Friday, 29 February 2008

Parties involved with consultancy work

I was trying to get my head round the motivations on the various parties involved, so sketched what I see as the pressures on the four main parties involved:

  • ministers,
  • officials,
  • consultants
  • suppliers

It's the media that start the pressure, through demanding accountability when a newsworthy story arises when something goes wrong (no news is good news) and there's fault of blame to be assigned.

In such a situation of blame, the responsible minister has to stand up in Parliament and explain his decisions. I need to edit the diagram to show that pressure on him/her.

The motivation on the consultancy and supplier firms might be to improve project outcomes so that the company stays in business and preferably improves business. The diagram doesn’t show that either.

What about the client? Government clients are officials, civil servants, bureaucrats, who may work in hierarchies though the culture varies with government department. That hierarchy brings its own forces and accountabilities, but the top accountability comes from the pressure from ministers, who must not be embarrassed, who don’t want to have to stand up in Parliament, so the official must choose a strategy that reduces the chances of embarrassing accountability. I don’t think the diagram shows that either.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Viva advice

We had two recently completed PhD students advising us PG students today. They shared their experiences of their vivas.

One experience sounded quite difficult and upsetting, but now that she has come to terms with it, it sounds like a positive experience. In the viva, you would expect questions to be asked on:
  • background
  • theory
  • method
  • results
and probably asked in order. So when she found the examiner asking her questions on the literature, she expected eventually to move on to the method. But the examiner persisted asking her about articles that she hadn't read, asking her questions that she couldn't answer, and then eventually moved rapidly through the other sections. The examiners were happy with the other sections, less so with the literature. She passed with major corrections and a year to do them. The positive experience is that the examiner is now so supportive, providing a list of the corrections and the literature to embroider into the thesis; it's like having another supervisor. The student made the corrections within three months, going through the list ticking them off.

Our other new PhD student also passed. He had minor corrections, perhaps partly to do with English not being his first language. Fellow students in second and third year have been reading his work to help him with these corrections.

Their advice included:
  • speak slowly, distinctly and formally
  • offer short general statements
  • constantly refer to the literature
  • connect a point made in a question to some debate in the literature
  • read viva chapter in "Doing Post Graduate Research"
  • take a notepad in with you in case you want to write a question down
  • put post-its at the start of each chapter so you can find it quickly
  • draw bubble diagrams of the main themes
  • have a mock viva
  • have your say in the selection of examiners.
You can have some say in selecting your examiner. One of ours found her examiner when in her first year she attended a doctoral colloquium where the examiner was leading. She came back and discussed it with her supervisors. They usually know something about possible supervisors, may be friends with them, but can also warn the student off unsuitable supervisors. Some might not know the subject; others might have a different philosophy on the method you've chosen, or may be too intent on making a name for themselves (early researchers perhaps) to be sympathetic examiners.

PhD Issues

The OUBS PG students have just had a meeting between themselves. We started with an introductory activity - say what issue you are dealing with now, and your neighbour will offer some advice.

Issues included:
  • literature - being stuck on something interesting
  • procrastination
  • time management
  • the more you read the more you're scared by what you don't know!
  • waiting for a confidentiality agreement for access to clients
  • access to get data
  • too small a return rate on samples
  • writing to persuade access
Advice included:
  • work 8 hours a day
  • write anything
  • schedule to read x articles per day
  • use mnemonic SOSTS to guide your writing

  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
  • Solution

I think the first two give the background and the later ones are what you want to get to. I'm working on those to write one paragraph that will persuade someone a) that I can write in non-academic terms, b) that I understood what was going on in the meeting, c) that the OU is a competent organisation, including having real research ability d) to introduce me to others of interest in my area e) to provide the access he offered f) to provide any other relevant support.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Working with people

I’m particularly interested in the practical issues of working with people, about "making sense of others’ worlds" and finding out who "are immersed in those worlds of others". Those people must be public sector clients in projects that involve external IT consultants and suppliers. Public sector project management is particularly complex, so I anticipate problems of going beyond discourse to gain insight through observation, interviews, perhaps focus groups with clients of different types, consultants and suppliers.

Research question: How do public sector managers evaluate the IT consultants and suppliers that they manage?

I’m sure that I will need to work with people because of what the literature says about relationships, so what are the issues?

Working with people involves issues of:
  • place,
  • philosophical and
  • practical issues and
  • analysis of data.
Primarily I think practical issues will be about access.

Issues of setting up and doing field work
  • of locating a role and managing entry, creating an identity for my self - not being a threat to my interviewees to gain confidence trust support and agreement beforehand
  • locating key informants and how they are seen by others, with background and perceptions of informants, developing field relationships
  • Send material to key people in the organisation to check there are no transgressions of any boundaries.
  • I shall reword what I present to my informants to avoid the word 'accountability' with its connotations of blame and fault.

Ethical issues
Who is going to benefit from the research?

How does someone get public sector clients to manage strategic risk, change and the IT consultants that bring change. Answers to that question will benefit clients, consultants and ministers.

