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Chicago developer adds new wrinkle: A neutral facilitator

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Web developers at American Information Systems don't mind a little conflict when they meet with corporate clients to discuss resources and goals.

In fact, said AIS President Joshua Schneider, there are some sessions when disagreement actually is preferred.

"A lot of times people's expectations are simply discordant," said Mr. Schneider, who helped found the Chicago-based Web development, hosting and networking company three years ago.

ENTER THE FACILITATOR

The client may be expecting a Web site or an intranet as flashy as it is functional, he said. AIS wants to deliver, but can't because key departments in the corporation can't agree on means, ends or much of anything else.

The answer, Mr. Schneider said, is an outside facilitator brought in to mediate initial meetings.

Because he is neutral, the facilitator can make sure all conflicts are aired, and that all parties reach a consensus on goals, expectations and the resources to be used, Mr. Schneider said.

That sometimes requires exposing cliques and political infighting within the client's business that are thwarting agreement. It always means making sure the various departments involved in a Web development project take responsibility for their roles.

The cost of the sessions varies from client to client, said James Graham, a senior consultant with AIS who has worked as a facilitator. Sessions generally involve a team of two or three consultants for two or three days.

Each receives an hourly rate of between $150 and $225. The client typically pays for the sessions, which run from $3,000 to $5,000 a day.

"Believe me," Mr. Graham said, "it's really cheap for what you get."

AIS has been using the process -- known as Joint Application Development -- since it opened its doors in 1994.

"It can save you six weeks of development time," said Mr. Graham.

GETTING IT OUT IN THE OPEN

Because the major players involved in a Web project are forced to deal with each other face-to-face, conflicts get aired quickly and directly, Mr. Graham said.

The departments represented at the sessions can include marketing, sales, management information systems, human resources and corporate public relations.

"These are not bull sessions," Mr. Graham said. "Everything is very structured. We know where we're trying to go."

A typical conflict might occur between a company's marketing and management information experts.

"MIS wants to make sure the site will do what they need it to do. Marketers are often just as interested in touch and feel," Mr. Schneider said. "We try to reconcile needs and numbers at these sessions."

JAD sessions also help develop relationships between departments, Mr. Graham said, which can be critical in companies that are geographically dispersed.

YOU HAVE TO SPEAK UP

Most important, Mr. Graham said, the sessions "prevent someone from saying later on, `I never agreed to that.' "

"The rules are set up so that you agree going in that silence means compliance," Mr. Graham said. "You can't say later that you just didn't speak up."

AIS has used the JAD sessions, developed in the software industry during the 1970s, with several large clients, including St. Paul Federal Savings & Loan and U.S. Robotics Corp. But the process, which generally lasts two or three days, isn't for every company.

Sometimes a particular company's culture doesn't lend itself to the level of frankness required, Mr. Graham said. Some companies aren't willing to commit the time and resources.

Mr. Graham and fellow consultant Guy Gunzberg say the sessions are especially beneficial in any of several circumstances: When time is critical to a project's success; when expensive resources are involved and must be allocated to the most important tasks;

Developer calls in facilitator when there is a concern that parts of the organization will not support or understand the project.

The overriding goal, Mr. Gunzberg said, is to reach an acknowledged consensus at the end.

What you don't want, he said, "is to have the client look at a finished project and say, `That's not what we want.' The JAD process strongly induces the parties to agree at the outset."

BRINGING FACTIONS TOGETHER

A typical session would first look at factors driving the project, then at technical issues such as prototyping, deployment and evaluation.

The facilitator's role is to bring the various factions together -- without acrimony.

"It's critical that the facilitator be neutral," Mr. Schneider said. "Everyone knows he is not trying to make the developer money, or to save money for the client."

And money, Mr. Schneider said, is almost always an issue -- both for the client and AIS.

"It's dangerous to give a price [for a project] without defining the requirements," he said. "And you can't do that unless expectations and goals are clearly spelled out."

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