by Designed Learning
In a competitive environment, IT consultants need to complement their technical knowledge with consulting skills training. Consulting skills will help them partner with their clients so that they can understand an organization’s overall business. In this way, they help clients develop, understand and take ownership in the solutions to their problems. Because they help to build the organization’s business, these consultants are seen as valued contribution to the organization.
The angered executive exploded. Flinging his pen across the room, he rejected the information systems solution presented by Cynthia Jordon-Putt. She assessed the situation quickly. Taking a deep breath and remembering her consulting skills, she looked the executive in the eye and spoke calmly.
“Jim,” she said, “It’s clear we’ve got a problem. Let’s resolve it before we go on with anything else.”
His tirade was broken, and dialogue began.
“When I acknowledged his anger and asked him to talk about it, he opened up. He was worried that the new system we were developing wouldn’t include some capabilities he wanted. He was feeling railroaded into accepting something less.”
“We explained that we had the same frustrations: We’d like a perfect system, too. But our time frame wouldn’t allow that. We assured him we’d keep working on additional capabilities, and he knew we’d do what we said. Our relationship includes a good level of trust.”
“Now we’re doing what we said we’d do, and things are working out well.”
Brief Time, Radical Changes
“Most of us in information systems used to be data processors, crunching numbers for our clients,” says Lisa Halteman, business systems manager for McNeil Consumer Products, a Johnson & Johnson company whose products include Tylenol. “Then we were called MIS people, and charged with developing the computer side of new systems while clients took care of the business side.”
“Today we’re asked to function as information technologies professionals — our role is to be in-house consultants working closely with clients to determine the best way to do the work, and then to define how technology can best help support the doing of the work. Senior-level people who say, ‘I want someone who can talk in my terms and work with me, not throw jargon at me and tell me what I need.’”
Changes in technology have changed the role of information systems, which used to be a back-office operation, invisible to the rest of the organization. With personal computers the technology is on every desk, accessible to everyone. That means, to a great degree, the work of information systems has been demystified.
Change has also been driven by a challenging economy and international competition. Management concerns for the bottom line have forced organizations to scrutinize the role of information systems and make it “lean and mean.”
An increasing number of outside companies now provide competing services for hardware, software and information. One analyst observes, “Information systems people who think they can ignore clients’ needs and just go into a room and code all day probably won’t be around very long.” To be effective, people who work in technology must interact well with their clients, adding ideas and value to the search for solutions.
A Quantum Leap in Thinking
As accountability shifts to line managers, staff functions such as information systems no longer hold a monopoly. They’re forced to compete with outside vendors, in many cases assuming the role of staff consultants around information systems issues. Two sets of circumstances can be defined:
In a monopoly environment, staff in information systems work in isolation from their clients, understanding only their narrowly defined responsibilities. They might be seen as a pair of hands charged with technical fixes, or as experts who impose solutions. They spend more time building their own reputation than serving the organization, all the while at risk of becoming obsolete.
In a competitive environment, the information systems staff understands the organization’s overall business, so they can fully partner with internal clients. By looking at whole systems, they help clients develop, understand and take ownership in the solutions to their problems. Because they help to build the organization’s business, these consultants are seen as valued members of the team.
Making the Transition
Changing from a monopoly to competition can be daunting if information systems staffers aren’t well prepared. For instance, they might need to work with more senior management than in the past.
“I felt lost and a little intimidated,” says Cynthia Jordon-Putt. She works for Promus, owner of hotels and casinos in need of computer systems for back office and casino operations, reservations and other business. As a computer-based training/documentation project consultant, she acts as liaison between programmers and users, making sure users get what they want and programmers get what they need. Her department also develops training for Promus software.
At a giant California-based computer hardware and peripheral manufacturer, Pam Schellenberger was in the thick of it when the office technology support staff were reconfigured as consultants on office processes instead of “reactive fixers.” Staff in field offices across the country were positive but hesitant.
“It sounded like a good idea,” Schellenberger recalls, “but we weren’t sure exactly what consulting entailed. We knew how to fix printing problems, but we didn’t know how to be consultants responsible for helping to improve whole processes.”
Information systems staff learn how to consult flawlessly by following the five step model developed by Peter Block in his book “Flawless Consulting, A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.” These steps are: (1) entry and contracting (2) data collection and diagnosis (3) feedback and the decision to act (4) implementation and (5) evaluation.
Entry and Contracting
During the contracting phase, consultants hear how customers see the situation. But they don’t jump to conclusions. Everyone involved — customers and consultants — express their wants and needs. Next steps are discussed, power and control are negotiated and shared and boundaries are set.
That’s a new approach for most information systems organizations. In a simpler time, staff would just agree to do whatever was requested, even if it wasn’t the best approach. When the contracting phase is approached correctly, that doesn’t happen. By probing and asking for clarification of the issues, consultants work to develop an understanding of the real problem.
