All Along the Watch Tower — Project Monitoring vs. Project Management

My two month summer blogging hiatus has come to a close. Along the way I have gathered a good bit of practical knowledge related to introducing and implementing process and technological improvements into complex project management environments. More specifically, my experience is in introducing new adaptive technologies that support the integration of essential data across the project environment–integrated project management in short–and do so by focusing on knowledge discovery in databases (KDD).

An issue that arose during these various opportunities reminded me of the commercial where a group of armed bank robbers enter a bank and have everyone lay on the floor. One of the victims whispers to a uniformed security officer, “Hey, do something!” The security officer replies, “Oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m a security monitor. I only notify people if there is a robbery.” He looks to the robbers who have a hostage and then turns back to the victim and says calmly, “There’s a robbery.”

We oftentimes face the same issues in providing project management solutions. New technologies have expanded the depth and breadth of information that is available to project management professionals. Oftentimes the implementation of these solutions get to the heart as to whether people considers themselves project managers or project monitors.

Technology, Information, and Cognitive Dissonance

This perceptual conflict oftentimes plays itself out in resistance to change in automated systems. In today’s world the question of acceptance is a bit different than when I first provided automated solutions into organizations more than 30 years ago. At that time, which represented the first modern wave of digitization, focused on simply automating previously manual functions that supported existing line-and-staff organizations. Software solutions were constructed to fit into the architecture of the social or business systems being served, regardless of whether those systems were inefficient or sub-optimal.

The challenge is a bit different today. Oftentimes new technology is paired with process changes that will transform an organization–and quite often is used as the leading edge in that initiative. The impact on work is transformative, shifting the way that the job and the system itself is perceived given the new information.

Leon Festinger in his work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) stated that people seek psychological consistency in order to function in the real world. When faced with information or a situation that is contradictory to consistency, individuals will experience psychological discomfort. The individual can then simply adapt to the new condition by either accepting the change, adding rationalizations to connect their present perceptions to the change, or to challenge the change–either by attacking it as valid, by rejecting its conclusions, or by avoidance.

The most problematic of the reactions that can be encountered in IT project management are the last two. When I have introduced a new technology paired with process change this manifestation has usually been justified by the refrains that:

a. The new solution is too hard to understand;

b. The new solution is too detailed;

c. The new solution is too different from the incumbent technology;

d. The solution is unrelated to “my job of printing out one PowerPoint chart”;

e. “Why can’t I just continue to use my own Excel workbooks/Access database/solution”;

f. “Earned value/schedule/risk management/(add PM methodology here) doesn’t tell me what I don’t already know/looks in the rear view mirror/doesn’t add enough value/is too expensive/etc.”

For someone new to this kind of process the objections often seem daunting. But some perspective always helps. To date, I have introduced and implemented three waves of technology over the course of my career and all initially encountered resistance, only to eventually be embraced. In a paradoxical twist (some would call it divine justice, karma, or universal irony), oftentimes the previous technology I championed, which sits as the incumbent, is used as a defense against the latest innovation.

A reasonable and diligent person involved in the implementation of any technology which, after all, is also project management, must learn to monitor conditions to determine if there is good reason for resistance, or if it is a typical reaction to relatively rapid change in a traditionally static environment. The point, of course, is not only to meet organizational needs, but to achieve a high level of acceptance in software deployment–thus maximizing ROI for the organization and improving organizational effectiveness.

If process improvement is involved, an effective pairing and coordination with stakeholders is important. But such objections, while oftentimes a reaction to people receiving information they prefer not to have, are ignored at one’s own peril. This is where such change processes require both an analytical and leadership-based approach.

Technology and Cultural Change – Spock vs. Kirk

In looking at resistance one must determine whether the issue is one of technology or some reason of culture or management. Testing the intuitiveness of the UI, for example, is best accomplished by beta testing among SMEs. Clock speeds latency, reliability, accuracy, and fidelity in data, and other technological characteristics are easily measured and documented. This is the Mr. Spock side of the equation, where, in an ideal world, rationality and logic should lead one to success. Once these processes are successfully completed, however, the job is still not done.

Every successful deployment still contains within it pockets of resistance. This is the emotional part of technological innovation that oftentimes is either ignored or that managers hope to paper or plow over, usually to their sorrow. It is here that we need to focus our attention. This is the Captain Kirk part of the equation.

