The proper care and feeding of the consulting architect

When mid-level organizations take on the services of an outsider for game-changing input, trouble can stir within the ranks - and the consultant's value to the enterprise can be compromised.

If this following missive seems a little self-serving, well, let me apologize up front: I don't know any way around it. As an enterprise architect who has often been thrust into temporary roles in old and venerable institutions, I have a few notes on the subject, for better or worse. Hopefully they'll come across as benignly as they're offered.

More and more, architecture matters in in-house IT, as the Internet continues its burgeoning self-promotion, the cloud rises, and mobile rears its head with increasing petulance. We don't have time to do things one at a time, and so we are continuously retooling the environment itself to morph along with the times. And for that, many organizations need to bring in extra hands.

A lack of social bridges

There was a time, and it's pretty far in the past now, when the company rolled out at least a perfunctory welcome wagon for the six-month visitor. Such hired-gun engagements are sufficiently commonplace today that this sort of thing is now more rare. That's a shame, because there's seldom a get-to-know-each-other phase in the consultant's engagement anymore.

Consequently, the consultant often remains an outsider, even when the nature of the work is the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-muddy-together kind. When the work is intense, the hours are long and the stakes are high, it's much better if everyone on the team has a high level of comfort with one another.

The manager of such a project can do quite a bit to bring this about. One such manager was a great help to me when she added a social component to project meetings that I, as the consultant, attended: once a week, a working lunch was arranged, and in interim meetings, the session would begin with small talk. This was hugely helpful: I got to know the other team members, and they became more comfortable with me, far more quickly than is usually the case.

In another engagement, the scrum lead included me every morning, even though I wasn't strictly necessary. It wasn't time wasted: I was able to learn the strengths and skills of the rest of the team quickly, and able to establish a tone for my own input that was rapidly accepted.

Resentment in the ranks

It's the nature of the problem that the visiting consultant knows things that the in-house team doesn't, but often that doesn't suit some members of the team. Having put in their time on the platforms being rebuilt, they often feel that the consultant isn't necessary.

One way to offset a sense of intrusion and subsequent resentment is a two-for-one gesture that I've been asked to provide on several occasions: a continuous transfer of knowledge, during the term of the consultation. Offering not just design input but the knowledge underlying that input not only empowers the in-house staff, but it underscores the reasoning behind the changes being undertaken.

And that knowledge transfer can be two-way. A positive step for the consultant is to ask, at every opportunity, for explanation of how the status-quo platform came to be, giving its original designers and builders the opportunity to explain their reasoning, their architectural preferences, and to demonstrate their own fine-tuned expertise - all of which have benefited me (as the consultant), many times.

Yours, mine, and ours

An important point is that from the consulting architect's standpoint, there's not nearly as much as stake in the long run. The visiting expert doesn't want or need credit for the ultimate success of the endeavor, beyond what will be recorded in a resume. While those who live in-house are understandably concerned with credit where it's due, the consultant's trophy case is off-premises. Speaking for myself, but hopefully for other consultants, a long-term legacy of shared knowledge and a spirit of cooperation are the long-term legacy.

And ultimately, that's what really matters.

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.