Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Creation and use of Case Studies - Training 1

In the last post I provided a general introduction to the creation and use of case studies. This and the the following post look in detail at the development and use of case studies for training purposes.

The material is directed at both training professionals and other professionals who may wish to use their material for training purposes or who hire trainers.

The material assumes that you have already looked in at least broad terms at the questions posed in the previous section.

Case Writing Questions

The preparation of the case study starts with the questions to be answered. The case may already exist as a general case study, in which case it is being modified for training purposes, or it may be prepared specifically for training purposes.

The writer of the case study should answer the following questions. This person can be either the ‘expert’ who has all the information required at their fingertips, or a researcher who collects and drafts the case document. The questions are drawn from John Boehrer (1998).

1. What is the hard, unifying question?

2. What information do we need to address it?

3. What can I ask users to analyse? decide?

4. What decision process does the case give the reader to focus upon?

5. What questions can I ask about it?

6. What detailed narrative does the reader need to focus on it the important issues?

7. What information needs to be developed?

8. What will make the story work as a case? What conflict does it present?

9. What will make the case livelier? What quotes or details? What will make the case more personal?

10. What will enable readers to identify with the actors and get into the case?

11. How do the actors themselves perceive the situation? Can they be quoted?

12. What factors/constraints do the case actors perceive to be impinging upon them?

13. Who else is involved? What is their perspective/outlook?

14. What development/structure would be useful?

15. What might different parts of the case focus upon?

16. What is the link between the specific decision focus and a larger question?

17. What is the issue context?

18. What special problem does writing/revising the case pose? Information? Access?

Case Structure

Having answered these questions, we can move to the preparation/modification of material. A basic structure here is set out below.

1. Case Introduction

  • Title: identifies the content
  • Context: specifies the overall concept conveyed in the case study: (answer to: What does the case demonstrate?)
  • Objective: How this case relates to learner/learner situation. (answer to: Why is it important?)
  • Learner Outcome(s): what the learner knows (is able to do) as a result of interacting with the case-study: (answer to: What will I learn from this example?) These outcomes will relate back to the Q&A incorporated into the case.
  • Definitions/Background expectations: Are there any expectations regarding previous knowledge? Does student have to have access to specific resources? (Briefly highlight keywords and recall prior knowledge that case reader needs to grasp concepts contained in the case.)
  • Invitation to continue: nudge to move on, collect thoughts, and get into it!

2. Case Contents

Case Study— a comprehensive example of the concepts one wishes to convey. Often the case incorporates materials that describe or simulate the example. In using a case study, we are moving from the concrete and specific to generalised abstract concepts and principles.

  1. Start with a statement of the situation. Like all good stories, it will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It is generally in narrative form.
  2. Introduce any characters, objects, or organisations of importance, give them a ‘human face’ with feelings and emotions.
  3. Spell out crucial relationships between the elements.
  4. Incorporate a series of alternating questions and answers in discussion/story form. The questions are asked by one character/organisation, and answered by another character/organisation, by either word or deed. (The process of asking and answering the questions must stimulate the reader/learner to engage with past experience/knowledge and apply this knowledge to this example/case).
  5. If the reader is unlikely to have this knowledge then the concepts the person will need are generally referred to in some way as part of the resources of the case. (e.g. The research assistant consulted the copyright act section …. to ascertain…)

3. Case Summary

  1. Generalise /Relate directly to learners:
    · What will they get/have they gained by examining this case study?
    · What was significant about this case study?
  2. The final summary may be represented in a different format:
    · job aid, such as a checklist (Do you want the client to reproduce this/ have a handout?)
    · graphic (diagram, chart, table, illustration, and cartoon)
    · Q & A linked to the information provided in the case content

4. Potential Resources

  • Conventional business documents (reports, specifications, instruction manuals, memos, letters)
  • Blueprints & drawings
  • Spreadsheets of numerical data
  • Charts & graphs
  • Video or audio interviews

Note on Copyright

The case study material is drawn from an Ndarala Group Guide prepared for the use of member professionals and clients. It is copyright Ndarala but may be copied with due acknowledgment.

Previous Posts

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creation and Use of Case Studies - Introduction

Most professionals use case studies and for a variety of purposes. They help us consolidate our own knowledge and to explain that knowledge to clients and others. They can be used to document approaches for later use, as a base for the development of new approaches and for training purposes.

