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My Way of Consulting- Part 1

September 23, 2010 2 comments

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I am writing this article for the Enterprise Consulting Blog after a long time. This is because I have been quiet busy on my new job (Five months ago I took a job with HCL Technologies). It’s been five months now into this job and I have my hands full with a few consulting assignments, setting up a new Practice and managing a few ongoing projects. At a recent interaction with students at Great Lakes Institute of Management, I was asked to share some of my consulting experiences. Due to shortage of time, I could not go into the details at that time and promised to share the same sometime later. Here I am with the methodology I follow on these engagements. Among the consulting engagements that I have recently done, two were for Fortune 100 Companies. In this article, I would share my overall strategy of conducting a business consulting engagement. (Please note, due to job/professional ethics constraints, I cannot share the names of the clients and the exact details of the engagement. Also, these are purely my own views and my current organization or previous organizations I have worked for are not responsible for these views.)

When a consultant starts his/her career, he/she is advised to follow a set of rules/ frameworks or the footsteps of established consultants. After a few engagements, each consultant tends to develop his/her unique way of handling engagements. Having started in 2005, I too gradually developed my own style of handling consulting engagements. Every engagement is different in its own right and brings in new challenges. The following sections give a broad overview of the overall strategy I use in handling these assignments. The finer details may differ from one engagement to another.

I always divide the whole exercise into broadly 4 phases: Pre-Engagement, Discover, Analyze and Recommend. The last three phases do not have distinct boundaries as such. The Analyze Phase can overlap with the last part of the Discover Phase and the Recommend Phase overlaps with the last part of the Analyze Phase.

{I have divided this article into two parts: Part 1 covers the Pre-Engagement and the Discover Phase and Part 2 covers the Analyze and Recommend Phase.}

Pre-Engagement Phase:

This phase is generally used to prepare the ground before starting the actual engagement. Always start with the publically available material on the client as well as the industry. Go through the website of the client, public announcements, press releases, Industry news, user groups etc. Once you know enough about the client, his business and industry he operates in; start with the material available on the engagement you are starting. Before signing the SoW (Statement of Work), the client would have shared some information on the engagement. Diligently go through that information. This gives you fair idea on the kind of information and documents that you may need from the client.

Before starting the engagement, I always request the client if he can share the available documents related to the engagement. This helps me in identifying the areas I need to explore and the set of people I would want to interview.

After this phase, you are ready to kick start the actual engagement on the ground.

Discover Phase:

The actual engagement starts with the Discover Phase. This is the phase where you identify the areas to investigate and the POCs (Points of Contact) who have to be interviewed in the first wave (I have discussed about the interview waves in a later section). The recommendations submitted at the end of a consulting exercise have to be backed with facts and data. This data or facts have to be collected in the Discover Phase.  Also, the Discover Phase forms a basis for Analyze Phase which in turn is the basis for Recommendations.

Before starting the actual process of Discovery, have the objectives of the exercise very clear in your mind. This will not only help in keeping you and the team on the track, but also help in moderating the discussions and interviews.

I divide the interaction for gathering information into the following:

Interviews: I generally divide the interviews into two phases, Wave 1 and Wave 2. The Wave 1 interviews are with the key stakeholders of the engagement. It is always best to start with the Sponsor or the Champion selected for the engagement. This is to understand his/her expectations and align it to the objective of the engagement. The other key stakeholders should be spread evenly across the key areas that the engagement intends to cover. From the Wave 1 interactions, try to come up with a list of SMEs that can give more granular information.

In the Wave 2, get to specifics of the information you want. By this time you would have indentified the SMEs you want to interact with. These SMEs will be able to share much more information than the stakeholders and they have been closer to the ground.

What, How and Why?

The interview process should be an interrogation disguised as interview. This is because the first answer the client/SME gives not the exact answer that we want. It will never lead us to the root cause. A lot goes into getting to the depth of issues being faced by the client. Always prepare an interview guide. Structure the questions well making sure that all areas are covered well and there are no repetitions.

Start with What…. Always start with asking the interviewee with what he/she does? What process he/she follows? What are the SLAs etc. This will gives a complete understanding on the As-Is situation. Please note that the answer to WHAT? might not give an understanding on the problem being faced by the client and nor will it help in identifying a solution for the problem. This will only help in giving an overview on the current situation.

…go through How.… After we are clear on the business area/ process the interviewee is in, try to gain further information on how exactly does he/she carries out his/her business? This gives me a ground to think on whether this is the best way to do it? Can it be improved further? How will I do it if given the responsibilities? Some of these questions might get answered by the next question: WHY? And the rest should (must) be a part of your recommendations.

