their proposed alternate it also implies that they don’t trust the IT department to work in their best interest.

Perhaps the most worrying of all is resignation or abandonment. We generally abandon something if it has no perceived value now, or in the future. The decision to resign implies that not only is the current technology inadequate but there is little hope that this will be addressed in the immediate future.

We are in an era of rapid digitisation. In many cases organisations are rolling out multiple large technology solutions that have the potential to provide incredible value to the organisation…if they are used effectively. On the other hand, if these solutions are not embraced or are not used effectively the benefits will go unrealised and all that the organisation will be left with is the cost.

People always have a choice and the success of our digital transformation projects ultimately rests on what people choose to do. Once we acknowledge this then clearly the best course of action is to help our people make better, more informed choices…whatever the outcome of those choices might be.

If you’re looking to start a digital transformation program for your organisation but having a hard time getting the ball rolling, head over to the Digital Champions Club to see how we can help you through the process.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The divide between IT and…well, everyone else in your business

Back in around 2007, I spent a few a few years working for Rio Tinto. It was my first and only proper corporate job…and it came with a proper corporate IT team. When I started there the IT team was located just a couple of floors below me, but even then I only remember meeting one member of the IT team face to face. His name was George. Unlike the rest of the IT team that stayed at their desks, George use to walk each of 20 odd floors of Rio Tinto employees every couple of weeks. He would drop by each desk, identifying problems people were having, and showing them simple tips and tricks with their laptop or Blackberry (it was 2007 after all).

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

…That was until the Helpdesk function got outsourced to India and then I never saw George again, or anyone else from IT for that matter. Getting IT issues fixed ended up being a lot harder and often it was just seemed easier to leave them broken.

Many would find this a rather typical experience of corporate IT. The commoditisation of IT services and the pursuit of lower costs have seen many IT functions either outsourced or rationalised out of existence. But the impact of this is much bigger than the pain and frustration of end users not being able to get simple computer issues fixed. The big cost is in the unrealised potential of new technology solutions to be applied within an organisation.

There is little doubt that some of the biggest opportunities in modern business are being driven by innovations in technology. Yet if the people who understand the technology aren’t (or can’t) effectively engaging with people in the operational side of the organisation, many of these opportunities will never be identified, investigated, or ultimately implemented.

This physical separation between people in IT and operations is just a facet of the IT-Operational Divide. In addition to the physical divide, there is often also a language divide (people in IT and operations use different words, abbreviations and terms), a role divide (people in IT and operations work in fundamentally different ways and don’t understand how or why that is the case) and potentially even a respect divide (IT professionals are often seen as a roadblock and struggle to get the respect of their peers).

As long as this continues, the impact on the bottom line has got little to do with what the cost of the IT function and a lot to do with the improvement opportunities that are never identified.

To proactively realise these opportunities, we ultimately need to overcome the IT-Operational divide…and somewhat ironically the best way to overcome the divide would be to get IT and operational people working together to realise some of these opportunities. But left to their own devices this is unlikely to occur (like mixing oil and water this may initially require a bit of shaking, or for the nerds out there the addition of an emulsifier). Instead organisations need to provide a structured ‘learn by doing’ approach that facilitates direct engagement and breaks down the physical, language, role, and respect barriers that are currently holding the organisation back.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

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Simon Waller is a author, speaker and trainer helping organisations get more out of their technology. He is also the founder of the Digital Champions Club, a program that develops internal digital experts who can identify, investigate, and implement the technology projects that matter.

Transformation sucks

Digital Trans-for-ma-tion has a certain sweet ring to it. It says

we’re getting our shit together

we’re going places

and we ain’t taking prisoners.

transforming-leaf_6x4

But in truth, digital transformation is playing catch up. It’s for organisations that have been slow to change and have missed opportunities. As a result, things are now gonna get lumpy (and we might not all make it out the other side).

In someone else’s words “Transformation… requires radical, systemic shifts in values and beliefs, patterns of social behavior, governance and management.”

So here we are.

Whether we like it or not, digital transformation may now be a necessity

and on the other side of transformation we hope to find something magical

…but in between it might not be all chocolate and roses.