Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, December 28, 2006

PSVillage - I feel flattered!

Luanne Pirogowicz from PSVillage emailed me. I quote:

We were recently made aware of your blog "Managing the
Professional Services Firm" and were very impressed with the content and value it offers. We'd like to reference it on our website, and were wondering if you'd be willing to provide a paragraph that describes your blog.

I feel flattered. I know PSVillage. I am very happy to help.

I am not an IT professional, although I have worked with IT professionals for more than the last twenty years.

My message is that all professionals and professional service practices can learn from each other regardless of differences between professions. Hence my willingness to help PSVillage.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Season's Greetings 2006

Business in Australia has now broken for Christmas. For that reason, I hope that you will not take it amiss if I wish you all regardless of faith, location or calendar a happy Christmas and a very successful new year.

May 2007 bring the world a greater measure of peace for all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Five Things Meme

Photo: Belshaw Family, Rome January 2005

Everybody appears to start their post on this one by saying something like "I'll admit I am not a huge fan of chain letters or tagging games." They then go on to do it anyway!

In Tony Karrer's words:

In terms of tagging - I'm not sure who's already gone through this ... I apologize for continuing the pain ... hehehehe ... you see after you've been hazed, you ... well, you know ...

Thanks, Tony, I think, for tagging me.

What does all this mean? Well, the idea is that we all say five things about ourselves that people might not know then nominate some others to do the same.

It's not a bad idea at all because it means that people find out something personal on blogs that can be very serious. I have found that interesting and also found the process interesting because it has introduced me to some new blogs.

The five things about me:

  1. I am married with three wonderful girls, wife Denise and daughters Helen (18) and Clare (16). My daughters keep me young in part because they keep me in touch allowing me to span generations in a way that might not otherwise be possible.
  2. For the last few years I have mainly worked from home because in a two working parent household I have been the primary child carer. Cooking, transport, school things etc. This has had its professional costs, but has given me a closeness to my daughters that I value greatly.
  3. Tennis is now the only sport I play, badly but enjoyably, but I remain an inveterate sport watcher. Sport of all types. I especially enjoy watching the super 14 Rugby with my eldest daughter, although we have yet to win the tipping competition.
  4. This will not come as a surprise to those who read my personal blog, but I have wide interests, insatiable curiosity as to how things work and am sometimes far too serious for my own good. My family keeps on working on the last.
  5. The personal things I most enjoy are reading, activities with my family and conversation with friends. I used to enjoy cooking until I ended up doing it all the time. The things I enjoy least are city driving and tidying the house up!

Now who to tag for personal and professional variety?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How Law Firms Woo Women

In my last post I returned in part to one of my constant themes, the strategic challenge posed by demographic change to all professional services firms. This links to another theme, the changing gender balance in professional training (here) because of the growing dominance of women in university numbers.

Last Friday's Australian Financial Review (15 December) carried a story by Matthew Drummond that exactly that illustrates some of the points I have been trying to make. While the story focuses on law, its conclusions are more broadly relevant.

Drummond begins by noting that while law schools have been turning out more female lawyers than ever before (the female proportion is now over 50 per cent), women still make up fewer than 20 per cent of partners in commercial law firms. However, this is now changing as rising recruitment costs and cut throat competition forces firms to adopt family friendly policies in order to retain women.

Firms are now offering flexible working arrangements for lawyers with young families including improved maternity leave arrangements to compete for talent, especially among partners. Many have recently revised their policies, increasing the industry average to 10 weeks' paid maternity leave for lawyers, 16 for partners.

According to Janean Richards, President of Australian Women Lawyers, keeping women within the firm has become a greater priority in part because real recruitment costs have become so high. This is reflected in the stats - over the last six months women have made up 34.3 per cent of new partners, up from 28.4 per cent in the preceding six months.

This trend must increase if you look at the numbers I have provided in some of my previous posts.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Past Experiences. Present Challenges. Future Predictions

I did not comment on the Learning Circuits big question for November - Are ISD / ADDIE / HPT relevant in a world of rapid elearning, faster time-to-performance, and informal learning? - simply because I add little to add.

