Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants, Volume I

Every large organisation is a complete shambles. Private companies, local and national government, charities, armed forces, British, Commonwealth and Foreign, all are hysterical bedlams of ego, bureaucracy, in-fighting, nonsense, confusion, pointlessness and stupidity. This is not always obvious from the outside. Through the evil agencies of marketing and PR what is internally a rotting cess pit can present to the world a shining spotless face of ingenious innovation, serene competence and worthy public spirit. We, the public, being the innocent souls we are, and with the childishly hopeful desire to be able to trust what Important People tell us, accept all of this bunkum at face value. Americans are particularly good at this type of extreme hyperbolic duality, to the point of being beyond satire or even comment.

"A magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price."

“A magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”

“Don’t be evil.”

“Don’t be evil.”

"Can't break it, can't break in. Unbreakable."

“Can’t break it, can’t break in. Unbreakable.”

And with those big budget advertising con tricks comes great, great danger. We may consciously and vigorously dismiss the slogans, the ads and the hype the moment we see them, but the cumulative drip-drip-drip effect over many years is to form the subconscious belief that somewhere, over the rainbow, there are super-professional people in blue chip corporations doing everything perfectly right first time. They’re not having to wait three weeks and fill in two forms in order to get a new swivel chair or set of whiteboard markers. When they ring up IT support, the phone rings once before being picked up by a PhD-educated techno-ninja who has understood their problem in 5 seconds, diagnosed in 10, and fixed it in 25. But of course they never in practice have to speak to this wunderkind, as nothing ever goes wrong. IT projects whirr smoothly along the conveyer belt from design to development to deployment with the laser-guided automated efficiency of a Toyota production line.

Toyota. The acme of fantastically perfect Japanese engineering excellence. If you were to work there, you’d probably find out it’s a disaster – all the robots are fake, everything’s held together with electrical tape, filler and super-glue, and they all clock off at quarter to four on a Friday afternoon after staggering back from the noodle bar pissed on sake at half past two.

Toyota. The acme of fantastically perfect Japanese engineering excellence. If you were to work there, you’d probably find out it’s a disaster – all the robots are fake, everything’s held together with electrical tape, filler and super-glue, and they all clock off at quarter to four on a Friday afternoon after staggering back from the noodle bar pissed on sake at half past two.

It has to be tripe. You know this empirically, as every time you end up working for one of these first division teams they turn out to be an even bigger farce than the tuppenny-ha’penny-cottage-­industry-circuit-boards-on-the-kitchen-table-amongst-cat-food-and-leftover-curry outfit that you came from. The pay’s better, and it turns up every month more reliably, and you don’t have bits of solder and hair floating around in your cup of tea, but a lot less gets done with a lot more aggro than when you were hacking about on an Archimedes in Dave’s spare room. But still the nagging doubt remains – somewhere, the grass is luminously green and lush, and not just because it’s covered in an aggressively vigorous strain of mould.

And so the Myth of Premium Brand Perfection persists, and will surface every time something goes tits up. Being the trickiest component of the corporate engine with the largest number of complicated moving parts, IT will be the place where something goes badly wrong most frequently and disruptively(*); so it will widely be believed, probably unfairly, to be the most knackered part of the enterprise. Every so often the cumulative stink from an unlucky run of technology failures will be pungent enough to reach the collective nose of the directorship, and every so often the alignment of stars will be such that the board agree that they Cannot Stand Idly By – Something Must Be Done ! All manner of dust will now be kicked up. Tables will be banged, steps taken, corners turned, heads rolled, new leaves energetically and irrevocably turned. The inevitable first step, creditably enough, is to look outwards for inspiration and solution. This starts with the reasonable hypothesis that surely there must be some other shop that gets better results out of this stuff than the spectacularly messy bollocks we normally make of it. Amazon, for example. DHL, maybe. The BBC, perhaps. And though that may be true, there already is the germ of the first mistake. The modest assumption that things could be done a fair bit better than they are now is quickly and surreally extended into the delusion that just over the horizon there is a Technotopian Paradise through which the Big Boys are gambolling like spring lambs.

