Your technical expertise isn’t what will distinguish you from the competition in IT consulting, according to NerveWire’s CEO, Malcolm Frank. In IT consulting, solid technical know-how should be a given. Instead, Frank recommends developing a superior staff and an effective project management methodology to attract and retain top clients. I spoke with Frank about this strategy, and he shared his insights about creating an innovative firm.
Don't miss part one of this interview
NerveWire’s Malcolm Frank discusses his firm’s engagement methods.
TechRepublic: Most clients have been burned in IT services before, so they come to the table with a certain degree of skepticism. It’s my experience that you need to reassure them.
Frank: Right. The sophisticated buyers take it as a given that you’re going to know Oracle or Tibco or the other specific technologies. But how are you going to take that knowledge and make something work in their environment?
TechRepublic: So do you personally have an opportunity to have these kinds of (sales) conversations, ‘Why we’re different, why we can deliver’?
Frank: All the time. In the market segment that we’ve selected, what we’ve focused on is really simple. We focus on strategy through architecture. It’s a bit of a distinct model, because we compete against the more strategic, management consulting firms rather than the technology-focused ones.
But we can take that strategic advice we give the client and build a business architecture and a technology architecture that supports it, and then we build the underlying systems. So that makes us a bit unique as a smaller firm doing that.
TechRepublic: A lot of firms out there are really struggling with the complexity of stakeholder analysis. How do you know what to prioritize? Does your methodology give your practitioners any guidance?
Frank: Absolutely. We have deep experience on the strategy side, navigating through those things specifically. It’s done through a number of interviews, then workshops, and really facilitating the process where our clients need to make those trade-offs to turn something from an opinion into a consensus.
You can put the objective criteria up and facilitate everybody making those decisions. If you don’t get that right, you can just forget about everything else, particularly with the types of solutions that we’re trying to put in place for our clients.
TechRepublic: If I were a new recruit at NerveWire, how would I learn the NerveWire way of doing things?
Frank: You’d first go to “Wired Week.” That’s a generic one-week immersion. We actually spend the whole day on culture. And then they get into the nuts and bolts. They will spend two weeks after that in training on their specific area. So whether they’re a project manager, a technical architect, a business architect, or a strategist, they’ll spend time there. Then we typically have them shadow for a period of time on a project to really see what we’re doing and get immersed in that manner.
I think the key, prior to all that, is having a very rigorous interview process. We’ve run folks through a lot of interviews, and a lot of the questions aren’t focused on technical competence. A lot of the conversation is around what motivates this person. For our collaborative approach with a client, do they define things personally or do they define it as a team? When they talk about their greatest achievements, are they team achievements or personal? How many times do they use the word “I” versus the word “we”?
TechRepublic: So how do you make sure people either have “soft skills” or consultative behaviors? How do you develop those?
Frank: We have a lot of mentorship going on. We have a solution-center model. With that, we actually have a number of our engagements going on our site and not on the client’s site. There are a lot of benefits for the client. But one of the benefits for us, internally, is that you get great mentorship by your most senior people.
When we send one of our junior consultants on a project in Philadelphia or Cleveland or Dallas, we have no shot at mentoring that person. But, when they’re working in a solution center here in the building, that person can get hands-on mentoring from our senior team and senior project managers and consultants, in real time, on the project.
TechRepublic: How do you develop the image of being somebody who’s got the right methodology for the type of clients that you’re targeting?
Frank: For us, methodology is a cornerstone of our competitive advantage. We can walk into the client and say, ‘Okay, here is how it’s going to occur and we’re going to carry the ball all the way down the field.’
Now this requires a couple of things. Number one, we have to have vertical expertise, because when we’re talking about externalizing these key prophesies about where the market will be in the next five years—be it Nokia in its procurement of direct goods, Merrill Lynch in how it views its customer relationships, or a global pharmaceutical company in how it approaches IT and strategic alignment—we must understand the business exceedingly well. That’s one important ingredient.
The second important ingredient is that you have to do it with senior talent who have lived through these things and have done this before. We have found that it’s a very powerful model. That’s been the holy grail of the IT services industry for a long time. How do I integrate strategy and implementation into one?
We started NerveWire with that vision. We said that as businesses become more and more technologically-centric, their IT service partners must be prepared to talk about strategy and talk about technology in one conversation…you can’t get the value out of one without talking about the other.
TechRepublic: And without actually delivering, rather than just theorizing.
Frank: We started with some very senior folks out of places like Cambridge Technology Partners, Computer Sciences Corporation, and Accenture, who said “This is the right market vision, but the only way to get there is to build it organically from the ground up, with one methodology and one culture.”
We might offer a brilliant strategy, but if the client starts referring to IT as plumbing and tactical and implementation stuff, a bell goes off telling us we’re talking to the wrong person. You’re speaking to the converted here in terms of culture and methodology and how those things can differentiate the best IT service firms in the market. Culture, methodology, strategy, technology…it’s all one and the same. You can’t separate one from the other.
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Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile practices and migrate successfully.