The most vulnerable portion of an IT project deployment happens within the initial period of inception. Rolling wave implementations that achieve quick success will often find that there is more resistance over time as each new portion of the organization is brought into the fold. There are many reasons for this.

New personnel may be going by what they observed from the initial embrace of the technology and not like the results. Perhaps buy-in was not obtained by the next group prior to their inclusion, or senior management is not fully on-board. Perhaps there is a perceived or real fear of job loss, or job transformation that was not socialized in advance. It is possible that the implementation focused too heavily on the needs of the initial group of personnel brought under the new technology, which caused the technology to lag in addressing the needs of the next wave. It could also be that the technology is sufficiently different as to represent a “culture shock”, which causes an immediate defensive reaction. If there are outsourced positions, the subcontractor may feel that its interests are threatened by the introduction of the technology. Some SMEs, having created “irreplaceable asset” barriers, may feel that their position would be eroded if they were to have to share expertise and information with other areas of the organization. Lower level employees fear that management will have unfettered access to information prior to vetting. The technology may be oversold as a panacea, rather as a means of addressing organizational or information management deficiencies. All of these reasons, and others, are motivations to explore.

There is an extensive literature on the ways to address the concerns listed above, and others. Good examples can be found here and here.

Adaptive COTS or Business Intelligence technologies, as well as rapid response teams based on Agile, go a long way in addressing and handling barriers to acceptance on the technology side. But additional efforts at socialization and senior management buy-in are essential and will be the difference maker. No amount of argumentation or will persuade people otherwise inclined to defend the status quo, even when benefits are self-evident. Leadership by information consumers–both internal and external–as well as decision-makers will win the day.

Process and Technology – Integrated Project Management and Big(ger) Data

The first wave of automation digitized simple manual efforts (word processing, charts, graphs). This resulted in an incremental increase in productivity but, more importantly, it shifted work so that administrative overhead was eliminated. There are no secretarial pools or positions as there were when I first entered the workforce.

The second and succeeding waves tackled transactional systems based on line and staff organizational structures, and work definitions. Thus, in project management, EVM systems were designed for cost analysts, scheduling apps for planners and schedulers, risk analysis software for systems engineers, and so on.

All of these waves had a focus on functionality of hard-coded software solutions. The software determined what data was important and what information could be processed from it.

The new paradigm shift is a focus on data. We see this through the buzz phrase “Big Data”.  But what does that mean? It means that all of the data that the organization or enterprise collects has information value. Deriving that information value, and then determining its relevance and whether it provides actionable intelligence, is of importance to the organization.

Thus, implementations of data-focused solutions represent not only a shift in the way that work is performed, but also how information is used, and how the health and performance of the organization is assessed. Horizontal information integration across domains provides insights that were not apparent in the past when data was served to satisfy the needs of specialized domains and SMEs. New vulnerabilities and risks are uncovered through integration. This is particularly clear when implementing integrated project management (IPM) solutions.

A pause in providing a definition is in order, especially since IPM is gaining traction, and so large lazy and entrenched incumbents adjust their marketing in the hope of muddying the waters to fit their square peg focused and hard-coded solutions into the round hole of flexible IPM solutions.

Integrated Project Management are the processes and integration of information necessary to derive actionable intelligence from all of the relevant cross-domain information involved in the project organization. This includes cost performance, schedule performance, financial performance and execution, contract implementation, milestone achievement, resource management, and technical performance. Actionable intelligence is that information that is relevant to the project decision-making authority which effectively identifies specific probable qualitative and quantitative risks, risk impact, and risk handling necessary to make project trade-offs, project re-baselining or re-scope, cost-as-an-independent variable (CAIV), or project cancellation decisions. Underlying all of this are feedback loop systems assessments to ensure that there is integrity and fidelity in our business systems–both human and digital.

No doubt, we have a ways to go to get to this condition, but organizations are getting there. What it will take is a change the way leadership views its role, in rewriting traditional project management job descriptions, cross-domain training and mentoring, and in enforcing both for ourselves and in others the dedication to the ethics that are necessary to do the job.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Public Administration

The final aspect of implementations of project management systems that is often overlooked, and which oftentimes frames the environment that we are attempting to transform, concerns ethical behavior in project management. It is an aspect of project success as necessary as any performance metric, and it is one for which leadership within an organization sets the tone.

