Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Consultants Guide Supplement in the May 2001 issue of DM Review.
When it comes to information technology (IT) projects, each organization has its own combination of politics, history, strategy, resources and consulting needs. Given this, I often find it useful to classify each client/organization into one of three categories, relative to its self-sufficiency. At one end of the spectrum are those IT organizations that are self-sufficient and merely need only assessment and validation consulting. At the other end are those that outsource everything. Somewhere in the middle are organizations needing both guidance and staff (blood bank) augmentation.
From both the customer and consultant standpoints, the first two types are generally easier to handle because there's no question about who has the responsibility and authority. The type in the middle of the spectrum, however, is trickier.
There's an old joke that consultants simply ask their clients what they need and then echo the answer back to them. Though there is obviously more to consulting than that, the joke is funny because it's partly true. In fact, the first step toward a successful collaborative project is determining each party's responsibilities and accountabilities.
Although that determination will be driven in large part by the usual considerations, such as budget, headcount, current skill levels and training restrictions, there are other important considerations that come into play but are frequently overlooked. Of particular importance is the ability of the consultants to transfer their knowledge to the IT staff throughout the project.
The consultant needs to help the client understand the costs and ramifications of performing the work themselves versus outsourcing the work. Sometimes this means that the consultant needs to walk away from an engagement because it's the right thing for their client.
Here is a conversation that occurs in many IT organizations at the beginning of a new project:
CIO to IT Manager: "We need to create these new business intelligence applications for our users. Do we have anyone that can do this?"
IT Manager: "No. No one in our department has ever built anything like this. I better start looking for a consulting company to help us out. We'll see how much it will cost to have the consulting company build it for us."
CIO: "Yes, once the consultants build it, we should be able to take it over from there. Right?"
IT Manager: "Er, right..."
The knowledge locked up in the heads of the consultants is not easily transferred, if it is transferred at all. The consulting company has just been given job security that is, unless the IT organization decides to hire its people permanently.
Is there anything wrong with this scenario? Yes and no, or in the words of a famous consultant, "That depends."
The IT organization will certainly get a business intelligence (BI) application up and running that will make the business community happy. The hired consultants will learn a great deal about the business, its business rules, quirks in the operational systems, and so on, and the consultants will also bond with the business users. They will then use that knowledge and those contacts to secure the next engagement, adding to their productivity and usefulness. That's the good news.
The bad news is twofold. First is the message the CIO has just sent to his IT staff. When consultants are brought in without a staff shortage, the message is that the CIO feels the IT staff is incapable of building innovative, creative new systems and applications. You can imagine the morale of the IT staff after being given that message!
Secondly, the IT staff will most likely be unprepared or untrained in the new application and its technology, flounder in front of their users and, in general, receive a black eye in terms of their support of their business community.
What should the CIO and IT manager be considering and acting upon to prevent this type of situation from occurring? How about using the definition of consultant in its truest sense a trusted advisor or expert professional who can give the IT staff and business community the necessary advice to succeed without usurping the authority of the IT people or taking over the project tasks? Except as needed to overcome a staff shortage, the consultant should act as the company's mentor or counselor, guiding the IT team through the uncharted waters of their first BI project, transferring his or her knowledge and experiences every step of the way.
The consultant should come with templates developed from prior engagements templates for project plans, scope documents or business cases, tool selection matrices and perhaps even generic models for popular applications or subject areas. Knowledgeable consultants can even fix price certain engagements such as readiness or architectural assessments, based on their familiarity with the industry. The consultant should also be able to point you in the direction of good resources, books and conferences to further educate you and your staff.
Finally, the consultant should act as the quality assurance or project auditor to ensure that tasks and deliverables are on track and match the company's requirements.
What Else Is Needed?
Of course, bringing in a consultant is not enough to guarantee the success of your project. It is a good start, but the CIO must understand that he or she must prepare the IT staff and business representatives to handle the new tasks and technologies. This means that knowledge transfer should be included in the scope of the consultant's work and that money must be spent on the IT staff and possibly the business community to prepare them to create, support and use this new environment. Examples of this preparation include:
Training on the new technologies (e.g., tools, databases, techniques, etc.).
- Attending conferences such as The Data Warehouse Institute (TDWI) that focus on BI and data warehousing.
- Meeting with people in other companies facing similar challenges.
Receiving education or courses specific to the employees' needs (data modeling, project management, Corporate Information Factory architecture, etc.).
- Getting time off to attend local data warehouse user groups, vendor demos or case studies.
- Subscribing to publications such as DM Review and taking the time to read the articles.
- Contacting the authors of the articles for further insight.
Secondly, a CIO must augment his or her staff with skills that may be missing. For example, if star schema modeling or BI project management is not a skill found within the staff, then the CIO must hire a consultant with that skill for the first project, emphasizing that his or her own modeler or project manager will work closely with the pro to ensure the proper transfer of knowledge. This form of staff augmentation is very useful and can greatly help a struggling IT group obtain needed proficiencies in short order.
Consider the ramifications of outsourcing all of your new, exciting and innovative BI projects. Outsourcing can send the wrong message to your people. Instead, it's often worthwhile to ramp up your internal staff with the right skills at the right time, thus improving their confidence and self-esteem. If possible, try to keep such work and knowledge in house by educating your staff and ensuring knowledge transfer when the work is outsourced. That way, you'll reap the long-term benefits of lowered costs for maintenance and enhancements, and you'll increase resource retention.
Consultants can greatly improve the quality of the BI applications delivered to the business community. When properly utilized, they can greatly enhance not only the likelihood of success for your BI initiative, but also of the long-term viability of the entire BI program. Further, if their experience and knowledge is properly leveraged, the productivity improvements can often reduce the implementation time and cost.
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