Now the delusional bandwagon is rolling downhill, it picks up speed. The second big mistake is the decision to throw the baby out with the bathwater – because nothing is perfect, ergo everything is rubbish and should be junked forthwith. The third mistake follows from the second; because everything in IT is rubbish, therefore every single employee in IT is rubbish, and hence their theories on what is good, bad or indifferent have as much worth and utility as a sucked and spat out smartie. The final mistake is the logical and historically inevitable consequence of the other three. We need to get an impartial external view on this: we’re getting the Consultants in.

I don’t want to be too cynical. Really. Were it carried out carefully, honestly and with a dollop of wisdom, a Third Party Consultancy Exercise could be an authentically Good Thing. One can imagine a modern day Mary Poppins or Flora Poste arriving at an IT cubefarm in sensible shoes and cardie, clipboard in hand, and by judicious observation over a few months determining what works, what does not and where useful change might be made. A limited pragmatic deployment of The Higher Common Sense would not leave the workplace 100% streamlined, but certainly it would be happier, tidier, more productive and a good deal freer of drag, waste, idiocy, red tape and duplication.

A successful consultancy exercise via the practical application of The Higher Common Sense. Seth, Big Business and Flora at Cold Comfort as impersonated respectively by Rufus Sewell, a bull and Kate Beckinsale.

A successful consultancy exercise via the practical application of The Higher Common Sense. Seth, Big Business and Flora at Cold Comfort as impersonated respectively by Rufus Sewell, a bull and Kate Beckinsale.

But will that happen ? Will it buggery. That tiny possibility of a moderately positive outcome would require the third parties engaged have to have self-sacrificing, nigh-on Christ-like levels of insight, morality and impartiality such that they:

  1. Understand software, IT and the business they are advising.
  2. Are sincerely concerned with improving it.
  3. Possess some acumen which could genuinely be of use, garnered from long and bitter experience of sorting out disastrous technology debacles.
  4. Are prepared to solicit opinions from all corners and all levels, from the CEO to the code monkeys to the call centre.
  5. Have no desire to extend their contract beyond the point where they can do good.
  6. Do not wish to bring in any of their pals on big fat day rates.
  7. Have no additional products or services up their sleeves which their employer is gagging to sell to their client.

And therein lies the rub. Specifically, starting at points 5, 6 and 7 all three of which boil down to the same thing: cold hard cash. Consultancies and consultants, be they one of the vast transglobal DeTouchPwMcAccent combines, some middle-ranking local player, or a lone cowboy with a nice car, a sharp suit and a fine line in snappy buzzword-encrusted patter, are all about the upselling. You hire them for three months, they’re going to look to stay for six. They feel there is more they can do; more they want to do; more they have to do. They’re going to need to go deeper, and broader. That means bringing in some of the gurus from Head Office – the boys who live Right On The Edge of the Biz-Tech-Transform interface. £1500 a day would be typical for that kind of vision but we’re gonna do some work on driving that right down for you guys. Before you know it a team of a dozen has been camped out in two of your larger and better appointed meeting rooms for a year. There’ll be an Enterprise Architecture Practice, a few Business Process Reengineering Leads, some Data Modelling Specialists, an End User Experience Designer or two and a small handful of very attractive and well-groomed young people of unspecified role who seem mainly to make coffee and take notes for the rest. And they certainly will have lots of extra gubbins in mind they want to flog you. It won’t be pitched quite that way. More that they feel obligated, duty bound even, to carry on helping. Having spent so much time getting to know the business, the technology, the people and above all, the culture, they can’t think of anyone else better placed to facilitate the next phase of the transformational journey. And they have an inside track on the technologies, products and toolkits which can truly penetrate an organisation and facilitate its evolution. The word solutions does not do them justice; solution implies a fix for a single acute issue. What we are envisioning here are frameworks for solution, meta-solutions if you will. These will create an ecosystem which nurtures an abundant crop of techniques, mind-sets and strategies to equip an enterprise to solve whatever problems it may face. Going Forwards.

Scaffolding provides an actual physical framework which will solve tangible problems, chiefly in the building industry. Other frameworks, especially ones of the meta- variety, are generally less helpful.

Scaffolding provides an actual physical framework which will solve tangible problems, chiefly in the building industry. Other frameworks, especially ones of the meta- variety, are generally less helpful.