Given this, there are real advantages in the adoption of approaches to the development of case studies that will enable us to create them efficiently and then use them to maximum effect. For that reason, this post provides a short introduction to their creation and use

Key Questions

All case studies have to address certain basic questions, so it is sensible to start by considering these. You can easily turn them into a table, thus providing a standard form.

1. What is the objective to be met?

2. How will the case study be used?

3. What form (remember, form follows function) should the study take (structure, format)?

4. What content should be included?

5. Are there any special features that should be taken into account

6. Have I achieved my objective?

Objective

Case studies can be used for a variety of purposes:

  • To document what was done, why, how plus lessons learned for later personal use or to share with colleagues or with a broader audience. This might be done for professional development reasons, to assist in carrying out future work or to form a base for further service development.
  • They may be used for marketing purposes to show one’s expertise.
  • They may be used for training purposes.

It is important to take the time to think through just what you want to achieve. It can be frustrating and time consuming to prepare material that later has to be significantly altered or even completely re-written to meet another purpose.

As a general guideline, if you expect that the material will be or might be used and re-used on an on-going basis, then it is better to start with a general case study approach. This should set out in a factually correct manner what has been done, why, how and to what effect. This content can then be amended to achieve your immediate requirement.

Time invested here is rarely wasted because it makes it much easier later to generate new material targeting particular needs. This includes both case studies and associated presentational material.

How will the Material be Used?

This question is important because it helps dictate the form the material might take. Key issues include:

Will you be using the material for your own internal purposes? If so, then you do not need to worry too much about format and presentation.

Will I be sharing the material with others? If so, how:

  • In presentations? Then do I need slides, handouts?
  • In written self-read form? Then the material needs to be designed for self study purposes.
  • On-line? On-line use has its own disciplines. In particular, because on line material is harder to read than the printed page, the volume of information per page need to be reduced to perhaps 60 per cent of that on the written page.

What Form should the material take?

This question needs to be considered along two dimensions:

  • One is the physical/electronic form. This is essentially determined by the answers to the previous question, the way the material will be used.
  • The second is the actual structure of the material such as headings, slides, the interfaces between material. This will be dictated in part by the objectives to be met and the way in which the material is to be used.

What Content should be Included?

The answer to this question depends in part upon the purpose to be met. That is, what information do I need to provide to achieve my objective?

In considering material to be used by others, another question has to be answered. What can I reasonably expect my audience to know?

This second question is very important since things that seem self-evident to you may not in fact be in the knowledge field of your audience.

Are there any Special Features that I need to take into account?

This step forces you to stand back and think again about just what you are doing. Are there particular confidentiality issues? To what extent am I using someone else’s material? If the material is to be run off by others, what printer will they be using? What are the special features of my audience? And so on.

Have I achieved my Objective?

At the end of the process, it is desirable to stand back and review just what you have done to ensure that you have in fact achieved what you set out to do.

At this point, it can be helpful to get one of your colleagues to review the material for you.

Note on Copyright

The case study material is drawn from an Ndarala Group Guide prepared for the use of member professionals and clients. It is copyright Ndarala but may be copied with due acknowledgment.

Posts in this Series

Creation and Use of Case Studies - Introduction

Creation and Use of Case Studies - Training 1

Creation and use of Case Studies - Training 2

Friday, November 24, 2006

Blog Progress Review - 24 November 2006

I recently switched this blog to the new e-blogger format. I did so with some reluctance because of a feel, since confirmed, that the new system still had bugs.

One plus, however, of the new system is the inclusion of tags or labels. However to make this work properly I need to go back and insert tags on past posts, a time consuming process. This has caused me to look back over past posts, to reflect on progress to this point.

I made my introductory post on this blog on 3 July 2006. I defined my objective in this way:

This blog has been created to encourage debate about and to provide information relevant too the management of all professional services firms. With time, I hope that it will develop into a valuable resource.

Since then I have written 74 posts of varying length, including a number of longish, some of you might say very long, thought pieces. Looking back at these, the content is certainly there. I have also gained at least some readers over the last five months. But I also have a feeling of some discontent.

Blogging approaches vary.

Some people make very regular often short posts, in some cases several times per day. In these cases readers come for interest and currency. Others make fewer, longer, posts. Readers still come to browse, but there is greater emphasis on the blog as a resource, with more people entering through search engines in search of specific information.

