Holistic Approach to Consulting

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					?Holistic Approach to consulting

What is holistic approach?

Organisations engage consultants to assist them in coming up with objective solutions,
to their sporadic problems, of a non repetitive nature. Consultants have the advantage
of being an outsider and hence disinterested in the outcome of their involvement, in
arriving at the problem solution. Real life organisational problems are not woven
around well cut academic disciplines but may overlap several disciplines that may
have to be judiciously applied. Consultants follow certain formal methodologies
which have the power of rigour and tested methods, and therefore can foresee
problems before they occur, and hence have the power to preempt undesirable /
unintended outcomes.

Most engagemeents are driven by a set of defined objectives to be achieved, the scope
of the task to be performed and the associated Terms of reference, defined by the
management and also to enable administer the contract. It is generally observed that
the problem definition is driven by the management's need to address the most
pressing problem confronting them and their own perception of the issue, based on
what is visible and what they believe could be the solution. Organisational problems
are never uni-dimensional, but are on account of a set of multi dimensional factors
that interplay with each other. Therefore the need for examining the stated problem
from a multi dimensional perspective is paramount. One such method Holistic
approach to problem solving is discussed below

The systems (holistic) approach is a unique methodology, to meet the challenges of
understanding and analysing a complex system. It is a practical and proven approach
to analyse a decision - oriented inter disciplinary problem situation, and aiding the
investigator in complex problem solving, under uncertainty. This methodology
enables interaction with all stakeholders, who may be unstructured in their thinking
and the way in which they communicate, and also enables understanding and
integration of technical and behavioural aspects, which makes this approach holistic
and unique.

Participatory process: In the holistic approach, the intervention starts with an
interaction with all stakeholders in a participatory mode. The participatory mode of
problem (re)defintion is used to unravel the various interconnected dimensions of the
problem. It is called participatory, to reflect the collaborative and consensus process,
employed in drawing upon the inputs from the various stakeholders. For sake of
operational simplicity, stakeholders, here, are limited to the internal stakeholders that
include varous line managers and staff representatives cutting across product
lines/functional areas/ divisions/geographies/subject matter specialists or project
heads and other entities that reflect the whole organisation.
The participatory process is a structured but non directed one, called Nominal Group
Technique (NGT), where participants are asked to respond to a trigger question, such
as, what they believe are the factors contributing to the stated problem. The response
to this question will be driven by the perception of participants in this heterogenous
group as seen from their own perspective. This helps in defining the problem from
different perspectives, each of them having their own logic in contributing to the
problem as well as the solution. All these responses obtained through a round robin
sequence (just to make the process orderly, as well as to give an opportunity to all
participants, unhindered by the more aggressive ones overshadowing the relatively
low profile ones) are listed in the order in which they appear. The responses are
categorised and anlysed to help in logically drawing up their inter-relationships, and
how the points raised contribute to the problem.

Nominal Group Techniques (NGTs) is one of the consensus methodologies, where in
a group comprising diverse stakeholders, are assembled, and through a trigger
question, their responses are captured, which when analysed, is expected to capture
the several shades of the problem, as articulated by each member. This session is
repeated for two or three rounds till all possible dimensions are identified.

Techniques such as brainstorming and NGTs will be used in this forum to get the
views of each participant on issues, objectives and vision for the change.

External data collection: A series of site visits wherever warranted and interactions
with the stakeholders, through workshops will be organised in addition to the NGT as
above. Interviews are proposed to be held with various stakeholders. Interviews allow
the flexibility of pursuing unanticipated lines of inquiry and to probe into issues in
depth. These interviews will be a combination of both structured and unstructured.

The consultant will follow this process by drafting a problem statement that will
encompass .the totality of ideas that have been generated through this participatory

Components of a systems approach and its operationalisation
The systems approach starts with articulating a problem statement. A problem
statement is a note on the problem to be analysed, capturing all aspects of the problem.
This is done through a process of wide-scoping the problem situation, by gathering all
possible dimensions of the problem from a variety of sources, such as secondary
literature, documented material, historical data, open ended and close ended
discussions, with a variety of stakeholders, conducting an NGT (as above) of a group
who have some exposure / familiarity with the subject, to understand the multiple
dimensions of the problem from their own perspective.

