Category Archives for "Consultancy"

Consultancy and Website Design

Over the last four weeks I introduced four approaches to non-directive consultancy and I’ve explored how they can be used by website consultants.  This post considers the relationship between consultancy and website design.

Good Website Design

Many people don’t appreciate design is not about artwork, a site that looks good is not necessarily well-designed.  Design is ultimately problem solving.  What is the best solution for this client?

We can abandon the idea that design is a creative art because it is so easy, using content management systems, to create sites with massive functionality.  The problem is choosing the functionality that best meets the purpose of your organisation and not implementing that functionality.  Implementing finctionality is not really all that challenging!

However, many clients are not consultors.  A good consultor understands consultancy and that their organisation’s needs are not necessarily immediately obvious.  They need help to work out the best fit between their organisation and its web presence.

Many clients cannot do this and their wants get in the way of discovering their organisation’s needs.  To implement wants and not needs, can be an expensive mistake, in terms of both up-front costs, ie paying for things you don’t need, and lost productive life of your web presence.

Some Examples

Whilst a web consultant may assemble a website using old-style creativity, they can do their job without going anywhere near a computer!  I know one consultant paid $20 000 a month to support a company that had a team of in-house designers!

I’m working on an assessment for a client who is planning a campaign for the next general election.  I shall write about this work in due course.  I’m helping them map out their online campaign over the next fifteen or so months and integrate their online and real life work.  It is unlikely I’ll do much website design for this client, because they have that covered.  But when you’re campaigning, especially with limited resources, you need someone to look after the long-term strategy, to work out the frameworks in which the campaign will operate.

The Consultant’s Role

Remember there are no clear boundaries between the four consultancy models.  A consultant asked to work on a project may find they have a situation which evolves into a project.  Projects and situations are likely to generate problems and cases.  Resolution of a case may mean there is a need to review the situation and so on.

Consultants do whatever is necessary to help clients meet their objectives, occasionally in the teeth of opposition from their clients.  How to do this with humility and not arrogance (I know better!) is a real challenge.

What do you think?  What is the role for old school designers in a world full of content management systems?

Four Models of Consultancy: Cases

What is the difference between a problem and a case?  A case is a problem handled in a different way.  A problem is shared with other organisations; it emerges from practice and resists ready solutions.  Cases are problems with a history; stories about someone’s failure.  For this reason, there is usually a worker at the core of a case.  Usually the story is about broken relationships.

Whilst there may be a technical fix, with a case it’s likely the problem is about personalities and relationships.  This is why I’ve put cases as fourth in this sequence.  If an organisation is having serious relationship problems, it is unlikely they would call on a web consultant to help resolve them!

However, the four models are not static.  A consultant called in to help with a situation, project or problem may realise they have a case.  They must find out what the case is and respond accordingly.

If there is a case, the web consultant may need to deal with it.  It may not initially be clear there is a case that prevents a website from being successful, but once it becomes clear someone has to deal with it.  Even if the web consultant can’t cope, they should at least be able to recognise a case and suggest how the consultor might deal with it (presumably by seeking help elsewhere).  If the web consultant is able to discuss the case, so much the better.

How to Approach Cases

There are three purposes to tackling a case:

  1. The main purpose is to discover the action the consultor needs to take to discuss the specific situation.
  2. It helps to clarify what needs to be considered.  This is sometimes called “the authority of the situation”.  Whatever the text books say, some situations need to be addressed before you can get on with the work.  They demand a response and progress is not possible until there is a response.
  3. Discover how the consultor can do things better and become a better worker.

Note how none of this is necessarily anything to do with the organisation’s web presence.  A web consultant must understand  sometimes the issues that need to be addressed are offline.

So, how do you tackle a case?  There are 6 stages in any consultation about a case.  These conversations can get out of hand because there is often a lot of emotion sloshing around.  So, you both, consultant and consultor, need to return to these steps and work out which ones you’ve done and which you still need to discuss.