I straddle these approaches to some degree. I try to make regular posts, 3-5 per week, with a mixture of short and long posts. So I hope that I get both regular browsers and people through search engines. A google site search throws up 77 references to this blog, so Google at least is indexing the site on a reasonably regular basis.

If I have content, some readers, some search engine indexing, why then do I feel some discontent? Part of the answer lies in impatience, it just takes a while to build content. But, thinking it through, I think that the real answer lies in the difficulty of making information properly accessible within the limits set by the blogspot, e-blogger process.

Looking back over the posts, I have now written on most aspects of the management of professional services firms, creating something of a management primer. In doing so, I have tried to write from the perspective of both firm management and the individual professional and manager. However, the value of this material depends upon ease of access.

Earlier I began a series of stocktake posts trying to provide consolidations on a thematic basis. I think that I need to do more of this, now aided by the tag system. This should also help me keep track of lose ends, things started but not completed.

This would then give me three types of posts: the longer thought pieces, regular shorter pieces on items of interest, together with various types of stocktakes bringing previous material together.

In all this, the need remains to target so that I really meet the needs of current and prospective readers. This is the hardest part in building a blog like this since often I simply do not know. I can only write about what I think to be important and then try to modify in light of feedback.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Common Management Problems - the over-enthusiastic boss

This post continues the series I began with Common Management Problems - the isolation of being boss, sharing with you from time to time some of the problems I have experienced as a manager. This one focuses on the dangers of the over-enthusiastic boss, a danger that I am personally prone too.

I suspect that we all know the type of person I am referring too. Brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas, he/she cannot restrain himself/herself, but immediately wants to share the new idea with those working for him/her. Staff may roll their eyes, but really have no choice but to listen.

Often, the over-enthusiastic boss has another feature as well, failure to indicate the purpose of the discussion so that staff do not know what they are meant to be doing with the discussion. Is this a new task, am I meant to be doing something with all this?

This can make over-enthusiastic bosses very poor delegators. They give new tasks before previous tasks have been completed. They also think in their enthusiasm that they are being clear when in fact staff may be completely confused but too polite to say so.

If you are an over-enthusiastic boss my advice is to pause, to take a deep breath before rushing out with the latest idea. Remember that a core part of your job is to help your people do their jobs better, and you do not do this by overloading or confusing them.

If you work for an over-enthusiastic boss your position is more difficult. However, there are a few things that you can do.

If you are not clear just what is intended by the discussion, ask. If you are being asked to do something, but it is not clear to you just what, again ask. If you are working on a priority task, then say that. Finally, if you are finding the whole approach creating really serious problems for you, then have a private chat with the boss.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wednesday Forum - what makes a good (or bad) boss

I have written about some of the things that I think makes for a good and bad boss. I wondered what your views might be.

What do you think makes someone a good boss, a bad boss? Who has been your best (worst) boss and why?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Web Conversations November

One of my periodic reports on topics, conversations and sites of interest.

David Maister's blog led me to PS Village, an on line magazine for the IT professional services community that I had not seen before. I spent some time browsing articles and discussion threads (the magazine has a strong interactive element) and have added it to my watch list.

In passing, I noticed a very interesting discussion on performance metrics (here) at firm level that I hope to come back to at a later point.

While at David's blog I noticed that he had posed this question to his visitors: So, over to you? Why do YOU think some people are continually motivated to improve and keep trying while others are not? And can a manager influence that or is it inherent in individuals?

Anybody who reads this blog will know that I am almost obsessive about the need to improve people management in professional services. The world is not made up just of high flyers, but of ordinary people doing the best they can to balance work and life. My experience has been that most people want to do a good job. The job of the manager is to help them do that.

Here I thought that Chris Marston had a rather good post, Are Corporate Firms Dizzy From Chasing Their Tails?, about the treadmill created by top law firms in recruiting and then managing their new associates.

Innovation is very much the flavour of the month just at present. Here I noted a quote from Professor Kanter on Martin Hofmann's blog:

"Innovation seems to be rediscovered in each managerial generation (about every six years) as a fundamental way to enable new growth. But each generation seems to have forgotten or never learned the mistakes of the past, so we see classic traps repeated over and over again. Some of these repeat offenders include burying innovation teams under too much bureaucracy, treating the innovators as more valued corporate citizens than those who work in the current business, and hiring leaders who don’t have the relationship and communications skills necessary to foster innovation.”