…and end with Why…. This is the most important part of the interview and might make many an interviewee uncomfortable. By the time you come to this question, you already know what the interviewee does and how he/she does it. As mentioned above, I also have a few questions in my mind on the current state of his functioning. Asking him why he does so what he does, gives me a new dimension to think on. A single “WHY” might not lead to the exact reason. I ask a string on “WHYs” to lead to the core issue or the problem area. Believe me; it is very tough to ask so many whys without making the interviewee uncomfortable.

Questionnaires/ Templates: A consultant mush have (and develop over a period of time) a set of questionnaires and templates to gather information in a structured way. This does not mean that in every interview use the same template or questionnaire. Modify the template according to the client’s industry or even the area of work or the designation/role of the interviewee in the same organization. Structured information produces the best results in the analysis phase.

Caution: Do not try to force your framework/ templates on to the client. Adjust according to the needs of the client.

Documents/ Data dumps: Ask every interviewee if he/she can share the documents related to the discussion. Also ask for data on the transactions (preferably for a few years). The documents as well as the interview alone will not give the complete picture, but complement each other so as to cover the area in entirety.

I collect as much data and documents as possible. Then keep discarding whatever I do not need. Never say No to inflow of information. You may find the answers in an unsuspecting corner. 

Follow-Up Clarifications: Once you have collected all the required information, gone through the responses to the questionnaires and templates and started connecting the dots, you will always find some gaps. It may require a few follow up sessions with the same (or new) set of interviewees or e-mail exchanges to fill these gaps and seek clarifications. The follow up session can also be useful to cross check that all the information I have is complete and correct.

Never hesitate for seeking a clarification. Whenever in doubt, it is better to clarify than to carry wrong information into the analysis phase.

{To be continued in Part 2}

Cloud Computing made simple!

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment

No discussion on the emerging trends in EA delivery is complete without talking about the Cloud Computing and related stuff. Not many people are very clear on what exactly cloud computing is? What is the difference between Cloud, SaaS, IaaS and PaaS. This five-minute video explain all of this terminology in very simple way. 

Michael Porter on getting a Good name for Businesses.

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Michael Porter, The legendary Harvard Professor and the leading authority on Corporate Strategy in an interview with McGill University’s Karl Moore.

Top three learnings from CRM.

December 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I have worked on CRM as a process consultant for over four years and continued my “relationship” with CRM even after I joined MBA. Not just continued the relationship, but also widened and deepened the same with new perspectives that I absorbed on the way. To keep it short and sweet, I have listed the top three takeaways that I feel have not only widened my perspective on CRM as an enterprise solution, but also in day-to-day business life:   

  1. Relationships Rank No. 1. Customers are the lifeblood of a business just as friends and family are the fuel for our soul.  And just that companies are finding that these relationships are key to surviving the recession, the view can be extended from customers to all the stakeholders in the enterprise and the ecosystem surrounding the enterprise. Relationships and information flow across partners, vendors, customers and the enterprise is the key to deliver the best.
  2. Technology Helps: It is often said that CRM isn’t a technology, it’s a strategy, but , it is the technology helps make it happen. Leave aside the enterprise solutions such as SAP, Oracle etc. but, even in day to day life, we need technology to make a long distance call, travle to friends and family, chat with fiends overseas. Managing relationships has been simplified by technology.  CRM consists of two equally important components of the Human Component and the IT component. Both work hand in hand to make the CRM strategy a success.
  3. Garbage in Garbage Out: You can’t expect a quality outcome if you don’t have quality inputs. For long people have been talking of “user friendly” systems, but, I believe, for best results, we need “friendly users” as well. Remember CRM EA is an enabler in the process of managing and executing the CRM Strategy, even after discounting the internal system checks and balances, it can give valuable outputs only if managed properly. Be nice to the system, the system will be more than nice to you!

Best wishes for the new year!

Why Alliances have gained prominence?

December 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Over last few years, Alliances have gained more prominence than the regular route ot mergers and acquisitions. Monetary considerations have played an important role but, are not the sole reason for organizations going in favour of alliance formation. I have listed below a few important points that have driven forces for organizations going the “Alliance Way” :

1. Core Competence:

Companies tend to build on their core competence and this very fact can give a differentiating  edge on other competitors. Thus, leaving one’s core competence and getting into a new field can be a disaster unless handled very carefully. Aligning to one’s core competence and creating an ecosystem around the core competence is the right way for expansion. The creation of ecosystem can be done through acquisitions, mergers or alliances. Mergers and Acquisitions may lead to diversifying into new territories and may dilute the core competence of the company. Thus, unless handled carefully, alliances should be the first choice for expansion.

2. Affordability:

Not every company can afford an acquisition or a merger. The costs of M&A are both in terms of tangible and intangible resources. Some companies might not have money or scale for M&A and other might not have scope for M&A.

