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My Summer as a Fake Consultant

Here’s a riddle for you: how do you turn an engineer into a management consultant? Sadly, there’s no witty one-liner here, but I’ll try to keep my year and a half journey entertaining.

I was a gear-head through and through: a farm-boy turned mechanical engineer who built robots for a living and was addicted to computers, aluminum parts and start-up businesses. However, after 5 or 6 years in the field, I was beginning to see the limitations of my work and my impact on the world around me. I wanted a foundation in business knowledge, but I wanted something uniquely different. This is why I was initially attracted to the MBA in Technology & Innovation at the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM).

While classes, projects and textbooks would keep me sleepless for months on end, I argue that my real education came through a unique option that TRSM has called the Major Research Project (MRP) – think thesis “light” for people going through an accelerated 1 year MBA. It all started when I was introduced to Dr. Ron Babin.

Ron was one of TRSM’s finest in strategy and consulting, and somehow convinced me to get involved with his research on outsourcing. I took the bait, and before I knew it, was applying for research grants through MITACS, aligning my work with the Centre for Outsourcing Research and Education (CORE) and cozying up to methodologies and frameworks used by Deloitte. In a few short months, I had read more literature on the topic of outsourcing than most people would care to admit and had formed a research question around the effects outsourcing maturity/capabilities on the effects of relationships between suppliers and providers.

To my surprise, there was interest in my work… a lot of interest. With the help of CORE, we got buy-in from 15 of the biggest outsourcing deals in Canada, representing about 20% of all outsourcing done in the country. I was to spend my summer flying coast-to-coast and meeting with directors, VPs and C-level executives at some of Canada’s biggest companies. I had an unheard-of 2 hours to interview each of them about their outsourcing practices and to probe on their level of happiness (or near homicidal anger in some cases) with their provider. I was flying to a new city every-other day, dining with business contacts, waking up in new beds and living out of a suitcase; I was a fake consultant.

However, eventually the expensed dinners, posh hotels and well-cut suits ended and I returned to life as a student. I had collected over 30 hours of interviews from some of the most powerful women and men in Canada, and suddenly I had to make sense of it all. I would love to glorify this next part, but the reality is that I spent a solid month working my ass off: coding interviews, relating themes from different insights and developing a perspective based on some incredible data. At the end of it all, I was able to propose a theory about outsourcing that was not only novel, but went against traditional industry practices.

 What we had found was that non-contractual elements are paramount to the success of an outsourcing relationship. Our research indicated that experience in outsourcing was obviously critical to success, focusing on tracking core essential metrics instead of hundreds was useful to simplify the process and, perhaps most importantly, empathy went a long way in creating happier, more functional relationships. While this may sound quite logical, the outsourcing industry had a long history of living through their contracts and only dealing with each other by citing the clauses within. Our research showed the importance of reciprocity.   Outsourcing relationships should be treated like partnerships, not like arms length transactions.

Perhaps my proudest moment was having Ron present our work to a captive 200-person audience at a CORE event and seeing it met with nodding heads, coupled with a dose of unease. We had hit a nerve on an area that the outsourcing industry needed to change and for the first time, many of these individuals were seeing enough rigorous data to admit to the coming storm.

And as for a job after my degree? Funny thing about spending a summer meeting high-power individuals and then painting a shocking picture about their business: they tend to want to hire you. However, after spending a summer immersed in outsourcing, I settled on a different challenge and now work as a consultant in innovation… but that’s another tale for another day.

So how do you turn an engineer into a consultant? I still don’t really know, but this is my story.

Shane Saunderson is an Innovation Strategist at Idea Couture, a global strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is a graduate of the Ted Rogers School of Management MBA in Technology and Innovation (’11) and McGill University Bachelor of Engineering (’05).

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