My own expertise in project management has concerned itself in most cases with project management in the field of public administration, though as a businessman I also have experience in the commercial world. Let’s take public administration first since, I think, it is the most straightforward.

When I wore a uniform as a commissioned Naval officer I realized that in my position and duties that I was merely an instrument of the U.S. Navy, and its constitutional and legal underpinnings. My own interests were separate from, and needed to be firewalled from, the execution of my official duties. When I have observed deficiencies in the behavior of others in similar positions, this is the dichotomy that often fails to be inculcated in the individual.

When enlisted personnel salute a commissioned officer they are not saluting the person, they are saluting and showing respect to the rank and position. The officer must earn respect as an individual. Having risen from the enlisted ranks, these were the aspects of leadership that were driven home to me in observing this dynamic: in order to become a good leader, one must first have been a good follower; you must demonstrate trust and respect to earn trust and respect. One must act ethically.

Oftentimes officials in other governmental entities–elected officials (especially), judges, and law enforcement–often fail to understand this point and hence fail this very basic rule of public behavior. The law and their position deserves respect. The behavior and actions of the individuals in their office will determine whether they personally should be shown respect. If an individual abuses their position or the exercise of discretion, they are not worthy of respect, with the danger that they will delegitimize and bring discredit to the office or position.

But earning respect is only one aspect of this understanding in ethical behavior in public administration. It also means that one will make decisions based on the law, ethical principles, and public policy regardless of whether one personally agrees or disagrees with the resulting conclusion of those criteria. That an individual will also apply a similar criteria whether or not the decision will adversely impact their own personal interests or those of associates, friends, or family is also part of weight of ethical behavior.

Finally, in applying the ethical test rule, one must also accept responsibility and accountability in executing one’s duties. This means being diligent, constantly striving for excellence and improvement, leading by example, and to always represent the public interest. Note that ego, personal preference, opinion, or bias, self-interest, or other such concerns have no place in the ethical exercise of public administration.

So what does that mean for project management? The answer goes to the heart of whether one views himself or herself as a project manager or project monitor. In public administration the program manager has a unique set of responsibilities tied to the acquisition of technologies that is rarely replicated in private industry. Oftentimes this involves shepherding a complex effort via contractual agreements that involve large specialized businesses–and often a number of subcontractors–across several years of research and development before a final product is ready for production and deployment.

The primary role in this case is to ensure that the effort is making progress and executing the program toward the goal, ensuring accountability of the funds being expended, which were appropriated for the specific effort by Congress, to ensure that the effort intended by those expenditures through the contractual agreements are in compliance, to identify and handle risks that may manifest to bring the effort into line with the cost, schedule, and technical baselines, all the while staying within the program’s framing assumptions. In addition, the program manager must coordinate with operational managers who are anticipating the deployment of the end item being developed, manage expectations, and determine how best to plan for sustainability once the effort goes to production and deployment. This is, of course, a brief summary of the extensive duties involved.

Meeting these responsibilities requires diligence, information that provides actionable intelligence, and a great deal of subject matter expertise. Finding and handling risks, determining if the baseline is executable, maintaining the integrity of the effort–all require leadership and skill. This is known as project management.

Project monitoring, by contrast, is acceptance of information provided by self-interested parties without verification, of limiting the consumption and processing of essential project performance information, of demurring to any information of a negative nature regarding project performance or risk, of settling for less than an optimal management environment, and using these tactics to, euphemistically, kick the ball down the court to the next project manager in the hope that the impact of negligence falls on someone else’s watch. Project monitoring is unethical behavior in public administration.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Private Industry

The focus in private industry is a bit different since self-interest abounds and is rewarded. But there are ethical rules that apply, and which a business person in project management would be well-served to apply.

The responsibility of the executive or officers in a business is to the uphold the interests of the enterprise’s customers, its employees, and its shareholders. Oftentimes business owners will place unequal weighting to these interests, but the best businesses view these responsibilities as being in fine balance.

For example, aside from the legal issues, ethics demands that in making a commitment in providing supplies and services there are a host of obligations that go along with that transaction–honest representation, warranty, and a commitment to provide what was promised. For employees, the commitments made regarding the conditions of employment and to reward employees appropriately for their contribution to the enterprise. For stockholders it is to conduct the business in such as way as to avoid placing its fiduciary position and its ability to act as a going concern in avoidable danger.