3. Government regulations:

Sometimes government regulations prevent mergers and acquisitions. For example antitrust laws in the US or anti-Monopoly laws in other countries may hinder the M&A process. Thus, forming an alliance is the most favoured way out.

4. Entry Barriers:

Some markets and sectors have entry barriers due to favours by the home governments, access to raw materials, access to distribution channels etc. In such a case also forming an alliance with an existing player in the market or sector  is the most favoured way out. 

5. Competitive Landscape:

Companies do not operate in isolation. The company takes actions in response to the changing market dynamics and for any action that a company takes, the market forces respond to it. In a competitive environment, sometimes companies bleed to death fighting each other. Over time companies have realized that cooperation gives better results than competition. 

For example when Air Tel entered Sri Lanka, it signed a pact with the biggest telecom player in the market to use its towers and some other infrastructure.

6. Role Play in Value Chain:

All companies have been playing a particular role in the extended value chain. Sometimes the strategic role that the company plays in the value chain prohibits it to go for M&A, hence the Alliance route.

Another big factor in avoiding the M&A option is that only 43% or M&A are successful. The failure rate in IT-ITES is a staggering 80%. This can be because of many reasons. Most important out of which is that companies do not have compatible cultures and even compensation issues.  In an Alliance the companies work together to achieve the desired results, but as separate entities tied by the common goal. The cultural issues and compensation do not hinder the process.

Oracle Social CRM: A short review

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Oracle Social CRM is proving itself as the next generation collaborative CRM which incorporates some very advanced features required in today’s business environment. The below video gives an overview of the functionality of the product.

Competing on Analytics: Part 3

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

In parts 1 and 2 we have seen the power of analytics and how companies have made use of analytics to achieve substantial gains. The last part of  in the series gives the details of some other important aspects of data.

Where to capture this data?

The modern enterprise has numerous channels from which the data flows. The data can converge into a single destination or may be stored at different locations in the integrated system. The various channels of data flow may be: call centre, direct sales, partner operations, IVR, Self Service-Internet etc. It is again the decision of the management team to identify which sources of data to tap. The Six Cs (Correct, Complete, Current, Consistent, Context, Controlled) of data play an important part in the identification of places where the data can be found. For Example in a telecom enterprise, the data may be available at a number of places such as the CRM database, the Billing Database, IVR Database, the Interaction Centre, the networks etc.

How much data is needed?

The amount of data plays an important part in the ability of the enterprise to leverage the ability of the system to convert the data into knowledge and insights. Any enterprise looking for reliable results should have data at least for two years. The organizations operations in an industry sector which faces cyclicity need even more data for making sure there is no cyclicity in the cycles.

The base line is “The more (without compromising the quality) the better”. The knowledge depositories using analytics solutions build over time. The irregularities are smoothened over time and with the refinement in analysing techniques. Companies should not expect instantaneous results from implementation of analytics. The results take some time to show up and the managers also take some time to pick the fine lines in leveraging the results.

Analytical tools and Analysis

Once the data is ready, the next important aspect is the data analyzing tools. The market is abuzz with tools ranging from very simple tools like XL- Spread Sheets to very complex and powerful tools such as SAS, SPSS, Minitab etc. The organization needs to again take a subjective decision on which tool to use. Some tools offer marginal improvements at a very high additional cost. Also, the analytical tool just provides the results of analysis and is a DSS (Decision Support System). The interpretation and implementation of results is again a function of the “human factor”.

Knowledge and Insights

I always tell fellow consultants and clients that the implementation of Analytics does not “give” knowledge and insights. It has to be “achieved”. The IT component is only a small part of the whole exercise. All the stakeholders have to play their part to achieve the two. Once the trends and patterns are identified, the managers have to play their part. Many companies implement these solutions but not many can leverage the results. The analytics (or any other DSS) can increase the accuracy in identifying more factors that influence the decisions. In the end it’s the manager who makes the decision. 

Competing on Analytics: Part 2

December 13, 2009 1 comment

We have seen in my earlier post on Analytics that how and which companies are competing on the basis of analytics. The next questions that a person is bound to ask is that what type of companies or companies in which industry sector make the best use of Analytics?

The answer is ANY. Yes, any company in any sector can compete on the basis of analytics. Analytics does not mean that one has to have hoards of data and numbers. Analytics can also be use on transactions that involve verbatim details. Companies even make use of the analytics in analyzing words, phrases, the sentiments etc.

So now we know that any company can implement analytics. But, to make use of the analytics framework and to derive the desired results, the human component is as important as the mathematical model and IT component driving it.

There are a few more questions that arise in the implementation of analytics:

What data to capture?

