Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Professional Mudmaps

Back in July I put up a post looking briefly at financial metrics in professional services. I concluded:"Even in a single professional field like law, there are considerable variations between customer types and fields of law in areas like pricing, the pattern of WIP creation, write ups, write offs and billings. These need to be understood and accommodated."

I followed this with two posts (one, two) looking at pricing, positioning and service areas.

In the first post I concluded: "The most common problem is simply failure to recognise the differences, leading to the application of firm wide policies and procedures that do not properly take variations into account. This can be a particular problem where firms are moving into new fields of practice. " The second post illustrated the problem with a short case study.

I now want to extend the analysis using the concept of professional mudmaps as a peg.

The term mudmaps dates back to the days when travellers meeting in the Australian bush would squat on the ground and draw maps in the dirt with a twig to show features of the way ahead. I have always liked the term and am using it here as a short hand to describe the personal mental models every professional uses to interpet and make sense of a complex external world. These mudmaps are incredibly powerful and, once created, very slow to change.

I first focused on this issue while taking a personal break to do some post graduate work in history at the University of New England. I was writing a political biography at the time and was trying to understand shifts in views over time towards the structure and potential of the New England region. I was especially trying to understand why New England seemed in some way to have shrunk in people's minds.

I concluded that the missing link was changes in travel time and the way this affected views of the world around. At the start of my study period there were no cars, train or ship was the fastest form of travel, most journeys were by horse or on foot. The surrounding world was vast and familiar. By the end travel was by car and plane. Valleys that had taken a day to travel along were now crossed in a hour by car, minutes by plane. The world had both shrunk and in some ways become less familiar. This simple shift in perceptions - an unseen change in mudmaps - affected attitudes across a range of dimensions.

Now link this back to professional services. Working across professional service sectors as I do, I am constantly surprised at the sometimes subtle differences between and sometimes within sectors in culture, attitude and approach. This applies down to differences in meaning attached to the same words. Whenever I try to do something that goes too far outside or conflicts with the core mudmaps holding in that area it is likely to fail.

Do we then give away the idea of professional services as a sector, looking instead just at the constituent parts? I don't think so because there are common issues and problems, while the very differences themselves can generate new ideas and approaches.

The challenge is to delineate the mudmaps holding in different areas with sufficient clarity to allow for sensible comparison and discussion.

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