The objective here is to capture as much variety on the problem situation as possible,
to understand its various dimensions. It is not a quantitative / statistical process, but a
qualitative one to capture its various dimensions, the various stakeholders, their
interrelationships, the needs of the stakeholders, the constraints under which they are
operating. The problem statement enables to expand the scope, so that we are able to
capture its various nuances, and internalize them as part of the problem itself. This is
done to have a holistic (complete) view of the problem situation. The preparation of
the problem statement is a structured activity, through certain process guidelines. This
is done considering that societal / organisational problems do not necessarily fall
under straight jacketed structures. They need not be discrete but are a continuum.

Identification of the objectives will be carried out on the above problem statement,
using a Unified Program Planning (UPP) analysis on the data collected from the
NGTs, Brainstorming, interviews and questionnaire surveys. The UPP analysis is a
structured approach towards identification of four sets of elements; Stakeholders
(Individuals, groups or agencies who have a stake in the system-in-focus), Needs
(Refers to the requirements of stakeholders which are to be fulfilled by the
system-in-focus), Alterables (Parameters, events or processes that can be controlled or
altered to fulfill the needs of stakeholders) and Constraints (Limitations imposed by
factors that are not controllable by the system-in-focus), that represent a problem
situation and help in formulation of a set of objectives. For a given situation, SNAC
analysis helps in
? Screening key elements that have significant relevance to the situation
? Understanding various stakeholders and their respective needs
? Bringing out major constraints
? Identifying objectives that are ‘truly' shared
Each defined objective and its associated action plan will help in its realisation.

From the problem statement, Multi modeling techniques (systems methodologies)
such as SNAC analysis (analysis of the Stakeholders, Needs, Alterables and
Constraints), ID (Influence Diagram, which will depict inter relationships among
departments / sections in providing services), VSM (Viable Systems Model) are used
to define the organisation structure, roles and responsibilities and staffing pattern. The
rationale behind this approach is that, in a complex scenario, no single model will be
able to address all the dimensions of the problem. Each model reveals only a part of
the reality / solution. Therefore, it is essential to use multi-models to gain a better
understanding of the problem situation.

Normally, the study is visualized as comprising two modules:
Module 1 - Formulating the vision and objectives
Module 2 - Understanding the existing scenario, central issues confronting the
organisation, practices adopted, cost drivers, market expectations and key
shortcomings, user satisfaction levels, value added

A. Objective setting
Action plan, strategy formulation for the system will be based on the identification of
the vision and set of objectives to be realised. These objectives will be a reflection of
the needs / expectations from the stake holders, and issues to be addressed in design
of the new system. The first step towards strategy formulation is identification of
objectives to be realised. This is proposed to be achieved through the earlier stated
process of consensus building, using group techniques such as brainstorming and
Nominal Group Techniques (NGTs), interviews, questionnaires.

From the list of objectives an objective tree or Interpretive Structural Model (ISM) is
built. The ISM is a hierarchical arrangement of all objectives, identified above,
through a mathematical process, following certain business rules such as transitivity

B. Identification of interdependence between elements of the system

An Influence Diagram (ID) will be developed (see a typical one in exhibit attached) in
order to get a better understanding of the scenario. In an ID, the various key elements
/ factors that constitute the system are identified and their inter-linkages mapped and
studied. This serves to highlight any missing / weak links, the effect of change in one
factor on the other and the points where any intervention is needed, to derive desirable
outcomes. To draw the ID, the various units/stakeholders/departments / sections are
studied and the interactions among them captured.

C. Design of organisation structure and staffing

Viable Systems Model (VSM) is used to design the organisation and staffing structure.
This model is built on five elements of any viable system;
? Policy (to draw management policies for the continued viable functioning of the
system drawing upon inputs from the intelligence, control and monitoring
? Intelligence (to scan the external environment for any changes, such as
technology, threats, security breaches which will have an effect on the operation of the
? Control and Monitoring ( to check if the day to day functioning is in line with
what is expected of the system),
? Co-ordination (effectively controlling the operations of the system) and
? Operations (the various operations under the system).
Suggestions on making the entire system viable will be based on the above analysis.
Critical Success Factors (CSFs) in terms of technological, marketing skills, financial
aspects required for development and smooth functioning of the new system, will be
identified based on the above analysis. The improvements suggested will be reviewed
in terms of feasibility and impact on the current system and a final set of
modifications / improvements in the framework, will be drawn.

A conceptual representation of a viable systems model is depicted in exhibit below

Viable system model
D. Staffing
Identification of the sub systems in the VSM will lead to enumeration of all the
functions to be performed. The functions will be classified as related and unrelated.
Whenever interactions between functions are high, they will be grouped as related and
treated as points of convergence in the structure, taking into account control aspects.
While designing the organisation structure, a balance will be drawn between
homogeneity and affinity of actions to be performed and controls to be imposed. Once
the structure of the organisation is decided upon, the staffing requirements will be
examined. A training plan will be drawn to impart training so as to enable them to
carry out their activities efficiently.

