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Dave Snowden

“No one gets fired for buying ….

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… IBM” was a standard adage a few decades ago. You could have a better software package, or better hardware but it didn’t matter. Fear that things might go wrong resulted in a safety first mentality. If we buy the market leader then its not my fault. It was very frustrating at the time, I remember working on some highly advanced stock management software working on the the DEC Alpha that outperformed any of IBM’s solutions, but their account management teams were supreme and if they arrived you could see your sale heading west, along with some very disappointed and frustrated internal champions.

Time has moved on, but the risk adverse adage remains but its now No one gets fired for hiring MegaConsultant and saying that they will implement their report. The risk free option is to hire one of the big firms, get them to discover things your employees already knew and then broadcast it as a new policy. If you won’t pay for it they will increasingly do the first assignment for free in a spirit of partnership; something that is rather like the drug dealer mentality of get them hooked then racket up the price. I learnt this many years ago when, subject to one of their exercises, I managed to get my business into the top right hand box of one of the strategic matrices. The FD at the time called me in to ask how it was he was being told to invest lots of money in my unit without any prospect of a a return in the short to medium term. I told him the truth, I had read all of their material so I knew how to answer the questions, how to feed them material in a form that matched a pattern of investment rather than a close down or milk for cash. Not too long after that I got moved into a strategy role, so draw your own conclusions.

Its even more cynical – I’ve seen one of the large consultancies charge a small fortune for regurgitating slides and recommendations from material I used in IBM Institute for Knowledge Mangement days to train them in the field; without acknowledgement or any real value add. My email today has material talking about the new paradigm of entanglement partnerships and ecosystems management; all badged up as something new, exciting and original when many of us have been there for over a decade or more. In fact its not in their interests for change to happen, the business model is based on a two to three year cycle (coinciding with turn over of sponsoring executives) of new bright shiny promises that get people promoted, but who then move on before the implications of their decision have impact.

I had a lot of fun recently presenting before one of their experts where I basically went through all the things you shouldn’t do in knowledge management knowing full well what he planned to present in the next session. It was entirely predictable, codification, consultancy heavy, copy what we do, set targets etc. Straight out of the play book of two cycles of knowledge management failure, even claiming advanced approaches (knowledge brokers) that were tried many times in the past. Its all about manufacturing process, reproducing a standard approach time and time again knowing that it is all about form, not about substance.

The bright light on the horizon is that utilisation appears to be going up and freebe entry offers increasing. Commodification is normally (per my apex predator theory of cycles) the sign that a model is coming to its end, just as it did for IBM. Everyone forgets that the consultancies in their current form rose on the BPR/Systems thinking wave along with the growth of MBAs to feed the system. As that comes to end something new can emerge. A few of the large consultancies are thinking about this (well I know from the two I am talking with), but shaking off the old models is as difficult for them as it was for IBM to realise that hardware was a commodity and value had moved onto software.

In the mean time you can basically assume that any proposed solution is a rehashing of multiple past reports, with some retrospectively reinterpreted case studies to give the idea a veneer of respectability. After all you didn’t really want to change did you? Its much more fun to talk about how you will change ….

  • Michael V Coon

    This experience applies to pretty much every domain – IT, Medicine, Politics, others, I am sure.

  • srikanth ramanujam

    Strange are the ways of Adaptive systems…

    It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

    It looks like these consulting companies and consultants are more adaptable in selling their “fluff” than the rest of us :-)

    • davesnowden

      I think you may have missed the key point in the post, namely then I comparison to IBM. What you have is a perverted (in the Lacanian sense) imposition of constraint on a system which will break catastrophically. The opposite of adaption
      Prof Dave Snowden
      Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge

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