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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Many large, modern companies are in danger of losing their collective memory when their temporary consultants are walking out of the door for good, leaving their principals in a state of shock.

It is the common modus operandi of many large, modern companies. They virtually stopped maintaining their own large staff departments, in which a majority of workers exists out of own staff with fixed contracts. 

Instead, these companies turned to outsourcing of strategic activities, in combination with large-scale hiring of consultants, who are brought in to execute and finish their project and move on afterwards.

Such strategic decisions are often taken with the arguments that costs need to be minimalized – in order to stay ahead of the competition – and that it is much more efficient to work in such a way than to maintain these old-fashioned staff departments with their tens or hundreds of workers with their fixed contracts and all the drawbacks of having a lot of personnel.

And as a matter of fact: it is the way in which I make my living...

As a ‘gun for hire’ in the ICT industry, I do my best on a daily basis and deliver functional testing services and scrum knowledge to banks and other institutions in the financial industry and beyond. And when the job is done, I’ll pack my bags and move on... ready and willing for the next customer: with a bag full of experience and a head full of memories about the people that I just said ‘goodbye and farewell’ to. Just like numerous other consultants in the ICT industry.

Irrespective whether they are from The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Eastern Europe or India, the ‘ICT nomads’ will be ready and willing to execute every project that comes on their way, inside or outside their country of residence. 

Every Friday and Monday, numerous planes between the UK and the European continent are populated with ICT consultants returning to respectively their homes for the weekend and their principals for the next working week. And so are the trains and planes towards the east of Europe.

Amsterdam, as capital of The Netherlands, hosts large populations of Indian and East-European knowledge workers, who came for a job half a decade ago and received a new life in a new country instead. While there are some drawbacks with respect to being a real part of the company where one works, the life of consultant is a generally good life that I enjoy until this very day, 17 years after starting it.

Yet, many companies should ask themselves the question, whether this modus operandi of hiring almost solely external consultants for the execution of strategic projects is really in their own interest eventually? A modus operandi, often forced upon the company by management books, modern company leaders, impatient shareholders and/or their competitors from inside and outside their line of business.  

Companies should ask themselves, whether the price they have to pay for it, is not called “losing loyalty” and “losing collective memory”?!

To give you an example: at many companies in the financial industry, the central and local governments and the commercial services industry, there is nowadays a habit of executing strategic, extremely complicated and very radical projects with large groups of small, independent teams of – mostly – hired consultants, also known as agile/scrum teams.

These teams try to execute their tasks in the shortest possible time and they try to live to the regulations that have been written down over a decade ago in the following Agile manifesto: 
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

While these regulations by themselves contain good handles for proper software development, they underestimate the power and importance of having good software documentation.

Under the impulse of Agile / Scrum much new strategic software is developed at a blistering speed: 
  • Software that has changed f.i. the banking industry beyond belief in only a couple of years; 
  • Software that enabled handling banking affairs 24x7 from all around the world at the blink of an eye. 
  • Or software that has turned the government from a distant, ignorant and bureaucratic monster into a full-service organisation that is ready for its citizens at all times.

The question is, however: what happens with the Scrum teams, when they have done their job and their project is finished and ‘ready for production’?

In-house, tailor-made software – and the ICT industry in general  is already very vulnerable for both the costs of “cutting-corners-in-order-to-get-the-desired-results-faster”  and the ”non-heritable ingenuity” of the most brillant minds in the business.

On top of that, this process is “helped” by the phenomenon that Agile / Scrum puts ‘more weight on working software and interactions than on processes, tools and comprehensive documentation’.

Too often, the departure of key players in a project or scrum team means that irreplaceable  knowledge and experience will leave the company. When this happens too often, it could lead to the situation that:
  • Nobody knows anymore HOW strategic software was designed and written and how it can be maintained and altered in a proper way, without excess outage and incidents;
  • Nobody knows anymore WHY strategic software was written the way it was and what were the underlying strategic decisions to come to this very design.

In other words: the software is there and it works more or less, but don’t ask why and how. And don’t try to change anything about it or you will pay the price dearly, in the form of outage, fatal flaws and angry articles in the leading press.

In several companies that I knew very well, it happened that key-players in a project were either turned into ‘kings within their own kingdom’ with all the accompanying privileges or that they left the company, leaving it in an utter state of shock, clueless about how to move on from there. 

And too often, these key-players had been ‘guns for hire’ that could leave the project at one month’s notice alone.

As a freelance testing consultant I therefore emphasize companies to think about a few things, in spite of the fact that it might not so much be in my own interests after all:
  1. How healthy is it for the collective memory of companies and the government to execute projects with methods that emphasize working software above good documentation; too often translated into ‘more or less working software, but no proper documentation at all’?
  2. How healthy is it for companies to execute strategic projects with a vast majority of guns for hire, who could leave the company at one month’s notice, leaving the rest of the company in (sometimes) a state of shock?
  3. How smart is it for companies to take all kinds of measures that scare away fixed workers and that deprive freelance workers from expensive, but nevertheless hard-earnt cash, when this means that loyalty for the principal/employer is virtually non-existent and key-players could run away as soon as a better offer emerges?
  4. Why don’t companies strive for a mix of 75% fixed, loyal workers with prosperous fixed contracts and only 25% in flexible consultants to fill in the potholes of daily business and as an overflow for extra work?

When companies not start to live more according to these concepts and start to appreciate and cherish their fixed workers, instead of seeing them as a large source of expenses, they could end up being abandoned by their key-players, absolutely not knowing what to do and where to go.

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