In addition, the consultant tells the client up front what it will take to reach a solution. Many people in staff positions find it difficult to ask forcefully for what they want. Information systems staff are no exception. Lisa Halteman found it tough. “I always felt I’m paid to do my job and put aside my own preferences. But actually it’s part of the job to ask for what I want to help the project succeed.”
Participants in Designed Learning Flawless Consulting Workshops looked at themselves on videotape, an eye-opening experience. One participant said, “We were so nice when we asked for what we wanted from our clients. We weren’t as effective as we’d like to be. So we learned to say, ‘OK. You want me to do this? Here’s what I need to be effective in our work together.’”
“During contracting,” Pam Schellenberger adds, “you need to get a commitment from your customer about how they’re going to contribute to solving the problem or improving the process. IS doesn’t do it alone; the customer is a partner. That way, they not only own the solution, they understand the constraints we work under — and we understand theirs too.”
Data Collection and Diagnosis
The next phase in the consulting process is collecting data and making a diagnosis. The consultant digs deeper and identifies the true nature and scope of the problem. It’s a critical phase, because often the problem reported by the client is actually a symptom of a deeper and different problem. Sometimes what seems to be a technical problem is at its core a human or organizational issue. To make a sound, independent diagnosis, the consultant must explore the political, organizational and emotional contexts in which the problem exists.
If the contracting phase is done well the consultant has ready access to the people and information needed. Once the data are collected and analyzed, the consultant can discern whether the solutions discussed during the contracting phase will work or whether different solutions are more appropriate.
Feedback and the Decision to Act
Once a situation has been thoroughly analyzed, the consultant reports back to the client, offering clear, simple and accurate feedback about the situation. Sometimes the news is not good from the customer’s point of view, especially when problems are not what they seemed. In such cases, recommendations might differ from the solutions envisioned during the contracting phase. Consultants need to be prepared to deal with resistance, which is usually evidence that something important is happening. In the feedback phase, clients might need to face tough issues and make difficult changes. Their initial reaction can be negative. Many consultants recall clients who became angry or defensive, who blamed others, or who fell totally silent. These are indirect expressions of deeper concerns.
Effective consultants learn to confront and defuse resistance and to encourage clients to express concerns directly. Unless resistance is confronted, there is little chance a client will buy in to the proposed solution or take action to solve the core problem. Confronting resistance often requires persistence by the consultant, moving closer rather than running away.
“That was a big surprise for me,” says Cynthia Jordon-Putt, recalling the angry pen-thrower. “Like a lot of other people, I had usually dodged the bullets and headed for the door. Now I understand I’m dealing with resistance — with human emotions — and I know there are effective techniques to help me deal with that.”
The consultant’s attitude also makes a difference. Designed Learning Flawless Consulting Workshops train consultants to be authentic and honest, but with compassion. One participant knew her skills would make a difference in whether her company survived the next few years: “We need to give clients the best and most accurate picture possible, in words they understand. You can’t back away just because it’s hard to handle the truth.”
Bad News … Good News
Learning staff consulting skills can be especially difficult for information systems people. But from another perspective, it’s particularly easy. Information systems people tend to be linear-thinking rationalists whose orientation is mostly technical. Dealing with the uncertainties of close partnerships and intense emotions evoked by unwanted change can be uncomfortable. One participant observed, “Computers can be frustrating, but they’re not irrational, and they don’t throw dramatic fits.”
Consultants in information technology have an advantage: They’ve already experienced the necessity to abandon yesterday’s familiar environment. By improving consulting skills, they still address the basics, but apply additional human and business variables.
There’s Risk Involved
When human beings are involved, there will always be elements of change, conflict, uncertainty, and risk. And, in business as in life, there is no such thing as a panacea.
While using consulting skills taught by Designed Learning usually produces good results, the process can involve risk. “That’s something we looked at in the workshop,” says Kristi Iverson. “When the real problem is different from the presenting problem, you can get involved in power struggles. They can usually be resolved — but sometimes you might not be able to be successful; sometimes you might be risking failure that could hurt your career. Then you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this worth it to me? Would I truly rather be a partner than a pair of hands? Or can I live with doing what this customer demands even though it won’t solve the real problem?’ You have to answer that question for yourself. Personally, I think you have to choose your battles, and understand that you can’t win all the time.”
… But Does it Work?
“It’s a good feeling when the people who used to ask you to fix the printer now call on you to help rework a process,” says Pam Schellenberger. Staff consulting skills produce positive resolutions and turn difficult situations around. After learning the process, people report extending the skills beyond clients to interacting with subordinates, colleagues and bosses. A few even apply them at home with spouses and children.
Lisa Halteman — who earned a master’s degree in human influencing skills — has further insights about the value of consulting skills. “Understanding what the other person values involves listening carefully and making accurate judgments. If you don’t get that part right, you get resistance. But naming the resistance and getting it on the table where you can deal with it can help get you past it.”
Today’s difficult business environment requires positive, productive responses. Developing staff consulting skills is an invaluable asset, enabling staff to be more productive and effective. One participant noted, “Let’s face it: information systems people can’t afford to be seen as just ‘byteheads’ any more.”