It is recognised that in any external intervention for organisational problem solving
scenario, with long term strategic implications, close participation of the client and all
stake holders, during the vision and objective setting for the engagement, strategy
formulation phase, solution design and their feedback, is essential. This will
substantially contribute to the quality of the output, acceptance of recommendations
and speedier implementation. This approach will ensure ownership of the output,
which will enhance level of participation, and active involvement of stakeholders,
during the implementation. This will considerably reduce rework and revisit to the
course of action formulated from the intervention, and address queries raised (if any),
by the participants, during the implementation. Active stakeholder participation
during the initial phases of the intervention, contributes to success and speed of
implementation, high level of utilisation and reduced need for implementation
Why holistic approach?
The holistic approach is most suited to analyse and understand a complex
multidisciplinary problem, which does not have the advantages of a unique and sound
theoretical base of its own, tested body of knowledge and proven methodologies, to
apply. Holistic approach is also useful to verify the stated nature of the problem posed
for analysis, and solution expected based on the client's own interpretation /
preconceived notion of what the problem could be. Many a time, problem definition
(the most important prerequisite before an external consultant intervention) is itself
skewed, partial, biased or truncated, based on the perception of the client,
commissioning the intervention. The client also many times may not be sensitive to /
conscious of the interdepenencies / influences one element of the problem can have
on other elements.

Addressing a poorly defined problem and working on a soution can be more harmful
than leaving the problem as it is. Thus holistic approach is a tool for collective and
fully unerstanding the problem, carrying the stakeholders and arrivng at a consensus
on the nature of interventions. The relationships though known in a general sense /
isolated manner, are never mapped together to examine the various influencing factors
that need to be touched, to find a real solution. That is also the reason why
consultants' reports become subject of debate/ criticism of being biased, not usable,
seen as working on an agenda for the management, or fail to derive the expected

The holistic approach is akin to a physician understanding the patient as fully as
possible, including his habits, hobbies, nature of work, liesure activities, and food
habits, though these may appear trivial or irrelevant, for the ailment, on the surface.
Many a time the solution may be in the problem itself and therefore with minor
tweeking of certain elements, the desired results could be achieved. Such a scenario
exists even in profit oriented business organisations, complex social problems, or
even in an apparently simple problem situation.

Real organisations (business/social) are never closed system, but are subject to several
external influences and extert their influence on the external environment.
Organisations or social systems by their very nature are complex open systems, as
their boundary of influence is open. Societal and organizational problems are
problems of handling open systems, where the system boundary is amorphous,
influencing variables are many, their nature of influence are contextual, making the
problem scenario highly complex to handle. The same is the reason why, we are not
able to apply any conventional methodologies, that work in controlled environments
(closed systems which could be controlled), to this problem scenario.

The influence of human factor adds to the complexity. Complex / open systems also
have a character, of being heterogeneous in terms of their stakeholders, problem
context, their relationships, how they influence each other, the nature and impact of
their influence and how they respond to external stimuli. This character of the
problem situation, itself makes it amenable, only to define the approach to handle, and
not the specifics of arriving at a solution, as these unfold as we move forward. This
generic approach is ideally suited to handle unstructured problems (all management
problems are in a way not fully structured, thoguh there may be stuctured approaches
to handle individual componnents of the problem), which are not benefited by a
proven body of knowledge to handle.

The systems approach attempts to recognize the real world realities of an open system,
subject to the influence of the happenings in the environment, and therefore poorly
controlled. This framework provides a structured approach to study and comprehend
an unstructured problem.

The approach recognizes the existence of an underlying structure (not in the paradigm
of defined disciplines) even in an apparently unstructured situation. This approach to
a problem situation ensures the conceptual and structural validity of solution to the
problem. It enables a detailed solution arrived at by any means, to be tested against
this template of the structure, and therefore its structural validity. Typical examples of
applicable problem situations in the Indian context would be to analyse
unemployment, poverty, urban growth, and even in a mundane software development
/ e governance project. The value derived from this approach is its holism, identifying
and capturing all relevant factors / variables, triggers the process of identifying their
interrelationships, and thereby a focused debate, and a re-examination of apparent /
conventional wisdom. The methodology provides an excellent platform for
comprehension of the problem, discussion and debate on relevant variables and their
interrelationships, and an effective communication tool, to interact with a
heterogeneous audience, typical of any open system. The most vivid example is a
software development process where all possible interconnections need to be
unravelled during the concetualisation and design process, otherwise it would amount
to rework during the development, testing, implementation and usage phase (see

Generally the Scope and ToR for the engagement would state that the client needs
(wants?) the examination process to be computerised and hence the mandate to go
ahead with computerising it. This inference on the chosen solution itself, sometimes
need to be re-examined through a holistic approach.

