One of the key challenges for IT consultants is balancing the need to sell, market, and deliver services with the requirement to keep their technical knowledge and skill sets sharp and current. Wylie W. “Skip” McDonald, director of knowledge management for Luminant Worldwide Corporation, helps consultants at his firm reach all of those goals. McDonald describes his personal mission as “helping consultants develop their lifelong learning skills and abilities so they can continue to enhance their own value and better serve their clients and their clients’ businesses.”

McDonald has more than 20 years of experience as an IT consultant and technical project manager, and is an acknowledged authority on technical architecture, knowledge management, and the effective application of people, processes, and technology to meet business opportunities. Before joining Luminant, he was a principal consultant at Ernst & Young, BSG Alliance/IT, and McDonald Consulting.

Consultant Master Class columnist Rick Freedman spoke with McDonald recently. The first part of their discussion, which appears here, centered around McDonald’s tactics for motivating consultants to share knowledge.

Helping consultants achieve their best
TR: So what is Luminant’s mission? What do you exist to accomplish?
McDonald: We help our customers maximize business results—increase revenues, improve productivity, increase customer loyalty—by building world-class Web sites and e-business solutions.

TR: So how does the director of knowledge management advance that objective?
McDonald: Since we’re primarily a service organization, our biggest asset is our people. My task is to help us help our people be better and perhaps bigger than they would be individually. We have frameworks and knowledge that our smart people have put together and used themselves, so now they share those with the communities that get together around specific disciplines, and make those disciplines even better. We also make sure that Luminant folks have the contacts, so they know who knows what. When they need help or need questions answered, they can reach out very quickly and efficiently.

TR: Some consulting firms I’ve worked with use a structure they call “Centers of Excellence,” so if, as a consultant, you need help on a telecom project, you know to call Denver, for instance, or on a networking issue you’d call Boston. Does Luminant use a structure like that?
McDonald: Yes, except we’re trying to make it more virtual. It doesn’t rely on someone to be in a geographic location to participate in a community. We’ve gathered all the marketing and branding across the company, for instance, into a virtual community so that they can reach out to each other for support, and so consultants can identify someone in their area that has that expertise as well.

TR: Do you use your intranet to publish those, so if I’m a Luminant consultant I can find the team that has the expertise I need for a project?
McDonald: Yes, primarily Lotus Notes. We have a directory, a skills database, and a resume database that are all fully searchable. People are nominated by their peers or by the executives of the company as the go-to person for a particular discipline.

Encouraging knowledge sharing
TR: In some firms, it’s hard to motivate busy consultants to keep skill-set databases current. The nomination idea is interesting because you bring in a recognition element.
McDonald: Keeping them current is a challenge, and the same motivators don’t work for everybody. For some consultants, the recognition aspect is very powerful. For others who get too busy, they sometimes need to be reminded by their counselor, the person who helps them with their career development. Those counseling sessions occur every six months, with a formal review yearly and a six-month intermediate review. At these sessions, they’re reminded that their resumes need to be kept current to at least the last six months. We also do periodic internal promotions, speeches, or other efforts to get the word out. It also occurs naturally, in that we’ll tell a consultant, “We’d like to use you for this project, but your resume isn’t up-to-date.” Our staffing group is famous for telling people, “We would have staffed you for this project, but we didn’t see the match.”

TR: So it’s a built-in motivator for consultants who want to get the juicy projects.
McDonald: We have a staffing function, a resource allocation team, and we set up and break down teams very often because of the sheer velocity of the work. We’re talking about teams that come together, get the work accomplished, and disband in a matter of months, not in a year or two.

The changing landscape of IT consulting
TR: As an ex-Ernst & Young consultant, how has the IT consulting business changed from the Big 6 to the net-based services world at Luminant?
McDonald: One area where we differ from a typical Big 6 project is that we don’t have deliverables that are purely technical. Our deliverables incorporate strategy, marketing, creative, and technical, so what we deliver is multi-disciplinary. Our technical guru is sitting across from the creative consultant who’s doing multimedia design. Our technical folks understand that we’re trying to hit not just technical and rational targets, but also emotional and usability targets, and they can address all those things. Those cross-functional teams are a lot different than you see in a typical IT consultant engagement. There’s always a connection that says if we sacrifice this technical feature, this is the impact on the business result we are trying to deliver for this customer. They can see that if they compromise a technical detail, they may be compromising a business strategy. We’ve also taken some of the lessons that each of us has learned in the Big 6 and some other places we’ve been, and brought those to Luminant. We have a career development plan that’s taken seriously by the career counselor, a person who really has your career at heart. Since they’re not in your direct chain, they’re really focused on what can make you the best consultant you can be, not what’s going to help them or their line of business.

TR: More of a mentor than a manager.
McDonald: Exactly. Basically, they’re there to help us retain our people and make sure that they’re being treated as fairly as possible. We take training very seriously. We have a training budget for everyone, and you’re actually dinged fairly significantly on your performance rating if you don’t take your requisite training each year. Another lesson we’ve learned from the Big 6, but we’ve turned it more to our own speed and our own strengths. It could be Java programming or attending a conference on wireless. Where knowledge management comes into play, we expect people to come back and share the information with their peers who are interested in the same topics.

A method for formal knowledge sharing
TR: Do you have a formal program of knowledge sharing, where a consultant will come back from a conference and give a lunch-and-learn seminar or something like that?
McDonald: Right, we call them brown-bag seminars. It’s an expectation that we set. We expect people to come back and share. It’s a big part of instilling our culture.

TR: Let’s talk about methodology. Does Luminant have anything formal published?
McDonald: Yes, we do have an excellent methodology that resulted from the best ideas of the eight firms that merged last September to form Luminant. When we came together, some of us had very advanced methodologies, some not so advanced. We very quickly combined the operations of the company, so that we were one organization and not eight different ways of doing things. We invested a lot of our internal time, extra hours, to review the processes, the customers. The breadth of the capabilities was just amazing. We then took that and put it into a methodology that defined all the things we could deliver, how we deliver them, what are the best practices across the company. Obviously, you’re going to have parts of those organizations that do things better or worse than others across the company. We found that some of the combined organizations had areas where they were extremely deep, with lots of great talent in a particular practice area.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both by Jossey Bass Publishers. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

As a supplement to his Consultant Master Class column, Freedman periodically interviews a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons-learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.