Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, October 02, 2006

Multidisciplinary Working - Introduction

In previous posts I have spoken of the sometimes unseen differences in perspectives between and within professions (summary of posts here), differences that can create real difficulties for collaborative working. I now want to extend this analysis by looking at some of the issues associated with multidisciplinary work.

Standard Team Approaches

Teaming approaches involving professionals and managers from different areas are a common organisational tool. They are also common within professional services where the assignment in question involves multiple capabilities. Standard project management disciplines can be used to manage such teams and the associated projects.

Take a major bid as an example. A project team is formed under the leadership of the project manager drawing together the required skills. The project manager and relevant subject specialists analyse the requirement. Tasks are allocated. The outputs from these go into the bid response. If the bid is successful, the project team moves into the delivery phase.

Even at this simple level cross-disciplinary problems can arise. The marketing team wants the job since that is how their performance is measured. Let's get the bid in, we can worry about the details later. The technical team also wants the job since this gives them work, but have to come up with a workable solution taking technical risk into account. The commercial team is worried about budget and costs, the legal side worries about any-flow on legal risks. So there is plenty of scope for differences of opinion and even confusion.

Again these problems can generally be resolved so long as tasks and processes are clearly defined.

Project Management - Application across the Professions

Project management management approaches are common across many professions, although the language used may vary.

Several years ago I chaired a session on the application of project management approaches within the multimedia industry. This was an area of convergence between different sectors, so we put together a panel of speakers from different sectors - software services, event management, independent film production to name a few. Each spoke on the project management approaches adopted in their own area. All, and the audience as well, were surprised at the similarities once differences in language were stripped away.

While project management approaches are widespread, their application is much less common in professions such as law, accounting or medicine where much professional work is still individual. Matter management is not the same as project management. I think that those professions would benefit from a greater understanding of project management as a discipline.

Project Management and Multidisciplinary Working

Project management approaches allow multidisciplinary teams to work together across professions on specific projects. However, this is generally not multidisciplinary working in the full sense. The team may involved different professions, but each profession contributes within a frame set by their own professional expertise. Putting this another way, the project can be thought of as series of professional modules linked through the project structure.

To my mind, full multidisciplinary work occurs when professions combine in some way to create an integrated outcome informed by the knowledge and insights drawn from the different professions. Let me try to illustrate by example.

Take a business succession problem.

Traditionally, the owner seeks advice from different professional sources, his accountant on the tax aspects, lawyer on the legal issues including estate planning, financial planner on personal wealth management issues, maybe his business adviser on business issues. The team may come together to discuss, but the advice is still separate.

On the surface at least, the owner is likely to get a much better result if the various professionals involved could combine their advice in some way. In my next post I will look at the practical and professional issues this raises.

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