The systems approach takes a holistic rather than a mechanistic view of the problem
at hand, with emphasis on the synthesis of various elements and factors of the system,
and its sub-systems. This approach identifies interactions and inter-relationships
between various elements of a system. The approach enables clear and comprehensive
understanding and definition of the requirements, taking into account
? the unique features of the line of business,
? The various issues/entities/constituents and their level of independence / inter
Such a holistic approach will ensure completeness and scalability in volume, as well
as variety, to meet future evolving requirements, addresses the level of preparedness
of the existing system (Infrastructure; social and physical, technology, acceptability,
awareness, affordability, and adaptability), to seamlessly transform to the new
systemIn this ever increasing complexity of problem situations being encountered, it
is expected that the holistic approach will gain considerable attention in the future.

The holistic approach is yet to be recognised as a discipline to be included in formal
management education


Anexure - a Typical illustration - case study of computerisation of examination system
in a SEEB

An apparently straight case of a software development project for process automation
in an organization (government) is illustrated below, to bring to surface, the unique
value derived, through application of this approach, to unravel latent relationships and
influencing factors, which could become critical at the time of its implementation, and
usage during its life time.

The project being illustrated is Computerisation of an examination Processing system,
which is under the umbrella of the state government in a typical state. The problem
statement goes something like this.

The state X conducts its 10th standard and other diploma / trade related courses'
examination, through the Secondary Education Examination Board (SEEB). The no.
of courses for which the SEEB is responsible would be 25, spread over the whole 12
months in a year. 60 % of these examinations take place during the months of April
June, and about 90% of the candidates also appear during this period. The process of
conducting the examination involves receiving the list and other details of candidates
appearing for the examination, from the various participating schools, in a prescribed
format, by a particular date for each exam, which has to be verified, corrected, entered
in the system in a predefined format and securely stored for later retrieval. Currently
the data from schools entered manually in predefined forms, reach the SEEB through
the postal system. The data are entered by data entry operators engaged through an
agent. They are not permanently employed by the SEEB. The proposed computerized
examination system is expected to electronically collecting the data on students,
getting all marks scored by each student on each subject entered in the data base,
deciding cut off/grace marks, depending on the pass percentage and other factors,
which could change for each course and exam.

The Para above would be the brief given by the client to the SW developer. The
several relevant but unstated factors / questions to be asked would be:

1. Why do you want to change the system? What benefit are you expecting? Is there
a monetary value attached to it? How do you justify this investment on the project?
From which academic session do you expect this to be fully operational?
2. Would you need to be keeping the hard copies of marks data and answer scripts,
and if so for how long? Is this driven by legal requirement? How much space it is
likely to occupy? Do you have that space? How do you inventorise these for easy
access, tracking and retrieval?
3. Would you be keeping the same data entry operators or new? Have you
considered their concerns - loss of incentives due to initial lower productivity,
learning curve, and sabotage by disgruntled elements. How do you propose to handle
this? Have you attached a monetary value to this and included in project cost? Have
you explored all options to realize your objective? If not, are you facing any
difficulties / constraints in deciding on that?
4. Are you planning to connect to other institutions who may use the marks awarded,
for any purpose such as higher studies, employment of the students…. If so, have you
studied the technical feasibility of the same, the willingness of these institutions to get
connected, to pull the data from your system, standardization of SW/HW
specifications for interoperation, legal acceptance of electronic transactions for
transfer of marks for admission / employment?

5. How are the results of the examinations going to be announced and after how
many days of getting the marks, from the examiners? Is the result going to be
announced at all or can the students pull their results, from the system

6. Are you considering examining a radical change in the examination process,
pattern, system itself? What options are under consideration? Plan to shift from
descriptive to logical, multiple choice etc?. The results could be announced
instantaneously, if the examination patter is an objective or multiple choice. If there is
a paradigm shift in the exam pattern itself, you may be able to complete do away with
the infrastructure for conducting the board examination, itself.

