January 22, 2012
Column | basic training

Advice you can trust ... maybe

Whatever your problem, there will be plenty of "experts" eager to offer you advice. The trick is finding one who will make you a hero.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

We're not sure whether they are self-anointed, or self-appointed. But the woods are full of observers and commentators (many of whom are merely common taters) in almost every field of endeavor.

The issue rose up to smack us in the collective kisser when we attended Andrea Bocelli's recent concert in Columbus, Ohio. Bocelli's critics abound, and apparently delight in citing his thin and reedy upper register and general lack of breath control.

We may not be qualified to argue the points. In a parallel example, we are not able to easily distinguish between an $80 bottle of Napa Cabernet and a $125 bottle. But we do recognize either one after a diet of $4 swill from the Central Valley. Our take? Bocelli was phenomenally powerful in the upper register and exhibited superb control in all registers—throughout the two and a half hour extravaganza.

So, do we take seriously the opinions of critics, who may be a bit thin and reedy themselves, have never sung a song in their lives, and last hit a high note at a surprise birthday party? Or do we accept Luciano Pavarotti's assessment that Bocelli has the "finest voice"?

The oracles speak
So what does this have to do with the always-fascinating world of supply chain management?

We are also surrounded by, inundated with, and overrun by commentators, critics, observers, and other advice-givers in our universe (including your faithful columnists). The trade publications contain countless articles, at varying levels of detail, put together by professional writers. Many of the writers have been at it for decades. But how many have gone beyond observing and writing, and actually worked as practitioners in the field? And is working as a practitioner, by itself, a genuine qualification to serve as a commentator?

The trades also contain plenty of opinion. Sometimes, the opinions are those of the professional staff. Sometimes, they are the products of guest columnists (again, including us). So, again, there can be questions. How current are the knowledge and experience bases of the guest writers? How much practical field exposure has gone into the editorial staff's positions?

Actually, the majority of what gets published is produced by people who have seen enough that they don't get snowed by the latest gee-whiz flash in the pan. And guest columnists are generally on-point, thoughtful, and occasionally provocative—in a good way.

But there have been a few exceptions, with the risk of translating a lucky situation into a delusional assumption of wisdom. How can you distinguish between the pencil-necked geeks and the Pavarottis? We'll leave you to think about that.

Enter the consultants
The universe of advice-givers isn't limited to journalists and guest columnists. The woods are also full of "consultants." Bright-eyed, high-energy people peddling software solutions are styled by their bosses as consultants—and may come to believe that they are, over time. Equally persistent types moving iron, whether rack or conveyors, often fall prey to the same misconception. Some of these folks are really useful and honest, offering excellent advice about solutions that work and alternatives that provide the greatest value. But, face it, they don't get bonuses for doing the right thing; they get paid for making a sale.

Then, there are the recently graduated M.B.A.s who carry the consulting title, but are a generation short of the experience levels that can confer genuine legitimacy to the claim. Not to mention the "temporary" consultants who are hoping that someone will pay them for advice while they search for new jobs.

Some people have been consultants for decades (your authors, again), and it's fair to ask whether their knowledge and experience bases are current. It's also worth considering whether the consultant has had dirty fingernails experience getting a job done or has always been an arm's length adviser.

Then, even with "real" consultants, however the term might be defined, there may be issues of depth versus breadth. Whether the answer is good or bad may not reflect on the consultant, but more closely relate to your needs. And it's ultimately up to you to make the right choice (although the consultant does have a responsibility to point out any mismatches between needs and genuine skills).

Among both professional and "temporary" consultants, there may be questions of whether the experience base is made up of hundreds of different experiences or one experience hundreds of times. Although, again, it's up to you to make the right connection, it is all too easy for a creative (and hungry) consultant to claim breadth based on depth—and vice versa.

The recently unemployed adviser can present a special case. Often, especially in very specific operational areas, they've got the knowledge and background that fit the situation. But, also often, they can be inexperienced in some important elements of success, including:

  • Not understanding the worth of their contributions, and how to set fees based on a value proposition
  • Not knowing how to assemble a business case for a solution that hits the right approval hot buttons
  • Failing to understand the local culture and "how things get done here"
  • Being unrealistic in building an implementation project plan
  • Ignoring the organized elements of the change mechanisms that are vital to any program's outcomes
  • Forgetting the length and slope of the change/implementation up-ramp to reach future state performance levels.

It will be up to you as to whether these risks and potentials are worth it, whether a less-deep but broader adviser might be a better fit overall, or whether you can cover the sometimes-gaping disconnects through the efforts of your internal staff, or by yourself.

At the end of the day ...
We hesitate to throw all the responsibility on you, but somebody has to sift through the advisers and the advice to figure out which among the nearly countless options fits, can work, is genuine, is based on strength, is grounded in reality, and is more likely to make you a hero than get you tagged as the goat. That's true whether it involves accepting a point of view or engaging a consultant.

So, whether you go for the $80 bottle or the $125 once-in-a-lifetime experience is somewhat up to you and your circumstances. But if it's Chateaubriand for dinner, stay away from the $4 special from the supermarket. And if you're cranking up the iPod to entertain the guests, Andrea Bocelli will do as well as anything else you can find.

Art van Bodegraven, president of Van Bodegraven Associates, may be reached at (614) 893-9414. He blogs for DC Velocity at The Art of Art.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven

Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.
More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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