For project managers the responsibility within these ethical constraints is to honestly assess and communicate to the enterprise’s officers project performance, whether the effort will achieve the desired qualitative results within budgetary and time constraints, and, from a private industry perspective, handle most of the issues articulated for the project manager in the section on public administration above. The customer is different in this scenario, oftentimes internal, especially when eliminating companies that serve the project management verticals in public administration. Oftentimes the issues and supporting systems are less complex because the scale is, on the whole, smaller.

There are exceptions, of course, to the issue of scaling. Some construction, shipbuilding, and energy projects approach the complexity of some public sector programs. Space X and other efforts are other examples. But the focus there is financial from the perspective of the profit motive–not from the perspective of meeting the goals of some public interest involving health, safety, or welfare, and so the measures of measurement will be different, though the need for accountability and diligence is no less urgent. In may ways such behavior is more urgent given that failure may result in the failure of the entire enterprise.

Yet, the basic issue is the same: are you a project manager or a project monitor? Diligence, leadership, and ethical behavior (which is essential to leadership) are the keys. Project monitoring most often results in failure, and with good reason. It is a failure of both practice and ethics.

Walk This Way — DoD IG Reviews DCMA Contracting Officer Business Systems Deficiencies

The sufficiency and effectiveness of business systems is an essential element in the project management ecosystem.  Far beyond performance measurement of the actual effort, the sufficiency of the business systems to support the effort are essential in its success.  If the systems in place do not properly track and record the transactions behind the work being performed, the credibility of the data is called into question.  Furthermore, support and logistical systems, such as procurement, supply, and material management, contribute in a very real way, to work accomplishment.  If that spare part isn’t in-house on time, the work stops.

In catching up on reading this month, I found that the DoD Inspector General issued a report on October 1 showing that of 21 audits demonstrating business system deficiencies, contracting officer timeliness in meeting DFARS deadlines at various milestones existed in every case.  For example, in 17 of those cases Contracting Officers did not issue final determination letters within 30 days of the report as required by the DFARS.  In eight cases required withholds were not assessed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the six business systems assessed under DoD contractor project management, they consist of accounting, estimating, material management, purchasing, earned value management, and government property.  The greater the credibility and fidelity of these systems, the greater level of confidence that the government can have in ensuring that the data received in reporting on execution of public funds under these contracts.

To a certain extent the deadlines under the DFARS are so tightly scheduled that they fail to take into account normal delays in operations.  Forbid that the Contracting Officer may be on leave when the audit is received or is engaged in other detailed negotiations.  In recent years the contracting specialty within the government, like government in general, has been seriously understaffed, underfunded, and unsupported.  Given that oftentimes the best and the brightest soon leave government service for greener pastures in the private sector, what is often left are inexperienced and overworked (though mostly dedicated) personnel who do not have the skills or the time to engage in systems thinking in approaching noted deficiencies in these systems.

This pressure for staff reduction, even in areas that have been decimated by austerity politics, is significant.  In the report I could not help but shake my head when an Excel spreadsheet was identified as the “Contractor Business System Determination Timeline Tracking Tool.”  This reminds me of my initial assignment as a young Navy officer and my first assignment as a contract negotiator where I also performed collateral duties in building simple automated tools.  (This led to me being assigned later as the program manager of the first Navy contract and purchase order management system.) That very first system that I built, however, was tracking contract milestone deadlines.  It was done in VisiCalc and the year was 1984.

That a major procurement agency of the U.S. Department of Defense is still using a simple and ineffective spreadsheet tracking “tool” more than 30 years after my own experience is both depressing and alarming.  There is a long and winding history on why they would find themselves in this condition, but some additional training, which was the agency’s response to the IG, is not going to solve the problem.  In fact, such an approach is so ineffective it’s not even a Band-Aid.  It’s a bureaucratic function of answering the mail.

The reason why it won’t solve the problem is because there is no magic wand to get those additional contract negotiators and contracting officers in place.  The large intern program of recruiting young people from colleges to grow talent and provide people with a promising career track is long gone.  Interdisciplinary and cross-domain expertise required in today’s world to reflect the new realities when procuring products and services are not in the works.  In places where they are being attempted, outmoded personnel classification systems based on older concepts of division of labor stand in the way.