This question has no straightforward answer. The executives driving the implementation should decide on what data will enable them to achieve the insights required. Some executives try capturing every bit of data that they can lay their hands on. It is good to capture as much data as one can because you never know what will be required at what point in time. But al J.L. Distinguished Prof. of Kellogg University puts it “It may lead to data obesity and knowledge starvation”. There no measure to determine the “optimum” amount of data or the “optimum” parameters on which to collect data. Thus, it is a pure Human component of the implementation that decides what to capture (unless one is implementing a package which requires mandatory fields to be captured). The capture of data also depends upon the requirements of the “downstream” systems and channels. For example in the CRM system may not require all the data for itself, but has to mandatorily capture it for the downstream systems such as Billing and Finance.

Correct: The data captured should be correct in all respects. Incorrect data will spoil the quality of results and may even lead one to wrong results.

Complete: The data to be captured should complete. There should be no missing fields. The missing fields may be considered as “zero” or “null” by the analytical tool. This may again lead to incorrect results.

Current: The data should be consistent with the time line. The data being captured at this moment should be current. Any data that is not current should specify the timeline when it was captured.

Consistent: The data should be consistent along the time line. There should not be huge deviations and fluctuations in the quantity and quality of data. This discounts the cyclicity of the data.

Context: The data being captured should be in line with the context. The context is again defined by the parameters which define the scope and scale of the framework.

Controlled: The data should be controlled and manageable. The control on the data makes sure that the data under analysis is the sample that one wants to analyse. The control on the data also ensures the management of sudden spikes and troughs.

Competing on Analytics: Part 1

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Recently, while reading a book on Analytics (incidentally by the same name: Competing on Analytics, T.H Daven Port, J.G. Harris, Harvard Business School Press), I was astonished at the vast range of companies and industries making use of Analytics. The online movie rental company, Netflix uses analytics extensively to make use of data for ranking movies.  Based on the customer selection and ranking the movies are clustered into different segments, the delivery for various customers is prioritized and the demand for yet to be released movies is forecasted. The data generated is also used to the extent to forecast how many copies of a movie the company should order and what it should pay for a particular movie.

The use of analytics by Netflix is not a one off example. Analytics is being used in some areas where one would have never thought of using it a decade ago. Take the case of Boston Red Sox, who made use of analytics to end an eighty six year draught and won the World Series title in the year 2004. The team used analytics on piles of data that they had collected over decades. They analyzed the pitches, the role of weather, the abilities of different players to handle different situations etc. They also made use of data for various players to decide upon what fee to be paid for the player or how much money to be paid for a player in the event of an auction. This helped them to get the best team in the given constraints of money cap. The result was: the team went on to win the 2004 title of the World Series.

Similarly take the example of AC Milan, the team has a separate arm called Milan Labs which makes extensive use of Analytics for making sure the team puts best efforts for playing and winning matches.

The examples of competing on the basis of analytics are many. Pharma companies have made use of data for shortening the product development life cycles. The retail chains have used analytics for planning their supply chain and designing the store layouts and formats. Manufacturing companies have used analytics for planning procurement, scheduling production and saving on costs of carrying inventory. The list is almost endless.

But, the question is: Can every organization make use of analytics for competing? If yes, How?

Possibility, Feasibility and Compatibility

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Those who have been around me have heard me using these words very often. For a re-engineering exercise and for any implementation, I use these three words to convey very simple, yet very important message to the people involved in the exercise.

Possibility:

The end users and even the process owners might get carried away with the implementation exercise and list down requirements (read wish list) which might be outrageous and impossible to do. As an example, on one of my assignments, the user asked me if he can get an SMS is someone tries to log-in into his system. No doubt this can be done, but it’s an “outrageous” requirement for an organization unless the organization deals with data pertaining to the nuclear missiles and the like.

At the time of gathering requirements during interviews, and later at the time of analyzing the requirements, it’s the responsibility of the Consultant to segregate there “impossible” requirements and remove them for the list.

After checking for “impossibility” one is left with only “possible” requirements.

Feasibility:

Feasibility can only be checked for the “possible” requirements. Thus, this logically forms the second step in the implementation.

The requirements which can be done with the available resources and/ or can be achieved with the resources the project can afford and are within the scope of the project are feasible requirements.

Compatibility:

After one is left with the feasible requirements, it’s again the job of the Consultant to make sure the requirements are in line with the Business Case for the implementation and the strategy execution which the steering committee aims to achieve with the implementation. The consultant always has to ask the question “Is this compatible with the strategy?” If the answer is No, he has to think over it again and talk to the process owner as well for the value addition that this requirement will to the overall success of the project.

Thus, the answers to questions for checking possibility, feasibility and compatibility are very important during the execution of implementing a project.