How to Resolve and Learn from a Case

  1. Get a clear statement of the case story.  The consultor needs to tell the story about what happened in a disciplined and structured way.
  2. Define the overall change for the worst and for the better.  Compare things as they were at the start and end of the consultor’s story.  This defines what went wrong.
  3. Diagnose where the consultor went wrong and the steps the consultor could have taken for the better.   Now you need to define how the consultor contributed to what went wrong.  This should be specific and explore the things the consultor might have done.
  4. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current working situation and the implications for the consultor.  This lays the groundwork for the next step.  The strengths are important for the consultor’s morale as well as possible foundations for the action steps.
  5. Work out the action the consultor can take.  You need to analyse the pros and cons of possible actions for this consultor in this situation.  Each action is not simply doing something; when, where and how the consultor does it is important.  You need to consider all the likely outcomes of any action.  Don’t assume the proposed action will work – what happens if it doesn’t?
  6. Learn as much as possible about the case so that the consultor can improve their performance in the future.  This can help the consultor in future situations.

I haven’t gone into a lot of detail here but hopefully this overview will help you know when you have a case.

Can you think of instances online where you or someone else would benefit from this type of help?

Four Models of Consultancy: Problems

This is the third post about four models of consultancy.  This post introduces the four models.

What is a problem?  You may hit a problem when developing a project.  Perhaps a good question to ask is: what prevents you from addressing the problem?  If it is a technical issue, why are you unable to resolve it?  Sometimes organisations would rather ignore a problem than deal with it.  However, many find that actively tackling a problem can be very rewarding.

Intractable problems are often shared with other groups.  The way your organisation works may be the solution to your problem and other groups often share similar issues.  Comparing experiences can bring insights and new approaches to an old problem.

I shall illustrate this consultancy model with the problem of an out-of-date website.  Many groups experience this and if they ignore it, the problem becomes worse.

Six Helpful Questions

  1. What is the problem?  Defining the problem often helps!  An out of date website may have several causes and working out which apply to you may not be easy.  Is the problem an inaccessible content management system?  Or is it a lack of people who understand the cms?  What is the problem behind the problem?  Are you sure you are analysing the right problem?
  2. What have you tried so far?  Listing the various attempts might be frustrating but it is helpful to recall previous attempts to resolve the problem.  If more than one group is experiencing the problem, they may find sharing past attempts  an inspiration.  Someone else’s failure might just work for your group!  This question may uncover problems met when dealing with the problem.  You need to build up a picture of the impact the problem is having not only on the website but on your organisation.
  3. What specific change does your client desire and why?  So, what is the point of solving this problem?  How will solving the problem bring about the changes you want to see?
  4. What are the causes and sources of the problem we need to examine?  By now the causes and sources should be clearer, summarise them and see whether you can nail the root of the problem.  Understanding can lead to insights into how to approach a problem in the future.  Note there will be historic causes, based upon decisions made in the past, eg the choice of CMS may be one reason site maintenance is difficult.  Other causes tend to sustain the problem in the present.  Why does this continue to be a problem?
  5. What are we going to do about it?  The consultor must own the solution.  It should be specific and practical.  The problem will need to be monitored and reviewed to see whether it is in fact working.
  6. What are we learning from our study of this problem?  This question can help you get a different perspective on the problem.  Asking this helps you take a step back and review the whole picture.

Be Problem-Conscious

Problems can be intractable and one reason is a problem-centred approach.  This can result in a negative approach where  allocation of blame becomes the main approach.  It is better to be problem-conscious, aware of the issues or difficulties faced and taking a developmental approach to resolving them.  Whilst planning is always helpful, it is often found that taking action and evaluating the outcomes is effective.  If you have analysed causes and sources, really understand the problem, then you are more likely to see opportunities as they arise from your activities.

Have you ever been stuck and then found a creative resolution to your problem?

Four Models of Consultancy: Projects

Last Wednesday, I described a typical three-step approach to assessing an organisation’s or individual’s situation.  It is important for design work to understand the consultor’s operating environment.  This time here are three tools to help design projects.  You may need to use them over several meetings.  They are not a sequence, use them and return to them as you need them.