The list of systemic causes could go on, but in the end it’s not in the DCMA response because no one cares, and if they do care, they can’t do anything about it.  It’s not as if “BEST TALENT LEAVES DUE TO PUBLIC HOSTILITY TO PUBLIC SERVICE”  was a headline of any significance.  The Post under Bezos is not going to run that one anytime soon, though we’ve been living under it since 1981.  The old “thank you for your service” line for veterans has become a joke.  Those who use this line might as well say what that really means, which is: “I’m glad it was you and not me.”

The only realistic way to augment an organization in this state in order the break the cycle is to automate the system–and to do it in a way as to tie together the entire system.  When I run into my consulting friends and colleagues and they repeat the mantra: “software doesn’t matter, it’s all based on systems” I can only shake my head.  I have learned to be more tactful.

In today’s world software matters.  Try doing today what we used to do with slide rules, scientific calculators, and process charts absent software.  Compare organizations that use the old division-of-labor, “best of breed” tool concept against those who have integrated their systems and use data across domains effectively.  Now tell me again why “software doesn’t matter.”  Not only does it matter but “software” isn’t all the same.  Some “software” consists of individual apps that do one thing.  Some “software” is designed to address enterprise challenges.  Some “software” is designed not only to enterprise challenges, but also to address the maximization of value in enterprise data.

In the case of procurement and business systems assessment, the only path forward for the agency will be to apply data-driven measures to the underlying systems and tie those assessments into a systemic solution that includes the contracting officers, negotiators, administrators, contracting officer representatives, the auditors, analysts, and management.  One can see, just in writing one line, how much more complex are the requirements for the automated panacea to replace “Contractor Business System Determination Timeline Tracking Tool.”  Is there any question why the “tool” is ineffective?

If this were the 1990s, though the practice still persists, we would sit down, perform systems analysis, outline the systems and subsystem solutions, and then through various stages of project management, design the software system to reflect the actual system in place as if organizational change did not exist.  This is the process that has a 90% failure rate across government and industry.  The level of denial to this figure is so great that I run into IT managers and CIOs every day that fail to know it or, if they do, believe that it will apply to them–and these are brilliant people.  It is selection bias and optimism, with a little (or a lot) of narcissism, run amok.  The physics and math on this are so well documented that you might as well take your organization’s money and go to Vegas with it.  Your local bookie could give you better odds.

The key is risk handling (not the weasel word “management,” not “mitigation” since some risks must simply be accepted, and certainly not the unrealistic term “avoidance”), and the deployment of technology that provides at least a partial solution to the entire problem, augmented by incremental changes to incorporate each system into the overall solution. For example, DeLong and Froomkin’s seminal paper on what they called “The Next Economy” holds true today.  The lack of transparency in software technologies requires a process whereby the market is surveyed, vendors must go through a series of assessments and demonstration tests, and where the selected technology then goes through stage gates: proof-of-concept, pilot, and, eventually deployment.  Success at each level gets rewarded with proceeding to the next step.

Thus, ideally the process includes introducing into the underlying functionality the specific functionality required by the organization through Agile processes where releasable versions of the solution are delivered at the end of each sprint.  One need not be an Agile Cultist to do this.  In my previous post I referred to Neil Killick’s simple checklist for whether you are engaged in Agile.  It is the best and most succinct distillation of both the process and value inherent in Agile that I have found to date, with all of the “woo-woo” taken out.  For an agency as Byzantine as DCMA, this is really the only realistic and effective approach.

DCMA is an essential agency in DoD acquisition management, but it cannot do what it once did under a more favorable funding environment.  To be frank, it didn’t even do its job all that well when a more favorable condition was in place, though things were better.  But this is also a factor in why it finds itself in its current state.  It was punished for its transgressions, perhaps too much.  Several waves of personnel cuts, staff reductions, and domain and corporate knowledge loss on top of the general trend has created an agency in a condition of siege.  As with any organization under siege, backbiting and careerism for those few remaining is rewarded.  Iconoclasts and thought leaders stay for a while before being driven away.  They are seen as being too risky.