For those like me who find the initials confusing, Harold Jarche provided some useful definitions:

  • HPT - Human Performance Technology
  • ISD - Instructional Systems Design [or Development]
  • ADDIE - a process incorporating Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation, stemming from the Systems Approach to Training (SAT)

I commend the November debate to those interested as a simple and quick way of coming up to speed on the issues involved.

The December big question (more accurately questions) is more open ended:

  • What will you remember most about 2006?
  • What are the biggest challenges for you/us as head into 2007?
  • What are your predictions for 2007?

I cannot resist answering from a personal perspective.

What will I remember most about 2006?

For me, 2006 has been the year of the blog.

I have always written as a way of clarifying and explaining ideas. However, in recent years this writing has been generally client or Group member(s) specific.

I was aware of blogs and blogging as a way of expressing ideas, but this was not central to my work or life. Then Sandra Welsman, one of my Ndarala colleagues, pointed me to the Is training snake oil debate? on the Learning Circuits blog. Things snowballed from there.

We prepared a paper on the snake oil debate (link above), followed by a case study on the use of blogs as a communications device within specialist medical colleges. To further the learning process, I then began experimenting in April (was it only April?) with my own and Group blogs, looking further at the practical issues involved with blogging.

In turn, this led to the use of blogs as a publishing device for making some of our material more readily available to a broader audience, as well as a platform for expressing comments and ideas. Since then, I have published several hundred thousand words combining both existing and new material.

I have always combined curiosity (I like to know the how and why) with broad interests. When I first started blogging there was a period while I felt my way. As the quantity of posts grew, I found that the material published on the various blogs was overlapping and informing other material.

For example, the analysis I did on demographic change on my personal blog was intended to help me understand the impact of demography on social, economic and political change. But this then fed back into writing on this blog. In similar vein, I have re-published past material on the Ndarala Group blog to provide back-up for some of the stories written on this blog.

One important feature of the year has been the way in which blogging has put me in touch with other professionals, further informing my own thinking. This has been especially important on the learning and development side.

I believe very strongly that improved people management is critical to improved performance within professional services. This is reflected in the weight that I have placed on people management issues in my posts. I also believe that improved people management is too important just to be left to the HR professionals, that it needs to be implemented across firms.

I also believe that good training is central to improved people management. Here I have drawn heavily on the knowledge of others and especially those outside Australia to inform my own training perspective. I do not necessarily agree with them, I have real concerns about the US approach to education and training, but the insights have always been helpful.

In all this, I suppose that one of my conclusions from the year is the need for learning and development professionals to come out of the ghetto that they seem to have imposed upon themselves. As someone looking at education and training in part from an external management perspective, it sometimes seems to me that I have a higher opinion of learning and development than do those working exclusively in the field.

Looking Forward to 2007

In looking forward to 2007, I would join the questions of predictions and challenges together.

Many of the younger Australian professionals have never seen an economic downturn. They live in a world of constant market expansion. I have and know what its like.

Professional services is what economists call a leading indicator in that many areas involve discretionary spend that firms can and do defer as economic conditions tighten.

In 1990 the Australian marketplace for professional services broadly defined collapsed, with total fees falling by over a third in less than nine months. In the case of my own firm, a start up that had grown rapidly over the previous eighteen months, we started 1990 with monthly fees of $72,000, monthly expenses of $62,000. Over the next three months, monthly fees dropped to just $28,000. In so doing, we went from comfortably profitable to financial bleeding.

I make this point because both the world and Australian economy are increasingly uncertain.

In Australia, the growth shown in the GDP figures is coming from the mining states. In the latest quarterly figures NSW, the biggest state in economic terms and as a professional services market, actually showed a GDP decline. If, as seems quite possible, this is repeated in the December quarter, NSW will be technically in recession.

So economic conditions pose the first challenge.

The second challenge comes from demographic change.

I have suggested before that the implications of demographic change pose the key strategic challenge for professional services firms in western economies over the next decade. I have also noted my frustration at my failure to get this message across.

Now it may be that economic downturn will ease the short term problem by reducing demand for professional labour. But this will be at best a short term easing.

The longer term problem can be stated quite simply.

The numbers in the entry level age cohorts are stagnant to declining. High university fees are reducing higher education participation rates in many countries. So the people that professional services firms have traditionally relied upon are simply not there.

