Innovation

What can we review, anyway?

Major changes in my life occurred this

week. I'll bore you with the details later as there's a topic I

would like to address. I'm sure that comes as a surprise to everyone

given the amount of bandwidth my blogs consume. Addressing topics,

sometimes very strange ones, pretty much defines what I do.

A few years ago I wrote two articles

for Tech Republic on the consultant's role. One suggested

“invisible” consulting in which the consultant provided support

and knowledge to the existing team. The other suggested “visible

consulting” in which the consultant acts as a champion and change

agent to enable work the client needs. Both came from a consultant's

point of view to describe boundaries around our activities. Neither

spoke at all about the responsibility of the company hiring the

consultant or the importance of proper oversight/review.

No matter how much money we spend on

them, or how well they try to do, consultants are in the end just

people. They try, with varying degrees of dedication, to do the job

as they understand it. Sometimes they succeed. Often times they

fail, just as anyone would, but we choose to cover it up due to our

organizational commitment (expressed in monetary terms) to whatever

project they worked on.

These reviews take on two distinct

forms, depending upon what we hired the consultants to do. If we

hired them to provide skills and services we simply do not have the

internal resources to produce, we must review their work for

suitability and sustainability. If we hired them to do things we

already know but cannot get the time to do, we need to review their

work for correctness and supportability. Finally, if we hired them

to review the work of our own teams we need to review their work for

applicability and actionability.

At first glance that all looks like

management speak for “review their work”. Honestly, if people

would review a vendor's work more often we'd all be better off. Yet

I'm actually trying to say something about metrics here, so let's

dive in a bit.

When we hire in consultants who, in

theory, can do something we cannot we have to review their work.

Yet, how can we do so? We don't know what they know. We do not have

the experience they have, or the abilities they gained exploring a

specific technology over and over again. In this case we can review

their work by judging whether we can first use it to accomplish our

goals and second whether we can maintain whatever they created

without further intervention. In order to do the first we have to

know exactly what we wanted them to accomplish. In order to do the

second we have to know what we have the time and knowledge to do;

time is not a consultant's concern but knowledge and knowledge

transfer is.

Similarly, when we hire a consultant to

review the work of our own people, we have to measure that output

somehow. It's comforting to get a nice, well formatted report;

that's in fact what most of these engagements seem to produce.

Although these deliverables fulfill various ritual functions, they

only take on meaning in the business world when we can actually act

on them. This means the information the review provides must first

apply to our situation either now or in the immediate future. It

also means the review must provide some concrete actions we can take

to improve, or at least stabilize, our situation.

Finally, and most easily dealt with, we

have the situation where we hire a consultant to perform a task we

know how to do but do not have the resources to address. In this

case we need to take the time to perform a review (architectural for

infrastructure, code for development) using our standard procedures.

We have a responsibility in this case to be both through and fair; we

should also let the consultant know ahead of time what metrics we

will use to measure his success. On one hand this is fair; on the

other it ensures the consultant will know what's expected of him so

he has a hope of delivering it.

More information about the changes in my life after I have a chance to absorb them.

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