Did difficult conversations just get easier?

Tuesday 01 December 2020
For consultants, it can be difficult to tell a client the true extent of their problems. But with this new methodology, that conversation just got easier

All consultants know the dread of having to communicate bad news. While many have learned techniques and tricks along the way, not all clients respond well when told their problems are trickier to solve than they’d originally thought. Often this can boil down to a difference of opinion – and sometimes clients just want someone to agree with the senior management team’s suggested solution. But consultants know that only through looking at and speaking about problems frankly can there be a positive and productive outcome.

Enter John Erkoyuncu and Keith Rushton CMC FIC, who have been heading up a project which can help consultants everywhere do just this.

John and Keith are more than familiar with the nuances of consulting work and digital engineering: John is professor of digital engineering at Cranfield University and Keith is the principal consultant in ESCIT (Equipment Support Continuous Improvement Team - “We do like our acronyms in the Ministry of Defence!” he laughs) which operates as an internal consultancy group at the MoD. Over the years they’ve both seen exciting and innovative processes, software and tools which they’ve helped clients inside the MoD implement or understand – but they’ve also seen them fall prey to tools that are all bark, no bite.

“I came at the problem of integrating AI into our client’s process from a traditional point of view of: ‘actually, how do you know that something that's relatively new and innovative is actually useful or not?’” Keith explains. “What we've been doing is working to generate this assessment tool and methodology which does exactly that. It says: ‘How does new technology actually relate to the problems that you've got?’ From a consultancy point of view, this tool helps consultants identify how they can resolve the issues that their client is facing – even the issues they don't know they're facing.”

While they’ve been researching and testing a new methodology for use inside the MoD, this also has implications for other sectors.

“A common saying is that consulting is often about calling people's baby's ugly and getting away with it,” laughs Keith. “It’s quite an art. But people do respond well if you're fact-based and you can demonstrate the issues repeatedly,  and then select available solutions or explain them to people. Sometimes we have to explain that there is no solution for this at the moment – we need to tell them we’ll work on it, we’ll do some research.” This is where Keith and John’s partnership really comes into play.

John’s background and attitude encapsulates the “academic rigour applied in practice” motto of ESCIT, and has been working with Keith’s team to build and test this analysis tool.  “Our research looks at the lifecycle of complex engineered assets,” says John, “so we're coming from the research and education training side as well as the commercial side. We're trying to integrate business thinking into how we structure engineering solutions and asking how we can improve our models to further improve the efficiency in different tasks. For example, if someone wants to conduct some maintenance, how can we facilitate that so that they complete the task quicker, safer, and better for the life-cycle outcomes?”

They decided to collaborate when they realised this problem was interesting for both sides: for John, it was an interesting research project that had real impact on the day-to-day workings on businesses, and for Keith it was a way to solve problems and offer solutions for other projects his team was consulting on.

“We came at it from two different directions, but these were coalescing to reach this solution. We realised we needed to join up the other offerings already in existence – almost like a dating agency for solutions and problems,” Keith says.

They both realised that the tool needed to clearly demonstrate value to both consultants and their clients, and above all it needed to be simple to use. “The process is a four step kind of guidance,” John explains. “So we start off with identifying the problem area and the opportunity for improvement. Then we move into the different technologies – including models, new ideas, or anything that can make an improvement. Step three, we narrow it down to a prioritised list of a couple of options. Then in step four, we do the return-on-investment analysis, where we're trying to financially justify what the benefit could look like. It's relatively simple in terms of the process, and we have actively worked to make it simple.”

To find out more about the project, get in touch with Keith and John using the details below.

Keith Rushton CMC FIC, leads a “Premier Practice” internal consultancy within the Ministry of Defence. The Team celebrates its 20th year of operation next April. Click here for further details of how to get involved in the MOD’s Forecast & Resource Planning programme.

John Erkoyuncu is a Professor of Digital Engineering. He heads up the Centre for Digital Engineering and Manufacturing at Cranfield University. The Centre focuses on four main themes: 1) digitalisation of through-life manufacturing, 2) simulating complex systems, 3) digital twins and AI, and 4) virtual and augmented reality. Further information on the centre can be found here.

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