In the first instance, the stronger firms will survive by eating up the people market for the rest, if at a higher price. We can already see this.

In countries like Canada and Australia, areas outside the main metro centres are already suffering from an aging professional structure. This will go critical over the next decade as people retire. At country level, some countries (Germany is an example) are already suffering net migration decline among younger professionals attracted to better prospects elsewhere.

This poses challenges at both profession wide and firm level.

At professional level, the inability of individual professions to meet needs will lead to continued erosion in professional divides. We can already see this. In the absence of sufficient doctors, other professional groups such as registered nurses are being given responsibilities such as prescribing rights previously the preserve of medicos. In law, areas of law such as conveyancing are now going to non-lawyers.

At firm level, firms will be squeezed between limited staff on one side, new competition on the other. Again, the bigger who can afford to pay more will be able to cherry pick among the rest.

In all this, improved people management will be critical to a firm's ability to attract, retain and upgrade its people. Failure here means longer term death.

Linking this back to learning and development.

The challenge for all education and training professionals is going to be to find the best way for both professional services as a sector and Government to respond to these challenges. We cannot help all firms, only those prepared to help themselves. But for those firms who are prepared to change, we are going to need to be able to offer new solutions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Belshaw Takes a Break

Photo: South West Rocks, New England

Tomorrow I leave for a few days in South West Rocks, one of the most beautiful places in New England.

While there is an internet cafe in South West Rocks and I will be checking my blogs and responding to any comments, I do not expect at this point to make any posts.

I want a rest to rethink and re-charge.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Performance Measurement - a follow up note

In my last post I spoke of the seven deadly sins of performance measurement. While I mentioned Chris Marston, I had not seen the latest post on his blog' Get Your Calculators and Spreadsheets Out. Ready . . . Set . . . Hurry Up and STOP!!!!'

This post reinforces many of the messages I was trying to get across and is well worth a read.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Seven Deadly Sins of Performance Measurement

The Juris more partner income blog had a useful post on performance measurement including some links to previous posts. However, it got me thinking about the reasons why I think that the current obsession with performance measurement has become so dangerous.

Human beings are not machines. We are complex creatures motivated by a range of different things, trying in day to day life to manage our confusions, to balance all the different pressures upon us. Performance measurement systems must take this into account if they are to have positive longer term results.

Thinking about this led me to define what I call the seven deadly sins of performance measurement. I see that Chris Marston has been dealing with some of the same issues. The sins are:

  1. Make people work harder, longer hours, to achieve target. This sin involves setting targets that can only be achieved through longer hours. People have only so much time. You can sometimes get an immediate improvement by making people work harder, but real longer term results depend upon working smarter.
  2. Set measures that depend upon things outside personal control to achieve target. A remarkable number of systems focus on personal charge performance as the central measure. This assumes that the work is there, that people have control over work flows. If neither is true, then your measurement system becomes an automatic de-motivator.
  3. Set measures that encourage your staff to over-charge the customer. Focus just on charge without taking quality and service into account and you build in an incentive to over-charge.
  4. Create a one size fits all system. People's needs and capabilities vary. A staff member that can only work limited time may in fact be very valuable. A staff member that can only do certain things may be very valuable. It all depends on how much you pay relative to the contribution. If you create a universal measurement system that fails to take relative contribution into account, then you may build in disincentives. You are also likely to end up making false judgements about staff.
  5. Focus your performance management system just on those things that can be measured precisely. Many key contributions cannot easily be measured in strict quantitative terms. The problem here is most acute for firms that limit their measures to financial variables. Because you get what you measure, however imperfectly, you can be sure that the things not measured will be ignored.
  6. Create a disconnect between firm values and performance measurement. Too many firms set up measurement systems that conflict with stated firm values. Your measurement systems should reinforce, not ignore or conflict with, firm values.
  7. Destroy fun. There is a strong connection between motivation and morale and enjoyment of work. Make the formal performance measurement system the central feature of firm life and watch the joy flow away.

Related Posts

Monday, December 04, 2006

Project Management in Professional Services

Good project management is central to the effective delivery of client services. Further, project management techniques can be applied in any organisation.