This does not create a condition for an agency ready to accept or quickly execute change through new technology.  What it does do is allow portions of the agency to engage in cargo cult change management.  That is, it has the appearance of change but keeps self-interest comfortable and change in its place.  Over time–several years–with the few remaining resources committed to this process, they will work the “change.”  Eventually, they may even get something tangible, though suboptimized to conform to rice bowls; preferably after management has their retirement plans secured.

Still, the reality is that DCMA must be made to do it’s job because it is in the best interests of the U.S. Department of Defense.  The panacea will not be found through “collaboration” with industry, which consists of the companies which DCMA is tasked with overseeing and regulating.  We all know how well deregulation and collaboration has worked in the financial derivatives, banking, mortgage, and stock markets.  Nor will it come from organic efforts within an understaffed and under-resourced agency that will be unable to leverage the best and latest technology solutions under the unforgiving math of organic IT failure rates.  Nor will deploying the long outmoded approach of deploying suboptimized “tools” to address a particular problem.  The proper solution is to leverage effective COTS solutions that facilitate the challenge of systems integration and thinking.



R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Customer Service Edition

There seems to be a trend in the technology market lately to provide just enough customer service and support necessary to keep the customer/consumer locked in.  Below is a conversation in which I participated recently which is indicative of my statement.  The names have been changed to protect the guilty:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is ****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  Hello.  My name is **** and I am calling for support on your **** product.  It appears that members of my company have individual accounts with your online CRM system and I need to get them merged.

Customer Service:  It seems that you have duplicate accounts.  They’ll need to lose out their accounts.  They can’t be merged.

Customer:  If they close out their accounts will the settings that they entered be lost?

Customer Service:  Yes.  If you want them to be under the central company account they’ll have to enter their information again.

Customer:  So there is no way to merge the records?

Customer Service:  No, I’m sorry.  That is just not possible.

Customer:  Okay, thanks.  I don’t think you’re service is going to work for us.  Thanks anyway.

Customer Service:  I’m sorry I couldn’t resolve your problem today.  Is there anything else I can assist you with?

Customer:  No.  That will be enough.

Customer Service:  Thank you for contacting ****.  Have a great day!

There are variations on this theme but the result is the same.  In this example, the customer assumed that a logical merging of records could be achieved for the various accounts, given that the company team tried the application and made a buy decision.  First line customer support had a set script.  Taking multiple accounts and merging them under one organization, say for something like a CRM system would normally be considered basic functionality.  The possibility is that the company either didn’t anticipate the market needs or that first line technical support was not skilled enough to listen to the problem and escalate it if a solution was possible.

Another example follows:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is ****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  I just acquired your software and am having problems on the install.

Customer Service:  Okay, I can help you with that.  What problems have you experienced?

Customer:  Well I went through the documentation posted on-line.  You state that the software is compatible with the latest operating system but your instructions are for an older version.  The dialogue boxes don’t match but I was able to get through most of it.  When I get to step 10 to install I get the following error message: *****.

Customer Service:  Okay, I can help you with that.  First, please ensure that your computer is on and is plugged in.

Customer:  I’ve already done that.

Customer Service:  Now, open your Control Panel.

Customer:  I’m well past that.

Customer Service:  Now double click on Software.

Customer:  I’m past that.  I’m on step 10.  Is this the same as the documentation or are we doing something else?

Customer Service:  Now go to Uninstall a program.  If you find an earlier version of our software please uninstall it.

Customer:  I’ve already done this.  I’m on step ten.

Customer Service:  Okay.  Now close Control Panel.

Customer:  Okay.

Customer Service:  Now download the new software from the link provided in our e-mail and save the file to your desktop.

Customer:  I’ve done this.

Customer Service:  Okay.  Now once you have the installer on your desktop double click on it.

Customer:  I’ve done this….

You get the picture and have probably experienced similar conversations yourself.  I went through the trouble to explain to the rep that I ran a software company and had been using their software for several years, but the latest build was the first that had install problems.  I was expecting some knowledge beyond my own.  I was even hoping that knowing that I was a power user that the supplying company would appreciate that this was a problem that they needed to address.  Instead they dumbed-down technical support to a script to be followed by personnel who many not even be users–let alone power users–of the software in question, or they may be “paper” certified software technicians with no appreciation of the actual operating environment.

