Monday, 24 August 2009

Theoretical framework

This research is of clients’ relationships with consultants in public sector information technology (IT) projects. It will seek to identify and explain how the client engages with consultants and other suppliers in order to add value to a project.

The research question is:
How do public sector organisations engage with consultants in order to contribute to an effective IT project?
Sub questions include:
  1. How does engagement contribute to an effective project?
  2. How does engagement influence relationships?
  3. How does the quality of relationships contribute to an effective project?
  4. How does engagement vary over the life cycle of a project?
  5. How does engagement help in adding value to a project?
Empirical answers to these questions could fill the gap on understanding engagement between clients and consultants. Insights could also contribute to public sector practical management of external consultants to reap value from their contribution to a project.

A review of the literature on consultancy has shown that client entities and relationships are complex. This and the literature on project management show that clients must engage with consultants for good project outcomes. A review of the literature on engagement focused on conceptualisations of engagement but also explored its various articulations. However, the literature has little to say on what client-consultant engagement might be. It is not clear how engagement manifests itself, what its factors might be or what sort of engagement leads to effective consultancy projects.

The literature on social capital allows a conceptualisation of the issue of engagement between consultants and clients on IT projects. The following sections will explain how social capital might be used as a framework for this exploration.

1 What is the problem?
Public sector IT projects often use external consultants, but are also notoriously expensive and often fail. A common cause of project failure is lack of effective engagement with stakeholders (OGC, 2002). In the public sector, engagement is “a critical element of a consulting project” (NAO, 2006a). The National Audit Office (NAO) exhorts clients and consultants to engage to ensure commitment, thus implying that engagement will improve performance and add value to a project. Public servants are advised to engage with consultants and consultants with their clients, but it is not clear how engagement happens or what a good quality of engagement is.
Czerniawska (Czerniawska, 2006) implies two meanings to the term ‘engagement’: the contractual engagement and the relationship. A contract of engagement may mean only initial seeking and selection but this research concerns the longer term relationship regardless of contractual arrangements. Unfortunately Czerniawska has little to say on the value of engagement as a longer term developed relationship, although she recognises that engagement as a relationship determines the success of consulting projects.

The NAO exhortation for engagement seems to be aiming at continued shared understanding; engagement must be mutual. The NAO considers from the findings of case studies that senior level engagement is crucial for successful delivery of IT enabled change (NAO, 2006c) because such engagement demonstrates senior management is committed to the change. This NAO report(NAO, 2006c) requires demonstration of commitment through engagement whilst the other NAO report (NAO, 2006a) requires ensuring commitment through engagement. There might be some confusion or inconsistency of understanding of what engagement means and does for an organisation.

So confusion and inconsistency suggest that it is a problem to understand engagement. Whether engagement is a knowable phenomenon is a moot point. Definitions of engagement are woolly and soft. Hence engagement is “a paradigm for change” (Axelrod, 2001), “the art of bringing people together” (Block, 2000), “a journey of sensing and learning” (Buckingham, 2005). It is also a two way relationship between employee and employer (Robinson D, 2004), a management philosophy (Smythe, 2007) and “a process of communication” (McMaster, 1996). Mutual engagement is a dimension of a community of practice that involves processes of community building (Wenger, 1998). In summary, engagement is a paradigm, a journey, a relationship, a philosophy, a process, an art and to the NAO “an element of a consulting project”. This variety of metaphors suggests engagement is a constructed phenomenon.

Since different constructions seem to conflate engagement with other phenomena like involvement, participation, commitment, collaboration or even motivation, I explored them in the hope of clarifying some concepts of engagement. Previous research on engagement seems to have focused on outcomes and products, being mainly surveys or quasi-experimental (Gable, 1996, Saks, 2006, Schaufeli et al., 2006) but the research question requires looking at the process of engagement and how connecting people builds trust and the commitment that the NAO wants to ensure. That process includes an ongoing negotiation of meaning (Wenger, 1998). Exploration of how meaning is negotiated might be possible using the concept of social capital. Adler and Kwon { 2002 } identify social capital as “as the good will that is engendered by the fabric of social relations and that can be mobilized to facilitate action". It may be possible to relate “the fabric of social relations” to the client-consultant relationship and the “mobilisation of goodwill to engagement”. Hence, the concept of social capital could help in exploring client-consultant engagement.
2 Why is this framework feasible?
Social capital theory can provide a way to explore engagement in relationships between clients and consultants. Its literature provides a framework for performing the specific investigation that is being proposed.

Social capital can be conceptualised as a stock of networks, norms and trust. People develop social capital in organisations. Organisations nurture social capital, which supports the development of intellectual capital because it comes though interaction of people sharing knowledge (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998). Sharing knowledge, norms, and establishing social capital through people coming together on a project, provides the organisation with an advantage.

Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998) suggest three dimensions for creating intellectual capital through social capital:
  • the structural dimension of network ties, configuration and appropriable organisation,
  • the cognitive dimension of shared codes, language and narratives, and
  • the relationship dimension of trust, established norms and obligations of how people behave.
Each dimension contributes in different combinations to create new intellectual capital. Combinations of the dimensions of social capital allow exchange of intellectual capital, and anticipation of value through that exchange. Value anticipated in an IT project may be other than an exchange of intellectual capital. Value may be gained from a project that delivers on time, to budget, and meets all or most of the objectives set for it. These project attributes are valuable to the parties involved. Delivery of such IT projects may be facilitated through a combination of the dimensions of social capital.

The social capital framework guides the interview questions, the three dimensions providing headings for asking questions of interviewees about relationships, concepts used and understanding.
The interview schedule relates the research question and sub questions through the social capital framework.
Questions are based round four headings:
  1. background (of project and participant),
  2. relationships,
  3. knowledge (or learning), and
  4. value.
Background is important because it provides the context. The questions may elicit structural dimensions of social capital.
Relationships matter. How do the relationships create value? The interview questions here concern social capital in the relationship and structural dimensions. Questions are to identify networks of relationships and the strength of ties between people. One question asks for a specific anecdote or story in an attempt to get more precise descriptions rather than general opinion. See {Kvale, 1996 }. These questions also aim to elicit lack of engagement in relationships, in order to reveal if the consultant and client have little in common, or need no more than a passing connection.
Knowledge: rather than directly asking about knowledge the questions are about learning and what people have learned from each other. How do they use that knowledge? This gives some idea of what value has developed from relationships.
Value: Building shared meanings is part of the cognitive dimension of social capital. There may be value gained through learning and sharing meaning. Sharing meaning may provide valuable non-financial, un-measurable qualitative gain.

Some interview questions elicit information in more than one dimension.

In summary, social capital theory offers enough complexity to provide a conceptual framework for the examination of issues of engagement between clients and consultants.

Is that completely clear? Will it be clear to my supervisors?

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