I shall assume the consultor has requested help with the design of a web-based project.  If they have an assessment (from last time), it will help.  You may need to discuss whether you need an assessment before you go ahead with the Project.

The three tools are:

  1. Purpose and Objectives
  2. A Systemic Approach
  3. Diagrams and Models

Purpose and Objectives

These evolve as you work on the Project.  Typically, aims and objectives are fairly general at the start.  As you go deeper you they become more concrete as understanding deepens.

I find tasks and issues helpful.  Tasks are things you need to do to meet your objectives.  Issues are the things that tend to resist the work on the tasks.  Sometimes issues need to be addressed before the tasks can be started.

Typically, as you start work, objections accumulate.  Once it becomes clear where the opposing interests lie, you can ask what can be done to tackle them.

The original list of tasks may grow as you address your issues and you may need to prioritise them.

A Systemic Approach

If you think you’re designing a website, you are very much mistaken.  The website is a sub-system of several other systems, some online and some in real life.  The latter are the most important.

There is always the possibility complexity will get out of hand.  Many websites are fairly small fry and if they are a short-term event, eg a community festival site, they need to pay less attention to complex systems than a major project consuming significant resources.  However all projects are part of various interlocking systems and it is the consultants’ responsibility to make sure everything is considered.

Bear in mind all the likely interests: parent organisations, partner organisations, competitors may all bring their own sub-systems.  Perhaps the most important sub-system is the website’s market.  Whether you are selling a product, a service or a cause; you must understand your market.

Once you have a systemic analysis, make a start and develop your website and other online media.  Then you can see how it operates and the impact it has on other sub-systems.

Diagrams and Models

Use them!  They help you move from situation to project or to analyse your project.

A model or framework is used to interrogate a situation or project.  If your model has three dimensions, it will help you to look at the situation in all three dimensions.  A model is never prescriptive.  It is descriptive, deepening your insight into the situation and the likely impact your project will have on it.

Diagrams are very useful.  I haven’t found a satisfactory way of doing them online.  In real life I work around a sheet of flipchart paper (A1) and equip everyone with pens.  This allows for lots of crossings out and things squeezed in at the edges but a good copy can be made later.

If the consultant begins a diagram, based upon the consultor’s description of the project, the consultor can check the consultant has understood the project or may see something new in the diagram they have not seen before.  If they work on it together, they both deepen their understanding.

For an online conversation, you need to improvise using drawing tools, email, holding sketches up to the camera, etc.  I would like to hear of tools you use to do this.

Notice how project design differs from web design.  The website design is framed by project development.  If websites are to be effective, they need to be planned as part of the consultor’s overall purpose.

Do you agree?  How did you plan your website?

Four Models of Consultancy: Situation

Last Wednesday, I introduced four models of non-directive consultancy and here are details of the first, Situation.

Sometimes an organisation says they need a web presence or an improved web presence but they have no clear idea what it can do for them; they need help clarifying their online objectives.

To analyse a situation, use these three steps:

  1. a written presentation
  2. exploration and analysis to establish the main focus of the work
  3. design and plan an assessment the consultor commits to and is able to carry out (possibly with help)

So, let’s take each in turn:

Written Presentation

The consultor prepares a written presentation.  The aim is to help them put their situation on the table.  The consultant might offer guidance in the form of a questionnaire, for example, that encourages the consultor to think through their situation in detail.

It may include assembling existing documents, for example a business plan, strategies, policies and procedures.  The consultant needs to encourage the consultor to think deeply about their paperwork.  It isn’t enough to dump documents in the consultant’s lap.  Existing paperwork backs up the consultor’s written account of their specific aims for their business and web presence.

The presentation must cover more than the organisation’s online presence.  It is essential the consultant understands the consultor’s market, aims, issues, etc before even beginning to think about their online presence.

Exploration and Analysis

This needs to happen at a meeting or using something like Skype or a Google hangout.  Face to face is always better but not always practical.