7. Do you have the freedom to change the exam. pattern? Any special approval
process to be gone through, expected time elapsed to get this, how does it sync with
your proposed project schedule, and whose responsibility is it to go through the
process for bringing about change in the exam. system itself, do they have he
authority, Are you giving out this job on a complete turnkey basis comprising getting
all approvals for change, deciding on course of change, deciding on detailed items of
task, quality assurance of the work done by the SW developer, testing of work done.
Is the vendor expected to carry out an IT systems study, advice you on HW, SW,
Networking, Cost Benefit Analysis

8. What would be the remuneration structure for service provider? Payment for
service rendered (Sw development), Training, Maintenance, Upgradation, revenue /
benefit sharing, how do you compute benefits,
9. Who enters data on marks obtained for each student for each subject?
10. How do you ensure security of and preempt fraud in data entry, and thereby result
11. How do you keep a trail of the entire process and provide access to answer scripts,
if a student contests marks assigned, and the court asks for the answer script and the
valuation made?
12. What is the level of competency of those who are going to be engaged on the job
of data entry?
13. Will they take less or more time under this new system? Are there any incentives
for data entry operators? What is the basis? How it may be affected after
14. What is the adequacy and quality of the supporting infrastructure to change over
to he digital system for conduct of examinations, processing results, result
announcements, data archiving and retrieval, physical and logical security, disaster
recovery, reemployment of those who are redundant,…..

The above are only a narrative description of a truncated version of possible
externalities for consideration, to the core task of Computerisation of the SEEB. This
could be more effectively captured through the Influence diagram mentioned earlier
for a complete visibility of the problem to all stakeholders. Capturing all the possible
questions and incorporating them in the project definition, planning, pricing,
scheduling etc. would be possible through an NGT and out-scoping process, through
literature study of similar projects elsewhere, discussion with experts, limited research
in examination system computerization, discussion with the stakeholders (the SEEB,
students, evaluators, other institutions, the state government, schools systems, staff of
the SEEB). Most projects fail (fall short of achieving their originally stated goals /
benefits) due to a partial understanding, recognition and planning for all interrelated
factors. Holistic approach would help realistic planning, achieving realistic goals, and
maintaining physical and financial control and facilitate realistic expectations.


2. BRAIN OF THE FIRM - Stafford Beer
3. SOCIETIAL SYSTEMS - John Warfield
4. LIVING SYSTEMS THEORY - James Grier Miller

The Author - Dr. K.V.Subramanian -

Dr. K.V. Subramanian (Prime consulting group, a Bangalore based management
consultancy and training organisation- a graduate
in Electrical Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, Surathkal
and a Ph.D. (Fellow) in Management from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
He has over twenty four years of experience in Management Consultancy including
four years in IT services marketing, ODC & relationship management, management
education, consultancy for the development and infrastructure sector, and four years
in engineering Industry. He has had advanced training in Organisational Behaviour
and has done his doctoral dissertation in Management on "Organisational
effectiveness in the implementation of Decentralised Renewable Energy Programme
(a top priority programme of the Government of India).

He has had extensive training and experience in application of Systems
Methodologies for societal sector analysis. His experience in Management
Consultancy primarily focused on the Government sector covering infrastructure,
developing programmes, socially relevant productive sectors, local bodies, etc. He has
handled complex consultancy assignments with diverse stakeholders.

As a group leader, his responsibilities included providing high end consultancy and all
client relationships support for IT services and all activities under management
consulting, in the Government sector, including defense. He effectively interacts
closely with top level officials in the Government (including the head of state
administration, departmental heads, heads of state level service organizations,
regulatory bodies, on aspects of bringing about E governance in the state
administration. He was also the programme manager for major consulting
assignments being undertaken for the defense sector organizations and is well versed
with the functioning, issues and their resolution. He has led a major organizational
transformation assignment through Process redesign and technology induction for the
space research organization in India as well as a Government Online Centre project
for the Government of Mauritius. He has handled training programs on systems
thinking, managing fixed price consulting and IT assignments in government sector,
and conflict management, consulting practice, energy management, project
management. He is a Certified Quality Analyst from the Quality Assurance Institute.

He is an independent consultant on World Bank funded projects to the Centre for
Symbiosis of Technology Environment and Management,, a
consulting organization in the Infrastructure and Development sector. Earlier, he had
led STEM handling both its consulting and infrastructure management education
vetticals. He pursues his own consultancy, corporate and short term management
training practice through his organisation, Prime Consulting Group,