Kind of says it all.

On a linked topic, I see that Noric Dilanchian and his colleagues have continued to add all sorts of interesting material on commercialisation to the Dilanchian site including their Lightbulb blog. I recommend the site to anyone with an interest in innovation and commercialisation and as an example of what can be done by a small law firm to create a powerful on-line presence.

Bruce MacEwen's Adam Smith Esq continues on my must read list. There was an interesting interview with Bruce in the Canadian Law Times. Like Bruce, I believe that law firms and others within professional services still operating on partneship models need to move towards a more corporate style management approach.

As an aside, I read Bruce's story on law firm advertising in New York (The 18th Century Is Alive & Well in New York) with a degree of amazement. David Anderson (I mentioned David's Small Business USA blog in a previous post) were chatting in another context about the differences in the Australian and US approaches to regulation. The sheer complexity of the US scene is quite remarkable.

Dennis McDonald's blog on living and working with technology continues to carry interesting material of value to anyone interested in the impact of on-line developments on life and work. I think that it is especially useful for those like me who are interested and simply want a heads-up.

Those who read my personal blog will know that I am very interested in patterns of social, cultural and political change. On this blog I have discussed, for example, the likely impact of demographic change on future management of professional services firms, suggesting that competition for people is likely to be the single most important strategic issue for most firms over the next decade. I have also discussed changing gender balances in the professions.

One aspect of these change processes is the need to move towards more flexible working arrangements. I was therefore pleased to see a post by Janet Hayes on the Juris more partner income blog arguing the flexible hours case.

This post has become quite long. I will continue my review in a later post.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Common Management Problems - the isolation of being boss

I thought that it might be of interest if I shared with you from time to time some of the problems I have experienced as a manager.

Australia has what the Australian historian John Hirst has called a democracy of manners. Differences of wealth, authority and power do exist in the country and have widened in recent years. But our language and attitude are egalitarian, democratic and somewhat cynical. This flows through into the nature of relationships within organisations.

I grew up in this world. It influenced my attitudes and approaches when I first became a manager in the Commonwealth Public Service. Among other things, it meant that I identified with and was close to my staff, an approach that got very good management results. Then suddenly I was promoted again and met a problem that took me a while to even recognise.

The Australian Public Service was then broken into four divisions:

  • the first division made up of the heads of Departments and senior statutory office holders - a small group - was at the top.
  • then came the second division, a smallish (several hundred) group of senior managers across the Service from branch head to deputy secretary level.
  • followed by the third division, the main administrative/clerical division
  • and then the fourth division, all the support staff.

To put all this in terms that may be more familiar, the first division was equivalent to managing partners, the second division to partners in general, the third division covers all professional staff, the fourth division paras and support staff.

At the time of the promotion I referred to I was a Chief Finance Officer (Director) in the Commonwealth Treasury in charge of a section with nine staff. I had acted as branch head for extended periods, but I was still seen in terms of my third division role. In addition, Treasury was a relatively open non-hierarchical Department in part because of the number of well educated, ambitious and highly intelligent junior staff.

I was then promoted to the Department of Industry and Commerce as its senior economist in charge of the Economic Analysis Branch. I was now a senior officer in a much more hierarchical department with three sections and seventeen staff. I had also also inherited a branch under pressure with serious internal problems that needed to be fixed.

I had made special transition arrangements and had been receiving copies of the pinks, all branch correspondence, for a month before I formally took over. I had also met all the staff at lunch and had spoken on a regular basis to the acting branch head. So I had a fair understanding of the nature of the work and indeed was already carrying out some of the duties at the time I moved across.

Then I hit a wall on arrival. I knew that there were problems, but I wanted to make my own mind up about them. And indeed I am very glad I did because the problems were not quite as they had been presented to me. But initially I found it impossible to get the information I needed to make judgments. There seemed to be some form of barrier.

I had not changed. I was still applying the management approaches that had worked so well in Treasury. So was was the difficulty? It may sound dumb, but it took a little while to work out that I was now being treated as a senior boss, that I had moved from being one of us to one of them. As a consequence, people were now filtering what they told me.

I know that this problem is not unique. I also know that most managers are aware of it, although my experience has also been that a surprising number do not recognise its full extent. I have seen too many CEOs in particular who think that they know what is going on, that they do get good information, when the opposite is clearly the case.