I mention this because we have started a new series of posts on the Ndarala Group blog on Project Management for Professionals. So far we have put up two posts drawing from our internal Short Guide to Project Management:

I recommend the series to all those who are interested in finding out more about project management.

Creation & Use of Case Studies - Training 2

This post completes the three part series on the use of case studies.

In the first post I looked at general issues associated with the creation and use of case studies. The second post focused on the creation of case studies for use in training. This post extends the training analysis.

Review of Case Study

Once the material has been prepared, it should be reviewed. The following questions adapted from from "Analysis of a Draft Case in Education" by Judith Kleinfeld( University of Alaska, Fairbanks, John Boehrer, 1999) should help you here.


1. Does the case offer a challenging decision to make or reflect on?

2. Is the problem balanced, with no single right answer or obvious solution?

3. Does the case provide contrasting perspectives on the problem?

4. Can the problem be analyzed through different frames? Is the case a good structure for applying, testing, or formulating theory?

5. Is the problem significant in the field? Does it raise issues that transcend the story?

6. Is the problem rich and subtle? Does it have multiple dimensions, e.g., interpersonal, organizational, political, policy, or ethical?

Intended Audience

1. Is the case engaging and thought-provoking? Does it capture the reader on an emotional, as well as an intellectual, level?

2. Would reader identify or empathize with any perspective in the case, especially that of the person or group facing the problem?

3. Does the case raise questions or issues that readers will want to think about and discuss?

4. Is the case appropriately difficult with respect to defining the problem, generating solutions, and/or applying analytic concepts and techniques?


1. Does the case seem believable and authentic?

2. Does the case tell a story, and avoid analyzing or editorializing about it?

3. Does the case have a concise, engaging opening that sets the scene, presents the problem, and introduces the decision-maker?

4. Does the case contain sufficient background information that enables reader to grasp the situation? Does the case have grist for the analysis?

5. Does the case tell the story in a clear time sequence, with rising and falling action, climax, and drama?

6. Is the writing lively and well-paced, without cliches, confusion, or unnecessary complexity"

Additional Virtues

1. Does the case present models of professional thinking - analyzing and thinking about a problem contextually, using frameworks in sophisticated and appropriate ways?

2. Does the case suggest alternative strategies for addressing problems?

3. Does the case provide valuable information about a professional setting?

Case Revision Worksheet

Once the case becomes a ‘stand-alone’ document, the user (program trainer/facilitator) would the need to consider the following questions in preparation for delivery. This material is drawn especially from John F. Kennedy School of Government Case Program, 1999.


1. Why do I want to use this case in this course? (Course Objective)

2. What skills, knowledge, or attitudes do I hope to develop in the course participants through the process of discussion? (Learning Outcomes)


A stand-alone case may have more issues than what are to be dealt with in the course. It is important to highlight for readers what will be teased out from the case. It would not be necessary to change the case itself, but it is important to focus the attention of the user from the start.

1. What issue(s) does this case offer for exploration?

2. What perspective(s) do I want the participants to adopt when considering the issues?

3. What analysis do I want the participants to do that will further the course objective(s)?

4. What concept or theory might be relevant to this analysis?


1. How is this case to be used?

  • As example in lecture
  • As a scenario to which illustrates of particular issue or process
  • As a model from which a theory is developed
  • As basis for discussion and problem-solving…

2. What questions will generate the analysis and/or decision-making users will complete?

3. What analysis do I want the participants to do that will further the course objective(s)?

4. What are the questions (& sequence) I plan to ask?

5. What process options will I use?

  • formal presentation
  • informal presentation
  • seminar/open discussion
  • paired
  • small group work
  • role play
  • Q & A


What adjustments need to be made to the case document prior to distribution to readers?

1. How might the case be re-written so that I can teach it to achieve my objectives and the determined learner outcomes?

2. What is unclear/confusing/incomplete?

3. What needs to be added/taken out?

4. Do any perspectives need to be further developed?

5. What structural changes are needed? e.g., what decision point(s) do I want? where? Should the case break into parts (A) (B) ... ? What activities/timing are relevant for each segment?

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. Incorporated material drawn from other sources should also be acknowledged.

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