Practical – initial thoughts on design
I might want to interview a number of clients in the public sector, e.g. on 3-5 different IT projects, in 2-3 different government departments or councils or NHS. I want to know how they manage, what they manage, their perceptions of the project, its organisation, its successes, stage of the project (background) control of the project. So I'm looking for successful project management. Ask clients how they effectively manage and evaluate consultants and suppliers on the projects that they manage.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Interesting accountability

What's interesting about accountability?
  • the media are always demanding it - projects that have gone wrong attract the media in search of fault and blame, sometimes with incorrect figures and misunderstanding of situations. but it makes news.
  • the various forms of accountability - there are so many that the concept keeps great minds busy attempting to explain and define
  • democracy - accountability is key to democracy, which is the society that I'm told I am in. Presumably everyone round me is accountable for something, my parents for how they brought me up, the schools that did or did not diagnose special needs, government for the way it spends our taxes.
  • people involved - this follows on from the others. In every accountable relationship - and accountability involves relationships - there must be at least two parties, and those parties can be groups, not just a single person. That's the most interesting thing about accountability - how many people are involved, and how they are involved and why and under what circumstances. It gets so complicated that you could spend hours analysing, and people do spend hours, days and I guess, lifetimes.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Writing dialogue with reader

The PACE session this week, run by Sarah North, was about the dialogue with the reader, and started with an analysis of some out of sequence sentences from Jean Aitchison (1989) The Articulate Mammal. There were questions in the extract that performed an important function by signalling to the reader what was coming next.

Questions and their answers may be nested. So the main and first question comes not with an answer, but raises another question which must be answered before the main question can be addressed. You have such a situation when perhaps you are discussing whether or not to go to the cinema:
Q1: Do you want to come to the cinema?
Q2 What's on?
Ans2 Let's look it up - oh x is on (but that leads to another question...)
Q3 What time is it on?
Ans3 Here's the timetable .... decision on timetable
Ans2 (completed): decision on whether or not to go and see x
Ans1 Decision on whether to go to cinema.

I shall look for the questions, and perhaps this sort of structure in the next few papers that I read.

I need to think of the questions that my research will answer, and at this stage think especially about what the literature will answer. To create my argument, I must anticipate what the reader will be thinking and persuade the reader.

One of the hypotheses behind my research is that
public sector managers find it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the consultants that they bring in

What could be the queries or doubts or objections to this hypothesis? I guess:
  • Where's the evidence of the difficulty?
  • Why the public sector in particular?
  • What's evaluation?
  • What do you mean by effectiveness?
  • Should anyone bother to evaluate consultants? Why should public sector managers? Why not someone else?
  • This assumes that consultants are managed. What evidence is there for that?
If you're reading this, please do comment and tell me if you have a query, doubt or objection to this hypothesis.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

First presentation

The OUBS post grads have this year decided to practise presenting amongst themselves. I find the idea of presenting pretty terrifying but know these people, and their advice and opinions are invaluable, so I've got to do it. Anyhow, the two third years and some of the second years have already presented as well as one of my fellow first years. So I spent half an hour telling them what I did for my Master's last year. I hoped my experience would help the Master's students and the content be interesting to all.

What did I learn from the experience of presenting?
  • that I probably know the answers to their questions already
  • that I should write down their questions so that I can think through more considered responses for another time
  • that I can talk about my own topic for ages, quite happily to anyone who cares to listen.
  • that I need to book a laptop and get IT to set things up
  • that you can never guess what questions people will ask
I finished more confident that I could do this again, but the same day had an email from the associate lecturers' staff development offfice. Sadly, the associate lecturers research conference that I'd proposed to present at, won't be happening because there weren't enough presenters.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Concise writing

Had a supervisory today. Supervisor #1 commented that you could see I had a mathematical background because I was too concise!

I'd given them about 4000 words to read on accountability, institutionalism and competing logics and also on client-consultant relationships. Too much! Too curt! Although I was particularly interested in Peled's paper that looked at the pyramid of bureaucrat-consultant-outsourcer, I had written only a couple of sentences on it.

Successful supervision - I've got a steer towards a general question about the evaluation of effective use of consultants in the public sector, and want to look especially at IT consultants because that's the biggest sector that UK consultants work in. It also fits in with an interview I have next week with the VP of a big IT company.

Practised interviews this afternoon in the participatory video workshop.

Need to practise less concise writing...

Peled, D. A. 2001. Outsourcing and Political Power: Bureaucrats, Consultants, Vendors and Public Information Technology. Public Personnel Management, 30(4): 495.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Probation report

As part of the methods conference for post graduate researchers we had a workshop on probation assessment. This sounds quite rigorous. Our director of studies gave us four components to it:
  1. objective
  2. process
  3. preparation
  4. outcomes
The objective is to demonstrate that you have the required skills to progress on to the PhD proper, i.e. that you comprehend what a PhD involves, that you have a critical grasp of the literature and an appropriate style in which you can frame a research question, the programme and methods you intend to use and outline a future work plan.

The process is from now till around June, although we don't register onto the PhD until October. The OUBS does the assessment in June
  • a) in order to allow for time to correct if necessary and
  • b) because there aren't people around in July and August to do the assessment.
Apparently at a viva two independent people from within the OU have an hour's discussion with you, assess the skills audit and the probation report, and your supervisors' responses to your report. Their advice feeds back to supervisors and the director of studies.

The preparation includes:
  • doing the skills audit
  • maintaining a training portfolio
  • a presentation
  • writing a probation report, which is a literature review along with methods and a plan
The possible outcomes are
  • allowed on straight off,
  • get it sorted during the summer,
  • get suspended while you get it sorted,
  • get told to withdraw, or
  • get deregistered i.e, chucked off.