The first thing that I had to accept in my new role was that the problem was real and was not going to go away. It made perfect sense for my staff to treat me with a degree of caution because I was simply too important to them to do otherwise. Importantly, I was now wearing a wider range of hats so had direct responsibility for enforcing policy in a way that had not applied in the past.

I also had to accept that it was going to take time to build trust. Trust did not mean, to use an old Australian phase, being one of the boys, boys in this case including both sexes. Rather, it meant treating people consistently and fairly, protecting confidences, recognising achievement and providing top cover. We used the term top cover to recognise my continuing role in protecting my people, in ensuring that they had the operational freedom they needed to do their job.

I will write on the top cover issue in more detail later because I believe that this is an absolutely critical condition for the creation of high performing teams.

Given that the communications problem was real and that it was going to take time to build trust, I still had an immediate need to find out what was wrong in the branch, what to do about it. Here I did two things:

  1. I focused on understanding work flows. What was being done, who was doing it, how was it being done, at what standard? I must emphasis that this did not mean micro-management, itself a major problem in professional services. I saw my role in setting quality standards and then letting people get on with it. As I gained understanding I was able to identify a few immediate problems that I could act on that would help people, thus building trust.
  2. I also got out of my office a fair bit, just talking to people, while also encouraging a range of branch activities. Some of this was informal and social, just stopping by people's desks to ask them something, follow up something. I also tried to find ways of working with as many people as possible, trying to help them on particular tasks.

In combination, this started to give me a feel for the the real scope of branch activities, of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, of the real problem areas. I was also able to triangulate, to look at a person or an issue using several different information sources.

People's perceptions are always imperfect.

Two of my people were perceived by the Department as non-performers. I formed a different view.

One in a fast response, high pressure area was being so badly crippled by tension induced migraine headaches as to render him a non-performer. Yet when I talked to him I found his deep knowledge of the Australian economy and of economic statistics invaluable. He also had a female staff member who I felt was being under-rated, who had considerable potential.

In this case, and with his full agreement, we restructured section operations so that the female staff member and I worked on the fast response stuff, mainly daily economic briefings to the minister, while he focused on longer term issues. His migraines eased, the standard of our economic advice improved, while the female staff member seized the opportunity, in so doing moving onto a faster promotion path.

The second case involved a deputy section head who was perceived as non-performing in large part because he could not work the required hours. When I looked at this case I found that he had a non-performing section head who spent a lot of time on a private business interests and that he was in fact trying to carry the section. I also found that he was a single father with four children, creating enormous problems for him in trying to balance work and family. There was simply no way he could be on call in the way the Department was trying to demand.

In this case I facilitated the exit of the section head. I say facilitated because the section head and I agreed that he should go on immediate leave without without pay to do other things. A little later he resigned.

In doing so I found that the Department was well aware of the performance problem. I spoke to the section head in the morning and then prepared the necessary request. The required Departmental and Public Service Board approvals came through in just two hours, with the section head on leave that afternoon. When I commented on this, I was told that it had been just too difficult to handle previously!

I now restructured the section, making the deputy section head acting section head. With his cooperation I also restructured the work to give him greater time flexibility to meet family needs with other staff providing back-up when he was not there. He was later confirmed in the section head position.

None of this would have been possible if I had not spent the time required to overcome the communication barrier created by my role as boss.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Small Business USA - a business primer

I must congratulate David Anderson for a series of outstanding posts on his Small Business USA blog.

This is a new blog in which David has been working his way through key issues facing firms that wish to bring in new equity partners. He began with the business plan and is now discussing marketing. While David's starting point is admission of equity, the posts are building a core business primer relevant to all businesses.

I mention the posts on this blog for two reasons.

First, the posts are relevant to all those concerned with the management and marketing of professional services.

Secondly, the posts provide a valuable check list for all professionals providing management or business related advice.

Keep up the good work, David.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Legal Fees Review Panel - Legal Costs in NSW

Chris Marston and I have been having an off-line conversation on issues associated with value pricing. As part of this I sent Chris a copy of a recent report by the Legal Fees Review Panel on Legal Costs in NSW.

Given continuing US discussion on time based billing and associated problems, I thought that this review of the Australian position might be of interest to a broader audience (here).

