Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Towards a Discipline of Practice - the Ndarala challenge

We have begun a series of posts on our Managing the Professional Services Firm blog discussing issues associated with the development of a discipline of practice, essentially how we do what we do as professionals.

Our experiences in trying to make our own collective work across disciplines and geographic space are one of the drivers behind the series. For that reason, I thought that I should share some of the Ndarala experience with you.

Ndarala Overview

Ndarala is a funny animal.

We bring together professionals and professional practices from a range of different management related professions - law, a range of management consulting disciplines, training, education, engineering, IT. While most members are in professional practice, we also have members who are employed in management or professional roles in a range of organisations.

Our members are widely spread in geographic terms, creating issues for communication and cooperation. Voluntary participation is central to our operations, meaning that we cannot compel people to do things, to follow particular approaches, in the way a conventional organisation can.

Our professional spread means that we can see at first hand the profound and sometimes subtle differences between professions. Each profession has its its own field of knowledge, its own language, its own culture instilled during early education and training. All these combine to create barriers between and sometimes even within professions even when dealing with common problems.

Multimedia Project Management Example

A simple example to illustrate the point.

Back in 1995 several of us were involved in cooperative activities intended to facilitate the development of a multimedia industry in Australia. This was then an emerging industry spanning sectors and technologies. As part of the industry development side, we decided to organise a seminar on project management since our experience in the IT and communications arena suggested that enhanced skills here were critical to success in an emerging project based sector.

Because multimedia spanned technologies and sectors, we decided that the best format for the seminar was to bring together a number of speakers from different areas to talk about their own experience with project management. So we had speakers from IBM, an independent film production company, an events management company, a consulting company and a law practice.

The seminar was a great success measured by audience response, but it almost failed as it became clear just how different were both the terms and apparent approaches used for what was, after all, a common task, the management of a project. This required us to change track in mid seminar, spending time using multiple white boards to compare and contrast different approaches. As we did so, the similarities became clear. Further, and this was perhaps the greatest benefit from an attendee perspective, our different speakers were drawn into a comparative discussion on approach.

Drawing from this experience, when we came to set up Ndarala the following year (1996) as a network connecting independent management related professionals, we decided to try to build common practice techniques including a focus on project management as a core approach. In doing so, we ran into a series of new problems.

Problems in Inter-professional Cooperation - Profession determines Answer

The first of the new problems was the way in which professional background dictated answers.

Take an HR problem as an example: ask a lawyer and you will get a legal answer; ask an HR professional and you will get an answer set within the bounds of the HR profession; ask a professional manager and you will get a different answer again. Same problem, different solutions.

The extent of this problem was initially unclear to us, simply because it tended to be unimportant for practical day to day purposes. However, it started to become very important when we began looking at cooperative service development and marketing across professional divides.

Take a simple thing like a position statement where some of our legal, HR and management professionals were already providing templates to clients. When we came to look at these, we found that they were as different as chalk and cheese. Part of these differences lay in the differing knowledge domains of the different professionals. But part also drew from the different philosophical biases of the professions themselves.

This is a slippery concept, so let me try to explain. Risk avoidance is important to lawyers. They look for what might go wrong in legal terms, how to prevent this. HR professionals, by contrast, are more concerned with people issues, with control, with ensuring compliance, with firm wide procedures. Management professionals just want to get their job done and are impatient with anything that threatens this. Again, same problem, different answer.

This issue - the impact of different world views among professions - has been discussed at some length on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog. We found that it affected our attempts to introduce common techniques such as project management by affecting the way those techniques were learned and applied in practice.

Problems in Inter-professional Cooperation - Cooperation is a Skill

We tried to overcome this problem by making more information available and by networking our people from different professions through special interest groups focused on common vertical interests. Here we struck two further linked problems.

Problem one is that we found that inter-disciplinary cooperation is in fact a skill. That is, it can only be learned through practice. We tried to accommodate this through seminars linked to our professional development program with a special focus on case studies. This was reasonably effective, but suffered from the second linked problem, that of time.

Professionals are time poor. This is especially true for independents because they do not have the back-up that can be available in bigger firms. Most time poor professionals simply could not afford the time required to do the type of thing that we were asking of them.

Problems in Inter-Professional Cooperation - a Growing Knowledge Gap

We also found that our difficulties were being accentuated by the growing knowledge gap between those members who were participating in inter-disciplinary cooperation and information exchange - the Group's leading edge - and our less active professionals.

Those who were participating began to develop a new knowledge base and associated language, one that was not shared by our less active professionals, so we had a gap opening up within the Group itself. It took us a while to really realise this, simply because those who were most active communicated more with each other and tended to assume that others also understood.

We are still working this one through.

At a practical level, we simply have to accept the reality of the gap. Again at a practical level, the gap normally does not matter in a day to day sense, since our people can access the newer knowledge as they need it through direct contact with other professionals.

Beyond this, we have been experimenting with different ways of presenting and communicating knowledge to try to make it more accessible. This includes the use of blogs to make material available to both our people and a broader audience.

The Power of Inter-professional Cooperation

In the midst of all this, we have been able to establish the power of inter-professional cooperation. The case study featured on this blog in December on the development of ophthalmic competencies is an example.

Identification of the potential role of competencies in meeting the needs of the Royal Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) College of Ophthalmologists came about because of the combination of our people's management knowledge with work previously done by Ndarala's training professionals in the competency arena. So we have two specialist knowledge domains in combination, one identifying the need, the second the possible solution.

The approach adopted to meeting the need involved the combination of knowledge about competencies to set a framework with the use of facilitation techniques to assist busy specialists to articulate the required information. Again, two knowledge domains.

Dario Tomat, the Group professional providing the facilitation, is an engineer who also has specialist training knowledge. The first was important in both understanding and gaining the trust of the doctors who saw Dario as a fellow professional, the second in structuring and writing up the outcomes.

All this contributed to the success of the project. Then, once completed it was written up as a case study (Group role) and then used as an example to provide a base for further discussion.

Back to a Discipline of Practice

Our work demonstrates both the value of inter-disciplinary work and the problems involved in bringing it about. This experience explains why, as a Group, we are such strong advocates for the development of a discipline of practice, one that can reach back into professional training itself.

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