Sunday, November 26, 2006

Me, Me, Me 2

Two more Sunday Times pieces, I'm afraid. One about management consultants in government and one about a new wave of popular science books. I don't know how I do it what with this blog and all.

16 comments:

  1. Bryan, please explain to me, becasue I'm somewhat of a thicky, what the government should do. Is a mangement consultant not an expert and don't we want experts in government and doesn't expertise come at a price? That is, you get what you pay for? I'm not positing, only asking.

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  2. Gosh. I didn't know where you were going with the science books piece at first but I'm happy it ended up on an upbeat. :)

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  3. Thanks, Immortal. No, James, management consultants are not experts. Outside experts would, of course, be a good idea, but not ones with vast gilded offices to support and 'products' to sell.

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  4. Yes, loved the ending of the science books piece - it gives me hope...and the rest gave me an explanation for various questions I had. It also makes me wonder (in an idle way, not a wondrous one) what will come next in terms of science books.

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  5. A very interesting pair of articles Bryan! The use of management consultants is also rife now at local government level. For example, Dorset County Council have been handing over money for some time now to a consultancy called Hedra, to tell them how they should change their IT department. Hedra's basic recommendations are (i) In the short-term, reduce your number of developers (i.e., the people who actually do the work), and increase your number of 'business analysts'; and (ii) In the medium term, buy off-the-shelf software products rather than developing them in-house.

    Tax-payers' money well-spent, then.

    Interesting thoughts about the 'new wave' of popular science books. It was whilst slogging through a Physics A'level, that I tripped across a book in the school library called 'Superforce', written by Paul Davies. This introduced me to the fabulously exciting world of particle physics. In particular, I remember reading with awe about the metastability of the vacuum, and the possibility that our universe might be destroyed by it. From that moment on, I was hooked!

    The new wave is, indeed, free from the ideology of the old school, but I wonder if this may be more a by-product of the increasing superficiality of our culture, than a return to a sense of wonder. At least the old school actually confronted the big questions. Less kids do science and maths now because science and maths are more difficult, not because the kids fail to be stirred by ideological popular science. We used to have this idea in society that doing something difficult, and succeeding at it, was a good thing; I think we've lost that to some degree, and the declining interest in maths and science is a symptom of that.

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  6. I suggest that those who employ management consultants are unwilling to take responsibility.

    If they can't run the enterprise they're in charge of they should admit it and resign. It's one thing businesses getting them in, but a different thing altogether when government (local and central) does it; the voters didn't elect management consultants to govern them.

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  7. One of the best articles I've read in a long time, Mr Appleyard! I'll be flagging it up to my medical colleagues. We all love to hate Patsy (I have no idea about health) Hewitt and Richard (not such a mummy's boy) Granger.

    Doctors and nurses are being made redundant because of Patsy's spending on management consultants. As a result, the NHS is suffering.

    Keep up the good work!

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  8. Bryan, you began it, Chris Dillow ran with it and now I feel Notsaussure has completed it. You might check his piece out.

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  9. Juggling all those balls, Bryan - you're bound to drop one sooner or later. Maybe it's time you called in a consultant yourself. I can recommend one if you like. He got me out of a tight spot a few years back, when I took to my bed and didn't leave it for six months following a shouting match with a wheelie bin.

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  10. Excellent article on Management Consultants. The devastation they have caused to the NHS is irrepairable.
    I only disagree on one point.....I do hold Blair accountable.

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  11. Many thanks for a great article and the many mentions. Hopefully, this will alert people to what is happening, discourage civil servants from buying so much consultancy and get people thinking about whether to continue with, or reorganise, the disastrous NHS IT systems project. In the meantime, I have sent my book to the new head of the NHS, David Nicholson, for him to ignore.

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  12. Doug MacKenzie DoddsNovember 27, 2006 9:56 am

    "Pop go the scientists" is simply the most marvellous piece of journalism I've read this year. Many many thanks Bryan.