For a face to face meeting, you can sit around a flipchart sheet (A1) of paper and map out the situation between you.  Consultant and consultor both hold pens and can annotate one another’s ideas.  This provides a common focal point which is harder when you meet online.

The goal is to agree a focal point: what are the main tasks and issues and how are they going to be tackled?  Whilst with web consultancy, the expectation will be some sort of online presence, the consultant’s role is to find all relevant tasks and issues.  Remember the online presence won’t work if relevant issues within the business are not addressed.

  • A task is something that needs to be done.  You can agree later who does a given task; the consultant, the consultor or a third-party but the main thing is have a prioritised list.
  • An issue acts as a barrier to development an online presence.  Sometimes, if issues are not resolved, developing a functional online presence is not possible.  The consultant’s role is to help the consultor name their issues and work out how they’re going to be tackled.

Design and Assessment

The consultant will write an assessment based upon the design and planning that has taken place between the consultor and consultant.  The assessment is an action plan for the consultor and it is their responsibility to carry it out.  So, the consultor must be committed to the assessment and enthusiastic about carrying the work forward.

The assessment will show them not only what they need in terms of their online presence but also the steps they need to make sure it happens.  The consultant can show where the consultor lacks capacity and needs to engage external support.  Most sites these days need ongoing maintenance and usually in third sector organisations this is done in-house.

Third sector organisations are often short of cash and should not feel they have signed up to more than they can handle.  So, discuss finance for further consultancy in the assessment.

Furthermore, once the organisation has a plan, it implies changes to its web presence as it develops.  So, if an organisation is developing a capital asset for community use, it may in the early months be seeking to build support and finance development work.  Later, if the new facility is open to the public, the organisation will need to contact potential customers. The plan may be to build a list during the development phase and market activities once the facility is open to the public.  Thought needs to be given to the second stage because the first stage lays the groundwork for the second.

A situation does not have to be at the start of a web project.  A review of an existing web presence may be essential if the site is not supporting the work adequately.

Can you think of projects that need an assessment?  How would they benefit from analysis of their tasks and issues?  What methods or tools would you use to help them think them through?

If you would like to have a go, see my assessment offer.

Four Models of Consultancy: Introduction

George Lovell’s book “Analysis and Design” identifies four natural categories for non-directive consultancy.  (I’ve called them models of consultancy because model easier to type than “natural category”!)  They require different approaches.  It isn’t always obvious at the outset, which model best applies to a particular consultor and so the consultant needs to find the best model or models as the work progresses.    Where more than one model applies, the consultant will need to schedule the work with the consultor’s agreement.

So, the consultor might present a

  1. situation they wish to analyse to plan
  2. an online or real life project.   However, it may become clear the consultor is facing a number of
  3. problems such as issues about software or applications, which might be about choosing the best solution or getting something to work better but as the problems persist, the consultant may find that
  4. they have a case, an issue specific to the history of the organisation, that needs to be resolved before the consultor can make progress.

How the Models Apply to Web Consultancy

Over the next four posts I shall present each model in turn.  You can find out more in Lovell’s book but my contribution here will be to show how each model can apply to the work of a web consultant with third sector organisations.

These four models apply to any type of organisation.  However, private and statutory sector organisations often have more resources to throw at a problem.  They can employ staff to design their systems or hire consultants to run their systems for them.  So, a lot of the work involved in site design and maintenance can be resourced.  This is not to say these organisations don’t benefit from non-directive consultancy, just that perhaps they have less immediate need for it.

In the third sector the consultor, perhaps with an internal team, is more likely to need to take on long-term responsibility, with all the issues and conflicts that entails.  When you’re struggling with your online presence it is easy to lose sight of the real life organisational issues underpinning your lack of success online.

Lovell developed non-directive consultancy with community groups and churches so it seems logical to extend it into web consultancy with similar organisations.  He borrowed from conventional business consultancy and wealthy organisations may well borrow from non-directive consultancy.  Third sector groups may find, therefore, that non-directive consultancy has a better fit to their general ways of doing things.