Turns out that there was a driver conflict that could be resolved, but I had to go to technical chat rooms to find the proper resolution.  I could only imagine what someone without the same technical skills as my own would do.  Probably return the software if they could.  If they couldn’t they would financially reward a company that doesn’t care about the customer and not be able to fully obtain the benefits of their purchase.

Then there is this issue:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is *****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  I just bought your software but need assistance in the initial install.  I have some questions about setup options.

Customer Service:  Do you have a license number?

Customer:  Yes, its *********.

Customer Service:  I’m sorry but you do not have telephonic support for that level of service.  I’ll be happy to take a credit card number.  Otherwise you’ll need to fill out our on-line form.  We respond within 48 hours with your solution.

This is probably the worst kind of bait and switch.  You acquire a piece of software and have a follow-on question, or may need some assistance on the initial install.  You may have even purchased initial training but upon going back to the software you find that there is some inconsistency between the documentation and what you were taught.  In order to get the issue resolved–which is clearly the responsibility of the technology company–you are asked to pay more for the answer to your question.  This is a situation where there is a confusion on the part of the technology company.  They are in the transaction business or some other business related to pressure-cooker sales.  Perhaps they should seek financial rewards in the food service industry.  The business they are definitely not in is the software business.  This is the more coercive version of “do you want fries with that burger?”; except you are required to get the fries if you want the burger after you’ve already paid for it.

The problem here, of course, is the use of technology as an insulator to customer service.  But defining our terms is important here.

What I mean by customer service isn’t some PR exercise.  While it is important to speak courteously, avoid arguments, listen carefully, etc. those are approaches to delivering customer service, not customer service.  This is akin to political parties saying they need to appeal to a political block of voters by speaking nicely to them while ignoring their socio-economic needs and concerns.  It’s window dressing and, as Lincoln said, it will fool some of the people only some of the time.  Eventually they figure it out for the scam it is.

Customer service is based in the ethic of reciprocity and contracts.  If we sell something we are engaged in a public activity.  With this public activity comes public responsibility and accountability.  This means we should act in the same manner as if our actions were a universal, were the roles reversed.  Leadership and good management are necessary ingredients to good customer service as much as internal operations.  As a matter of fact, my own observations over the years have confirmed that if a firm treats its own personnel poorly there is little chance that it will treat its customers any better.

It is incumbent upon all of us who play an influential role in the technology industry to reverse the trend to “good enough” customer service.  On-line chat, e-mail, and on-line documentation are all convenient techniques for leveraging technology in delivering customer service, but nothing can substitute for active listening, problem solving, responsiveness to customer needs, and timely action.

A few years ago I worked for a software company where our most popular customer service rep, who was also our most effective customer service rep, was also the most volatile.  I cringed whenever he would interrogate a customer on their issue.  It wasn’t until I met those customers in person at a conference or user-group meeting that I realized that he was both highly respected and highly sought-after.  When I asked why I was told that even though his manner was sometimes direct and “cranky,” that he stayed with them until he understood their problem and then found the solution to their problem as quickly as possible.  Oftentimes he went above and beyond the call, instructing them on the systems and procedures of the project management specialty in which they were engaged to give them a full understanding of how the software was designed to operate in their environment, giving them a full, practical understanding of its intent and value.  He was considered not only a technical support rep but a mentor and teacher.

I understand that for widely used consumer products such a high standard is not always possible, given the wide differences in basic technological knowledge and skills present.  But I have also seen the race to the bottom in customer service in specialized software, particularly in the project management space, as well as other industries.  Comcast is only the latest poster child for this standard.

My own approach in business has been the same approach I used when I wore a uniform and held a public trust.  This approach assumes respect for the individual or organization that is the customer.  It requires an understanding of their business, an appreciation of their risks and goals, and how the software that they have acquired fits into the business model.  It requires a commitment to ensuring that the solution is designed to optimize the data that will inform the business processes involved.  If they are a public agency, then a commitment to the public trust is essential to our own conduct.  It involves a commitment to excellence in the products and services provided to the public at large.

I learned as a young Navy officer from one of my mentors that there are many roads to the same destination.  We choose which road to take, but only two or three will get us both to where we want to go and allow us to live with ourselves, assuming that we aren’t either a sociopath or an extreme narcissist.  You don’t have to take the same road that I have chosen in order to succeed.  But as project managers, as software developers and companies, as businesses we choose our road and through our actions make the world what it is.