Friday, November 10, 2006

Professional Services - On Time, Time Keeping and Performance Management

One of my recurring themes with my colleagues has been the need for all of us to keep time sheets. I know some do and some don't. But, in my view, we all should. So I would like to start by looking at some time keeping issues.

When I go into a professional services firm, I start by finding out about their time keeping systems. I do this regardless of the assignment. Why? Because as a strategic consultant with a strong expertise in professional services firms, I know that measurement drives performance. That is, we focus on the things that we measure. And in doing so, we set the structure for performance across the whole firm. To illustrate.

If the time keeping systems are sloppy, then I know that I can normally get an immediate improvement in bottom line performance by tightening up those systems. The reason for this is simple. Our memories about time are very imperfect. As a general rule, filling in time sheets at the end of the day normally leads to underestimation of time on time on particular jobs of up to a third. This figure can rise to 50 per cent if time sheets are filled in on a weekly basis. So it is important to capture time properly.

In my experience, people often become very uncomfortable at this point. We have been charging the client x. We are going to lose our clients if we now charge them x plus 30 per cent. Sometimes these concerns have a degree of validity. If so, we know that the firm has a performance problem that has been concealed by the sloppy time keeping in that they have in fact been discounting their fees. Nevertheless, improved time keeping nearly always flows through to an immediate and positive bottom line impact.

This holds for both time based and fixed price charging. In fact, accurate time keeping is most important in fixed price or blended charging modes because otherwise you cannot dtermine the real profitability of either individual jobs or different classes of work.

Performance follows measurement

The next thing I look at is just what is measured and the targets attached to those measures since this indicates immediately what problems the firm might have, as well as just what will work in that firm.

I start by looking at individual time recording. What hours are staff expected to work, how is that time broken up between charge and firm time?

Now there is substantial variation in approach here between firms in terms of target hours and the break-up of those hours. However, from my experience there is an almost universal rule that firms focus first on charge time, after all that is where the income comes from, with firm time treated almost as a residual to be minimised. I also know that where this happens the firm is likely to experience problems in terms of over-runs in charge time, together with unwillingness on the part of staff to commit time to marketing or personal development since this is usually included in firm or non-charge time.

The lesson here is that firm time is an asset that requires conscious management.

I then look at the way in which performance is assessed.

A key issue here is the extent to which measurement, especially for more senior professionals, is solely based on personal performance. As soon as I see this, I know that the firm will have problems of delegation and revenue maximisation.

A second, broader, issue is the way in which measurement links to the stated objectives and values of the firm. As soon as I see a conflict here I know that there is a problem.

Time keeping, performance measurement and performance for the individual independent

Many smaller independents argue that these issues do not apply to them. We are small and know our own business. The reality can be quite different.

To begin with, most if not all of us overestimate our real working hours. As soon as I hear someone say that they work 55 hour weeks, I am suspicious and want to know what they mean by work.

Now I work reasonably hard. I also keep very accurate time records, logging off whenever I stop work. For example, my time on this report is recorded. During the shower I just had (I mainly work from home), I stopped recording and have just started again. So I know my real working hours very exactly.

Some weeks I work very long hours. But when I look at the overall pattern, I find that my average hours across the last five calendar years as a whole ranged between 43 and 44 hours per week. Further, given family commitments, the only way I can get to these figures is by working early in the morning, at night and at weekends.

So you can see why I am suspicious when some one tells me that they average 50 hours plus per week. It suggests to me that they do not really know their time. And, consequently, they cannot really judge the value attached to that time. The only way to overcome this is to keep proper time sheets.

Of course, it's not just the hours we work but the distribution of those hours that is important. Here time keeping is very important in adjusting priorities as we go along.

On Activity versus Reflection
One of the things that I try to focus on in time monitoring is the level of time devoted to service and personal development.

In my experience, independents can be broken into two groups, those that act and those that both act and reflect.The majority of independents act, get the job, do the job. Of course they learn to some degree as they go along, but this is limited to what they notice and internalise while doing the job. A smaller group stands back and reflects on what they have learned. Within this second group, a still smaller cohort attempts to define and document.

In my view, action combined with reflection is essential to professional and business development in laying the basis for future work. Further, the process is greatly reinforced where the lessons are properly defined and documented. Without these steps, we will not have the things we require two years out.

On the difficulties of reflection

The problem, of course, with reflection, definition and documentation is that it takes time. This can make it very hard to do.