Do the four options address the sorts of problems you encounter online?  Have you examples of one or more of them from your own experience?

Here is the Amazon uk page for Analysis and Design.  There are other book sellers available.

Consultant and Consultor

Third sector organisations do engage expert web designers but many cannot afford to spend a minimum of £3000 on a website, especially if it is not going to generate significant income.

Non-directive consultancy works better for third sector organisations planning their web presence and not because it is likely to cheaper!  The values of non-directive consultancy are more likely to match the values of the sector.  So, this is how it works.

If you engage a non-directive consultant, you are the consultor.  It is essential you understand the consultor role to get the best out of your consultant.

The Consultant – Consultor Relationship

The consultor has specialist knowledge about the purpose of their organisation, its history and background.  The consultant, supplies additional brain-power.  So, many third sector groups have a volunteer  or staff member who looks after their website.  Often the site lacks purpose or the knowledge of its in-house designer is limited.  Sometimes, a team of people maintain a site but they lack the expertise to put it together in the first place or to make major changes.

The role of the consultant is to help solve your problems.  If you know what you want and know what resources you have, sometimes it helps to have someone alongside who can challenge your thinking.  Similarly it helps to challenge your thinking if you don’t know what you want!

You are likely to need to work out how your website team is going to maintain the site.  Developing a disciplined approach is sometimes more important than the technical details.  The problems many sites encounter are to do with content not site design.

Non-Directive and Expert Approaches

A web consultant combines non-directive and expert approaches.  As a non-directive consultant, they aim to help the consultor develop a sustainable approach to their online presence.  As an expert consultant they offer you the technical know-how you need.

The issues you face may have nothing to do with computers or the Internet.  Maybe your web presence suffers because you are not able to manage your site.  Low capacity could be lack of staff or volunteers or else it could be the way you deploy your people and resources.  The consultant can help you think through the changes you need to make to be better equipped both on and off-line.

As a consultor you are in the driving seat.  You make decisions when you have the knowledge and expertise you need to develop an effective online presence.  The key is understanding your role, whichever approach the consultant uses.

If your website doesn’t do what you would like it to do, what are the reasons?

Introduction to Consultancy

Do not trust consultants!  Too often consultancy is about out-sourcing responsibilities that used to be done in-house.  The argument goes, don’t employ someone as it will be cheaper to pay a consultant.  Such an approach breeds dependency on external support and can hollow out an organisation.  I’m sure consultants of this type can take advantage of organisations, charging thousands of pounds for work that should be done in-house.

This is unfortunate because consultancy can offer far more than simply substituting for staff you cannot afford.  So, here is why you should consider taking on a consultant:

  • They bring skills to your organisation you otherwise lack.  If you have a one-off problem or issue, such as developing or reviewing your web presence, it may be you don’t need to employ a permanent member of staff.
  • Consultants can train your existing staff
  • They can increase your turnover, outputs or support.
  • They can help you see things in a new light and come up with new ideas or solutions to intractable problems.

Broadly there are two types of consultant:

Expert Consultants

The expert consultant augments the skills in your team.  Sometimes they have skills specific to consultancy, they understand you need help with a particular problem and you want to be able to manage the problem into the future.  However, they don’t necessarily do this.  Some simply do something for you and then leave.

Web design is a good example.  As an expert consultant your designer offers skills you lack and uses them to design a website for you.  But if their expertise is entirely in coding they are not likely to be good designers.  Real design demands some understanding of the needs of the client organisation.  The web designer who can do this uses  consultancy skills.

You may think I’m being unfair but in the community and voluntary sector, groups often take on a consultant to design their website, who simply supplies the expertise for a small fee or even as a volunteer.  I suppose this can work and would like to hear from you if it has worked for you, especially if it has worked at little or no cost.

However, an expert consultant may not be what you need.

Non-Directive Consultants

The alternative is non-directive consultancy.  Unlike the expert consultant they may bring no specialist knowledge to the table.  Now you are the expert!  The role of the non-directive consultant is to boost your thinking, to challenge you to think about your tasks and issues in new ways.