You and I might be choking back the bile by this point but your high level opinion formers will be lapping it up. They are the ones that make the buying decisions and so they are the ones the consultants will be focussing on and fawning over. See point 4, above – the shop floor might well have a sharp and illuminating worm’s eye view of what is rotten in the State of Denmark, but there’s no percentage finding out what the proles think as they ain’t got no budget to sign off, the losers. Consultants are, you see, fundamentally salesmen. Second-hand ideas salesmen, to be precise. And they will concentrate entirely on flogging those used ideas to those holding the purse strings.

In the market for a nearly-new methodology, squire ? I could see you right with a lovely reconditioned paradigm, good runner, Japanese designed an’ all. C’mon, talk to me - at these rates, I’m robbin’ meself !

In the market for a nearly-new methodology, squire ? I could see you right with a lovely reconditioned paradigm, good runner, Japanese designed an’ all. C’mon, talk to me – at these rates, I’m robbin’ meself !

In the second and concluding part of this diatribe, we will explore the output of a typical consultancy exercise and review how exactly it will increase the sum of human misery. But consultants, even in comparison to Human Resources operatives, are loathsome to the extent that the bile duct goes into spasm if one is compelled to contemplate their full horror at one sitting. It would not be fair to expect the faithful reader to spoon up a double helping of splenetic vitriol without a chance inbetween to go for a brisk walk, have a lie down or drop a couple of Mandrax.

(*) Conversely, nobody would notice or care if the whole of HR or Marketing went on holiday for six months. Or better still, just packed up for good and f**ked off.

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7 Responses to Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants, Volume I

  1. Brian says:

    PREACH IT.

    I also like how often external hire, VP-and-up-types, in their haste to prove themselves remotely worth their new fiefdoms, often unpack their Rolodexes first, holding the door open for said shills. It isn’t long before everyone runs left, serious problems are “discovered,” experience and morale are sacked, and the vast majority of the system is re-booted in the latest trend.

    Conveniently, before any real, actual results can be ascertained, said players have had 12-18 months of [Title] at [Big Name] on their CVs, can rattle off a laundry list of major change, and move on to the next host, leaving behind only those nothing-really-to-offer reprobates who refuse to approve any new tools which would require them to (gasp!) move beyond IE6.

    Please, sir, may I have another?

  2. itshambles says:

    Hallelujah ! Oh, consultancy is a dreadful swindle, and a perfectly transparent one at that. It’s your classical Snake Oil and Jobs For The Boys rackets combined, but decked out with all manner of pseudo-science and gobbledegook. And the same crews float from hustle to hustle, dispensing the same half-baked guff. And don’t get me started on Gartner !
    Will complete and publish part II once the blood pressure has come back down …

  3. Nagesh says:

    We have had some experience with one of the top 5 consulting firms in the world. These folks charged us north of 9 million bucks (US Dollars) to deliver a software that was the next best thing to sliced bread. Unfortunately after installation, none of the business users were confident enough to sign off on it.
    It failed on several fronts like inventory management, customer management, tax management, invoicing, vendor management and accounting. The management still has the cheek to call it a great success. The integration dream has been realized. Previously all these systems ran in separate boxes. When they failed, the failure was contained in that particular box. Now this system fails, everything is down all at the same time.

  4. itshambles says:

    9 million for a daft consultant-led Grand IT Transformation Project which makes things worse ? You got off lightly. You could add a nought on to that and still not be up at the top end of the budget-getting-flushed-down-the-khazi madness. And of course, it will be bigged up as a success. Because it was commissioned by the Great and the Good, and implemented by the Brightest and the Best, and those guys don’t make mistakes. If they did it, ipso facto it must be fantastic.

    It is depressing. But this is what happens when you divorce value judgements from facts and evidence. And so it goes on …

  5. PM Hut says:

    Hi,

    I am really looking forward to your second part. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel I have the urge to read this post! It’s unbelievably funny yet very true!

    I’m extremely for part II.

  6. itshambles says:

    You’re very kind. It’s gestating, or perhaps fermenting. It takes a while to brew up a good strong batch of spiteful despairing resentment. Other stuff gets in the way, too. Work. Children. Assembling a 10ft trampoline from a flatpack. The Pub. Telly.

    Oh – by the way, if you want to borrow another rant for PM Hut, be my guest.

  7. Pingback: Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants Again | IT Shambles

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