I was reminded of this at a dinner in Sydney for one of our senior colleagues who was in Sydney because of the work he is doing with a specialist medical college on the definition of medical competencies.

Over dinner, our colleague talked about the fascinating leading edge work he has been doing with another client. All those present could see how this might form the basis for a new national service offering. We could all share our colleague's frustration about the way in which other pressures made it difficult for him to do the necessary thinking and writing required to really take advantage of the work.

There is no easy answer here. We just have to do the best we can, recognising that we are all human. The key thing is to recognise that action is required and therefore to allocate at least some time despite other pressures.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ndarala launches new blog

I put the Wednesday forum aside this week because I have been working on another project.

I have not talked much on this blog about my own activities because I have seen the primary purpose of the blog as improving the management of professional services firms. However, I need to talk here about what I do because this sets a context for this post.

My day to day activities centre on two things:
  • trying to help individual clients, especially professional services firms, improve performance
  • coordinating the activities of the Ndarala collective.

Ndarala is a funny animal. Formed in April 1996, our mission is to help the independent management related professional practice and professional achieve their objectives through cooperative action while maintaining true independence. We try to achieve the first through the creation of a framework that will facilitate cooperation, while the second dictates that members chose the level and direction of participation that suits their individual needs.

Making this work is not all beer and skittles. The very fact of independence that creates the need for cooperation also creates the main barrier to cooperation.

One of Ndarala's strengths lies in the spread of its people across professions including law, engineering, training and management consulting, a second in the service spread of its professionals, a third in the different marketplaces served. While this diversity creates its own challenges, it also provides an opportunity for cross-fertilisation. Certainly I find it very valuable in a professional sense.

Collectively, the Ndarala people create a lot of material of value. This is presently widely spread. We have therefore decided to create a new Ndarala blog to try to make this material more accessible to a broader audience while also providing a forum for comment on specific issues of professional and management interest.

In doing so, we have also been influenced by the increasing tendency of people to search blog posts for material as compared to broader web searches simply because so much current material is now best accessed by blog.

The new blog does not pretend to be an easy read. Because we are planning to use it as a point of reference as well as a place of comment, many of the posts will be much longer than normal, full articles in their own right. Further, the spread of interests of Ndarala professionals makes for a wide range of potential topics.

Still, we hope that it will prove to be of value to a broader audience.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Professional Services - selling your practice: making the sale succeed

I was flattered to receive a mention on Chris Marston's Inside the Firm of the Future, although I should note for the record that I am not myself an attorney, an inference that could be drawn from Chris's words.

Chris's article Apathy Abounds, Until The Walls Come Tumbling Down addresses the issue of poor succession planning in medium and big size firms, using a comparison between partnership and corporation structures to make a number of points relating to management and governance. These are issues that I have been addressing as well.

In my last post I looked at the mechanics and some simple maths associated with sale of small practices. In this post I want to look briefly at what is required to make a sale a success for both side. This is not rocket science, simply basic common sense.

The approach I described in my post was designed to reduce financial risk while increasing chances of success through transition arrangements with sale price dependent on performance in the period after the sale. However, risks still remain.

These risks are not so much financial, but rather the danger that scarce time may have to be diverted from other activities to try to make things work. Both sides can take action to reduce this problem.

Key Risks

There are a number of common reasons why acquisitions of the type we are talking about run into problems. They can be summarised this way:
  1. System and process incompatibilities. Information such as client records must be migrated from the old to the acquiring practice. Because systems and processes vary between practices, problems can arise in doing this.
  2. Business incompatibilities. This area includes service offerings, billing approaches and pricing policy. Simple imposition without thought of the acquiring firm's billing and pricing policies may lead to very real business problems.
  3. Client loss. Acquisition without a clear client migration strategy may lead to significant client loss.
  4. Cultural incompatibility and integration failure. This links to earlier points, but extends beyond this to include issues of cultural fit between the selling professional or practice and the new firm as well as failure to properly transfer knowledge from the original to acquiring practice. A clear integration strategy is therefore required.
  5. Exit failure. Exit failure comes about because both sides have failed to define properly how final exit is to be handled. Results can include unhappiness on both sides together with client loss.
Importance of the Due Diligence Phase

As I said, none of this is rocket science. Yet I remain amazed at how often both seller and buyer fail to address these issues.