For a web designer non-directive skills can be valuable, especially where the client organisation wants to run its own website.  Coding the site is only part of what needs to be done, the clients’ organisation will need to review its practices to accommodate supporting their website.  Diagnosing and resolving the issues preventing your organisation from developing and maintaining your website is as essential to the success of the website as the technical stuff, sometimes more so.

Most web designers fall somewhere between these two approaches.  If they are successful they need to be an expert in the technical stuff but also able to guide and support their client organisation.  I am going to make the case in future posts for non-directive consultancy as an essential part of web design.

Why not share your experiences of consultancy?  It can be effective but often fails to support the client organisation and so fails to provide sustainable solutions.  Examples of successes and failures would be interesting.  (They don’t have to be examples of web design!)

The Need for Website Consultancy

Website design is about 20 years old and its origins are firmly rooted in the technology.  As markup languages, such as html, developed people learned how to use them, augmenting them with css, flash and various other languages and  applications.  But these days prospective website owners need website consultancy, as well as technical expertise.

Many people do not have the time or interest to learn these technologies, and have little or no interest in keeping up with developments even though they need a website.  So, there is a market for those who understand the technical side of web design.

However, this is not satisfactory.

Seeking Value for Money

Any organisation that pays for a website will, not unreasonably, expect value for money.

A commercial enterprise, can reasonably expect their website to earn more money than it costs to design it.  For a non-commercial site, the client can reasonably expect it to substantially further their aims.

But it is not always clear how a website might best support an organisation.  The client may know they would benefit from a website but will need help to pin down exactly what their site should do.

They will find they do not know enough about what is possible online.  Or there may be approaches to building online relationships they have not considered.  So, a website designer may need to spend some time as a consultant, helping their client get to grips with their site’s purpose.

Purpose: Why do you have a website?

When I ask people why their organisation has a website, they are often lost for words!  Is it really the first time they’ve been asked?  They’ve paid for it and possibly invested hours of work into it but don’t know why!

Sometimes it seems the site offers a web presence or ‘improves our image’.  What does this mean?  How do you know whether you’re getting your moneys worth?

Or perhaps it’s so that the public can download information.   Sometimes sites accumulate pictures of meetings from long ago.  It’s hard to see why anyone would spend time there, let alone visit for a second time.  Take a hard look at your site and ask why any visitor might return!

I can only conclude some sites exist because someone was told they should have a website.

Websites are powerful tools and if yours isn’t working for you perhaps you shouldn’t have one.  It would at least save you some money.  Alternatively, the task is to get your online presence working for you.

Consultancy

Why do organisations have websites with no purpose?  I’m sure the problem lies in the relationship between organisations and their website designers.  They need to guide each other into understanding the emerging purpose of the site.  At the beginning of their relationship, neither  knows the purpose of the site and design should not start until they understand and agree the site’s purpose.

So, I will explore the nature of non-directive consultancy as it relates to web design.  I will cover the roles of consultant (designer) and consultor (you) so that both get the most from the relationship.

A consultancy relationship might result in a range of online approaches, possibly not including a website.  Various uses of social media may be all an organisation needs.

Relationships

Raising finance in various ways is important for many organisations and it is important to understand the relationship between finance and the social aims of third sector organisations.

Building relationships with your visitors is essential whether or not your purpose is financial.  You need a clear grasp of how you want your visitors to respond to your site and then to design your site to meet your purpose.

This category covers a sequence about websites and donations only.

Conversation

An effective web presence implies a conversation between your visitor and your organisation. This may be implicit as the visitor follows a route through your site, clicking in your links and finally reaching a destination, if their interest carries them that far.  Or else it may be more explicit, such as where the visitor responds to comments and debates the issues your site raises.

However you approach this conversation, you need to understand in any conversation both parties transform.  Exploration of this will lead us into some interesting philosophical and spiritual by-ways because if we’re serious about our online presence, we need to appreciate its impact upon real life.

Core to this is the role of conversation as an encounter with the other.  It is through developed conversation that real change happens.