Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Multidisciplinary Working - Practical and Professional Issues 1

In my introductory post on multidisciplinary working I noted that project management approaches allowed multidisciplinary teams to work together across professions on specific projects. However, I also suggested that this was generally not multidisciplinary working in the full sense. The team may involve 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.

I suggested that full multidisciplinary work occurred when professions combined in some way to create an integrated outcome informed by the knowledge and insights drawn from the different professions.

In this post, I want to extend this analysis, looking at the practical and professional issues that can arise, illustrating with examples.

Individual Knowledge Domains

Because each profession has its own knowledge domain and individual professional approach they approach the same issue in different ways. Take employment as an example.

The lawyer is likely to think of it in contract terms, the legal relationship between employer and employee. Appointment letters drafted by lawyers read like legal documents.

The HR professional is likely to think of it in terms of the internal people related people processes within the organisation. Appointment letters drafted by HR professionals can read like an internal process document.

Managers think in terms of their immediate requirements. Appointment letters drafted by managers focus on the job, are likely to be much shorter and may ignore both legal and HR issues.

Nothing very profound here I know, just plenty of room for confusion. Very similar issues arise in other areas such as service contracts or service level agreements where a legal wrapping is placed around a business or management need that may of itself involve cross-overs between professions.

At the simplest level this discussion links back to my earlier post on the need for a discipline of practice and the following post comparing the diagnostic approaches adopted in law and medicine. Good diagnostic approaches and skills can minimise the scope for inter-professional confusion within a conventional working frame.

But assume that the professional or practice wants to go further than this, consciously or unconsciously moving into the territory occupied by another profession. Again using the employment case, a law firm may offer advice extending beyond legal questions narrowly defined into management and HR. However, now a new set of issues arises.

Understanding Risk

Moves into a new domain involve risks. These include:
  • Regulatory. Regulatory structures vary between professions. In Australia at least we have had parallel and conflicting trends between de-regulation on one side intended to increase competition and customer choice, re-regulation on the other to increase customer protection. This makes for a messy scene.
  • Insurance. Moves into new areas can affect professional indemnity coverage and costs.
  • Knowledge. The knowledge required to operate in the new domain has to be acquired.
  • Cultural. In previous posts (post summary here) I have spoken of the cultural differences between the professions. These pose real risks for moves across professional boundaries in part because they are in fact largely unseen.

So far five main models have emerged to manage such risks, each with its own weaknesses:

  • Sticking to the Knitting. Firms choose to stay within existing fields, thus avoiding the risks entirely.
  • Channel approaches. Firms with different services but common customer groups combine in some way, each using the others as channels to try to cross-sell services while maintaining service and customer separation. My experience has been that this type of approach usually does not provide sufficient returns to warrant the costs unless very carefully structured.
  • Alliances. In this approach common among consulting practices, a single firm maintains the lead but brings in others to provide supplementary specialist resources. These approaches are effective in meeting particular needs, far less effective in growing new activities.
  • “Multidisciplinary” firms: The firm recruits specialists to bring knowledge in house. I have put the word multidisciplinary in inverted comers because most simply replicate external silos internally.
  • New practices including JVs. A new venture is formed to focus and integrate activities in new areas. This approach can be effective but requires careful planning.

New Process and Knowledge Approaches

From my experience, truly effective multidisciplinary working requires three things:

  • Clear management structures and processes.
  • Creation of a new integrated knowledge domain covering areas of professional overlap.
  • Establishment of the required professional culture.

This post has become quite long enough. I will extend the discussion in future posts

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