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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Business optimisation

By Raúl Leal, on 14 May 2014

We were recently invited to participate in a bid to provide consultancy to an organisation. They are looking for the work of consultants hoping to gain a step change in their own capabilities when confronted with their very difficult business challenges.

This call for proposals made me think, what are the necessary conditions for external consultants to be effective in their contribution to the management of an organisation and how do we understand their input in terms of the systemicity of the organisation?

Sometimes consultants are brought into organisations when they are faced with very difficult problems and feel surpassed by the situation or somehow unable to resolve it. I wonder if the idea of solving some difficult problems through consultants can be seen, under certain circumstances, as a ‘disturbance’ that shakes the organisation into new areas that take them to find better answers. I would argue this is a problem that can be partly understood as an optimisation problem when you are searching for the most appropriate variables and their most appropriate combination to find the optimum of a function. Here the problem is the most appropriate way to deliver a complex project  (for example) and the variables are the exact number and identity of the resources (with their capability) involved. The function to be optimised is the business performance metrics. Of course, the situation arises not only when we get to the point of bringing in consultants, sometimes organisations face difficult problems and embark on solving them themselves. But the question is still relevant, if the organisation is a system, is the consultant (or the ‘hero’ within the organisation) anti-systemic? are they part of the system even if their participation is sporadic and is not in keeping with the internal dynamics? Or are they perhaps just bringing to light dynamics (or parts) of the system that had not been identified? Finally, is there anything we can learn from the field of optimisation in maths and search algorithms (in numerical computing) that we can transfer to the management and design of complex systems, including organisations?

It will be nigh on impossible to transfer directly an organisational problem to a numerical optimisation problem because many of the variables at play are non-quantifiable, being of a human nature. Nevertheless I reckon making the analogy with numerical optimisation gives you a very good chance of understanding the underlying and overarching dynamics of the organisation.

Just systems thinking…