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  13. At last! As a sort of management consultant I felt a great sense of relief and exultation reading your article about consultants and government. I wouldn't disagree with anything in the article - but it (and the book maybe) is in danger of missing the key learning points. Firstly, the principle reason why this has been allowed to happen is because of the failure of managers to take accountability for outcomes. Believe me, this is not just confined to government - the same thing is happening in business. The willingness to hand over accountability has become a pernicious disease. The government's supposedly rigorous methods of 'controlling' the process via arbitrary and token targets is actually making things worse. Real accountability for the outcomes has become lost in all this. It must be returned to the people who have the responsibility for delivering products and services and it must be driven by customer need not by top down vision!
    Secondly, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is good work being done. Proper consultancy is about helping managers to be accountable. You mention Lean and Toyota. The fact that Ford Motor Co and many others have spent billions of dollars trying to copy Toyota and failed tells us something profound. It is the thinking that underpins Toyota's production system that is key. Copying their techniques does not work because it is completely missing the point. It is the thinking that matters!! It seems to me that we in this country are no more willing to put time and effort into thinking than we were 30 years ago. We desparately reach out for techniques, for 'best practice' etc. Best Practice is a completely stupid idea and completely misunderstands the nature of organisations and change. Brian, having shared in this vital exposure of a scandal please use your influence to focus on the root cause - which is not a consultancy collusion, although that is undoubtedly there, it is the quick fix, denegration of seriousness, reviling of thinking that is endemic in our culture!

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  14. It's worth pointing out that the MoD has become one of the greatest victims of the consultancy culture. In the case of defence procurement, however, the use of consultancies is wedded to the application of a pernicious doctrine called 'systems engineering'. This is an overwhelmingly top-down approach to procurement; systems engineers do not produce a physical product, they produce an abstract set of system requirements and capabilities, which are imposed, top-down, on the real engineers, who are expected to design a physical system realising the abstract requirements. The MoD has swallowed this, hook, line and sinker. As a consequence, defence procurement literally takes decades.

    For example, the British Army is currently in serious need of new medium-weight vehicles for its infantry. The Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) is intended, in part, to supply this capability, but no-one at the MoD wants the responsibility of deciding what FRES should actually be. To postpone the decision, and to transfer responsibility, the definition of the required capability is farmed out to a 'Systems House', in this case the engineering consultancy, Atkins (formerly WS Atkins). Atkins aren't actually tasked with physically producing the system, oh no; their job is to 'refine the system requirements', develop 'procurement strategies', and 'manage the technical risk'.

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  15. I concur with the other contributors: two excellent articles, Bryan. As a middle manager, I have often wondered why these guys are called in, when, more often than not, what they tell us is what we know already, tarted up to sound good.

    In your article about popular science books, you make the point that many writers of the genre are rabid atheists and have a loathing of religion that permeates their work. You are correct to say that there is no logic that dictates that science should entail a loathing of religion. However, I can easily imagine why scientists are infuriated by religion, why it gets under their skin: it defies logic, it is an affront to their reason, it simply makes no sense, it is intellectually dishonest, it is a gross answer, it causes wars, and most importantly, it is unnecessary. This last one is crucial. We can live with uncertainty; we don't need to fill the gap with God. The dogmatic certainty of science may be hard to take, but surely you would agree that in the world of science if a better theory comes along to explain something, and it can be verified, then it will be embraced and the old theory discarded. Religion has no such inbuilt mechanism. It can't be superceded. That's what's so damn annoying about it. By the way, I think Dawkins should just shut up now, despite the fact I thoroughly enjoyed The God Delusion. He's wasting his time.

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  16. I enjoyed both your articles in yesterday’s Sunday Times and I’m sure you’re aware of the connection between what might otherwise appear to be disconnected stories. This, of course, is the increasing failure of the modern Western world to understand the limits of the scientific “method”. Dawkins gets riled because he can’t understand how people can be so stupid in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is no God capable of intervening in our physical affairs. Science becomes sterile when all it presents are smug rationalizations of the world instead of wonderment at what we don’t know (or, possibly, can never know) as well as what we do know. The misguided application of “scientific” principles or theories to modern business leads to catastrophe when handled by ungoverned consultants. Time, do you think, for a sequel to Understanding the Present?

    I confess to more than a passing interest. I’m a former academic scientist now working as an independent business consultant, and a part-time writer (I’ve published undergraduate-level texts on the philosophical implications of quantum theory and a recent popular socio-cultural, philosophical and scientific exploration of the nature of reality). It worries me sometimes how you are able to write in your books and articles precisely the conclusions I’ve come to after worrying away at the problem for most of my working life.

    By the way, next time you write an article about management consultants you might want to quote Machiavelli: “Good advice depends on the shrewdness of the prince who seeks it, and not the shrewdness of the prince on good advice.”

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