A true story illustrating the traps of demanding that trainers (pardon the pun) and coaches have a knowledge of their client’s business.
Back when I was a business consultant, one of my clients was a train operating company (TOC). This was in the days when TOCs were recovering from years of underfunding and my job was to work with the client to define the detailed functional requirements of a new IT system to perform train scheduling. The heart of their operation, of course.
A focus group of senior managers in the railway industry was put together, each drawn from a different area of the business, with the purpose of getting to grips with what was needed. And so we started. They were very professional but they made it clear that, while it was nothing personal, they resented my presence there. I didn’t have at least thirty years’ experience in the rail industry which, of course, each of them had (though I had been on a train, of course!).
This was the sort of assignment I specialised in at the time, and I knew that effective communication required, amongst other things, a common understanding of technical terms. So, I asked them if it would be alright if I explained some of the IT terms I used (like ‘entity’, ‘attribute’ and even ‘database’). They would then explain to me their railway terms.
They agreed and I kicked off by asking them what a train was.
One of the group gave me a concise definition.
“No, you’re wrong there. Actually a train is this”, said another of them, giving me an equally concise—and different—definition. “No”, said a third, who gave me a third definition. And so it went on. In the end, we had six different definitions of what a train was from the six people.
At this point, they realised they did not need someone to come in with a seventh definition of a train. What they needed was a person who could uncover this sort of problem, namely that a train operating company, in need of a new train scheduling system, couldn’t agree what a train was.
This story went round the company yet, by the end of the assignment—which included many other interviews and meetings (and I worked with some 70 people in all)—we still couldn’t come to an agreed informal definition of a train. (We defined it accurately, technically, in terms of entities and attributes of course.) In the glossary to the requirements definition I eventually produced, I printed the definition:
“Train: something with a light on the back”.
By law, a train has to have a light on the back. That was the only thing everyone could agree on.
© 2013 Jeremy Marchant Limited . image: Free images