Thursday, 28 May 2009

Aim of my research

The aims of my research are manifold:
  • to get me a PhD
  • to learn to write - more than writing because communication includes presenting research
  • to find how (good?) clients engage with external consultants
  • to argue the value of using consultants
What is my research? I chose the public sector, partly because I'd worked in it, partly because I knew there was a good supervisor whose strengths were in the public sector, partly because I know something of the consultancy world and partly because the media is so interested in the public sector and demands it be accountable. One area of public accountability is the use of consultants. They are expensive and perceived to be a waste of public money. So my research is examining, not that perception, but what value consultants do provide the public sector.

The public sector uses consultants in many different areas: IT, management, legal, construction, training. As a large proportion of public spending is on IT, and because I have a background in IT, I chose to focus my research on II projects.

IT projects draw in different types of people: consultants, developers, users, managers, third party suppliers of hardware, software and of contractors. Contractors may come with particular development skills. So a project may be made up of civil servants and consultants who consider the civil servants as their clients, but also made up of contractors, who work alongside the civil servants developing IT projects. Such a plethora of roles implies a variety of relationships and it's the relationships that my research's focusing on. How do these relationships start, grow, get maintained but particularly what are the relationships between client and consultants?

For work to be effective in leading to a finished project, the NAO exhorts clients and consultants to engage. But it is unclear what engagement is - just that it's something expected from both client and consultant doing something together.

Engagement is not the same as collaboration, which is an organisational arrangement.
Engagement is not user participation in IT testing, which might be part of a job role.
Engagement seems to be of hearts and minds: enthusiastic intrinsic motivation to get a job done well, and consultants can oil the wheels to give that flowing engagement between people. That means consultants mediate and it's the mediation that enhances engagement that leads to effective working on a project.

But are all consultants mediators? Some mediate at a strategic level, influence strategy, others mediate between project members (as does a project manager) influencing tactics and relationships. But if they get it wrong, consultants may deter engagement, not encourage it or even prevent it. Which leads to another question: how can the public sector best engage with consultants to engender engagement.

Engagement creates engagement. Yes - there's research evidence from psychology that suggests that recursion and queries it: which comes first, engagement leads good relationships, or good relationships lead to engagement? And what's best? That might be where I need to bring in Habermas to find a spectrum of engagement.

More questions; more research; more questions.

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