Agency Management

The dangers of consultant-speak

Bob Woods

In my youth, another engineer and I took three sets of phrases from Reader’s Digest that could be combined in random sequences to form complete sentences, and we automated them. At the touch of a button, the random number-based computer program could generate a paper of any length made up of the artificially produced phrases.

We entertained ourselves by putting titles on these papers and routing them to senior engineers for their comments. They were amazed at how we could write the papers in such a short time and provided insightful advice for improving them.

I have been seeing similar developments in today’s corporate world. Whoever invented the copy-and-paste feature in our software should be severely beaten. Original documents seem to be fading from our culture. In its place are whole documents written in consulting language that my engineering friend and I could have produced. However, we no longer engineer things, we re-engineer them. First there was Bud, now there’s Bud Light. Engineering costs more so we have re-engineering, which costs less and is less filling.

We don’t apply our skills to accomplish the mission, we align our processes. Even more amazing is the fact that this alignment is done by people who never worked on the mission or the frontline delivery function. There is good money to be made in this business. How can you get in on it? Airline magazines are a good start. Between ads for motivational speakers and products that never appear on earth, there are ads for consulting firms that will re-engineer your organization.

IT conferences are another good source. They are replete with terms no one has yet defined but are part of the lingo bingo. Imagine (oops, I think someone has trademarked that word) having bingo cards with key terms — cloud, ERP, big data (oops, I think that’s a 900 number), enterprise architecture, BPR, BYOD — and filling out the cards as visionaries talk about the future. Then mix in the names from a list of the most current important people and you have an engaged and enlightened audience.

When it comes to IT, our goal should always be better service delivery to those who pay our salaries. If a system or technology does not have a visible positive effect on that service delivery, we should not do it. Next, IT professionals — as consultants or employees — need to know what business an agency is in. Can you tell the difference between meat inspection at the Agriculture Department and health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs? Are you working at the Federal Aviation Administration without ever having been in an air traffic control facility or the left seat of a cockpit?

Consulting is my business and one I occasionally take seriously. However, consultants and IT professionals should be judged by their effect on the mission and the bottom line. Our impact is basically about how we apply technology and how we contribute to the mission. It is not about how much paper we generate, how much we amuse ourselves with witty dissertations or how erudite we sound to our colleagues. I speak from experience.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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Reader comments

Thu, Dec 13, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Bob - I agree with your comments and offer one additional consideration: a good consultant tells the cliet what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. All to often a client has an unspoken need to have their reconceived notion or conclusion affirmed regardless of its merits. I think the challenge is to offer the client a way of getting 'there' that is based on facts and reality not the client's desire to ignore the unpleasant.

Wed, Dec 12, 2012 OccupyIT

Good comments, Bob, as always. The USG encourages the bad behavior of which you speak. Cloud First, Mobile First, You First, rinse, repeat. I've tried to encourage Excellence in Execution of Mission but that doesn't seem to have caught on - at least I haven't seen it in any scopes of work that have come across my desk. Perhaps its a little too... mundane... I have noticed that the best conversations that happen at those IT conferences are when you're sitting at the back talking to a project manager about what they actually do or are trying to do. The CIOs tend to somehow lost sight of that's what the Agency does. Look forward to the next sermon.

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