The due diligence phase is critical if problems are to be avoided. Too often, this phase is seen in narrow terms, checking facts, negotiating required contracts. In fact, it is the core phase during which all the management issues associated with the acquisition need to be addressed and a proper integration plan developed.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Professional Services - selling your practice: terms of sale

Many self-employed professionals or small independent practices assume that nobody would want to buy their practice. In fact there is a marketplace, albeit imperfect, for such practices. This post looks briefly at the mechanics involved in the most common sale approach.

The normal steps are:

  1. Buyer and seller define an agreed date for the acquisition.
  2. The seller agrees to continue to work for the acquiring firm for an agreed period to ensure smooth transition of the practice business to the new owner. This is normally a minimum of a year but can be longer depending on mutual interests.
  3. An agreed remuneration package is defined for the transition period. This is usually based on an agreed percentage of the fees flowing from the acquired practice client base taking into account overhead costs, any added service delivery costs and a profit margin for the acquiring firm.
  4. An agreed price is defined to be paid at some point in the future, often the end of the transition period, based on the performance of the acquired practice during the transition period. The price many be paid in a single payment or may involve several payments again linked to performance.

A simple example showing the maths in operation. Assume a small practice with a single professional coming up on retirement, own office and a secretary, fees say $200,000 with a pretax net of $120,000. This is the type of practice that might normally close or simply run down as the owner gets older.

The two parties agree that that the practice will be acquired on the following terms:

  1. The seller will receive 50 per cent of the paid fees he/she generates during the following year from both acquired clients and work done by the owner for other firm clients. Say this is $200,000. The acquired professional will get $100,000.
  2. The seller will receive a cash payment at the end of the year based on 60 per cent of billed fees generated during the previous year from the acquired practice adjusted for any potential bad debts. Say this is $220,000. The acquired professional will get $132,000.

Under this arrangement, the acquiring firm pays out $232,000 plus any added variable costs associated with the extra business but receives $220,000 in added fee income. This means that it has acquired an added fee base of $220,000 for a net cost ignoring any added variable costs of $12,000.

Assume that the seller would have kept the practice going for another twelve months and then closed. He/She has received $232,000 for the period, an extra $112,000 as compared to the closure option. Both sides have benefited.

I recognise that there are many variables involved. In a later post I will look at what is involved in making this type of arrangement work.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Corporatisation & Structural Change in Law - a Canadian Perspective

As part of my monitoring I came across a very useful post on the Canadian Slaw blog, the practice of law in the 21st century, looking at some of the changes in the profession from a Canadian perspective.

One thing that I found interesting were the similarities between the Australian and Canadian perspectives. The writer, Jordan Furlong, looks at the changes in the UK as a consequence of national competition policy, linking this to possible changes in Canada.

In Australia, too, national competition policy has forced changes across all the professions, with the change wave now hitting law.

I note that Canada also has problems in attracting lawyers to regional areas. I suspect that, again like Australia, this problem is not unique to law. All very interesting.

Professional services & the Demographic Time Bomb - a postscript

As part of my research on demographic issues, I came across a rather interesting blog called demography matters providing demographic information as well as discussion on the individual country position around the world.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Wednesday (more correctly) Thursday Forum - The Demographic Time Bomb

Continuing my attempt to encourage discussion, my last post (31 October) People Management in Professional Services- the Demographic Time Bomb dealt with the impact of demographic change in an Australian context. Just to summarise a few key points:
  1. The number of Australians attending University has not increased significantly since 1996. The economy has gown rapidly since then. Part of this growth has been supported by productivity improvement (working smarter), part by people simply working harder. Growth has now reached the point that there are skilled labour shortages across the economy.
  2. In the absence of an increase in the proportion of Australians going to University, the number of Australians attending University over the next ten years is unlikely to increase. Further, over this period an increasing number of the baby boomer generation will be retiring. All professions and professional service firms will be struggling to find people to support growth and replace retirees.
  3. Attitudes to work have changed and are continuing to change across the complete age spectrum People are tired and less willing to make the personal contributions (the working harder) that supported previous growth.
  4. If my analysis is in any way correct, people recruitment and management is going to be the single most important strategic issue firms will face in the next decade. Why, then, do so few appear to be worrying about the issue?

Is my analysis for Australia correct? Do the same problems exist in other countries? Are firms in fact responding? What do you think needs to be done?