with Colin Balchin, Managing Director, Adept Knowledge Management
What is the history and vision behind Adept’s creation?
After graduating as a civil engineer at Edinburgh University, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship at Oxford University to do a business degree. Afterward, I worked, applying maths and engineering to business and project problems for Anglo American, a mining company in Central Africa. Upon my return to Britain management consultancy in steel, aluminium, and oil provided some great opportunities for me. As a result of my project and maintenance management knowledge and experience I became project control manager for Shell on cormorant alpha, a very large development. As a member of a fairly young team we all had to learn in post, supplementing existing knowledge regarding project management with more particular and specific experience about oil and gas. The Shell team turned around the project, insofar as the job finished ahead of schedule, and prepared for future post-production work in a very effective manner. My next appointment was as a project control manager on the Beatrice Field for British National Oil Corporation, where some peculiar circumstances had caused problems. Although again we were a young team, we achieved some rewarding success. For me, a recurring theme was learning from some truly great people who were always enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge.
Following these experiences in the oil sector, I managed some private companies for a while, did a management buy-out but left for health reasons. In 1992 there was an opportunity to create the original Adept, a joint venture between a medium-sized management consultancy and a significant player in the Aberdeen training market, called SCOTA (Scottish Offshore Training Association). Eventually, the SCOTA assets formed a core part of Petrofac’s training capability.
At Adept, I created project management training courses to meet market needs. In the 1990s, the industry was in a transition from projects that were being managed. With a dip in the market in the 1980s when oil prices lowered, many clients realized they had built up large organizations to manage projects with a high client involvement. With less projects, coupled with anticipated low oil prices, clients wanted contractors to become more and more involved in the project management process, forming long-term relationships and alliances. There was a gap between what clients knew, and what they wanted their contractors to know about managing big projects. Subsequently, our team became involved in training staff from large contractors and some of the new client staff, in attempting to manage oil field development projects. Essentially, Adept started as that joint venture in 1992, and contracted successfully with the Engineering and Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB); various universities and a number of commercial companies. Our time working with the ECITB coincided with their recognition of the need for, and promotion of project management training to their member companies, who included the major engineering and construction companies in the UK. For a while, we became a part of another company but that did not work out and Adept Knowledge Management was formed in late 2002. Although profitable from its inception, growth was relatively small at 10% per annum. We won some international contracts and a significant contract against some pretty fierce competition from national and regional companies. We feel that the vision of Adept is guided by this experience and our rewards are in 2007 Adept grew 50%, and exported more than half of our services.
What is it about the Adept philosophy towards project management that makes it so competitive against larger or more established competitors?
The first thing that Adept has is knowledge: we know about project management, and managing big and small projects, because our people have done it. So our knowledge comes from practice, expertise, and also study, because we aren’t afraid to study and learn from others. Secondly, Adept has very good material and case studies, and tries to understand client needs and what they’re trying to do with the courses. Even in the case of open courses where a client is one of many delegates, we always determine what individuals want to get out of the program, so our instructors ensure our answers cover the participants’ interest. Thirdly, Adept staff take pride in being good teachers. All of the people who deliver the courses are really excellent at communicating, and do so with enthusiasm and humour, which is always appreciated.
You mention a growth of 50% in 2007, and continued growth in 2008. What are the sources of Adept’s growth?
Geographically, it has been a combination of growth overseas and within Britain. Quite a bit of growth has occurred in America and Asia, which may seem strange for a small Scottish company, but evidently the Adept approach is appreciated there.
Overall, we work with companies involved in projects, where they invest to build expertise inside their company to complement what they outsource. In the main, these companies have a presence in Aberdeen and UK, with either headquarters or significant activity. Therefore, Adept’s starting point has been to sell via those channels. Adept have never been overseas in trade missions, because we consider ourselves too small and service rather than product oriented. Our strategy is to work with identified opportunities and companies in Aberdeen, London, or Glasgow etc, and from there we work in UK and overseas. There are some exceptions. We have a client with head offices in London, New York, and Paris, and it is a truly international oil services provider. And another with European headquarters that is becoming a major player in Oil & Gas.
You may agree that this is a conservative approach. Indeed Adept’s overseas presence has to be limited by the quality and number of people who can successfully deliver the courses to our standard. It’s no secret that the big training companies have some good material, some good people, and can produce courses, however their end result is that some are good and some are not. That is a problem, but if that organization is big enough the approach will nonetheless work. But for a company like Adept, this approach will not work, because we are not organized to put out 50 different types of courses. We have ten or so courses, of which four are really the most popular. This also means that we can design and build courses to fit client needs and emphasis; and that’s what works well for us and our clients.
Adept constantly reviews material and delivery, much in the same way that a pianist or guitar player constantly rehearses and reviews, because if you don’t, you die.
In terms of impact, what is most appreciated by your clients in this different approach?
It sounds immodest, but delegates on the courses recognize that the material is sound, good, and appropriate. The selection of practical problems and materials makes points that are at once strong and easy for them to digest. Adept gives clients’ tools and templates that they can go away with, while also building a strong rapport with facilitators, who answer questions fully, individually or collectively, as needed. The delegates also write to us after the courses, with questions, and Adept stays in touch to answer all queries.
Also, because Adept offers project management tools, and can teach skills for a “one-man project management team”. This idea of maximizing the contribution and project performance of scarce individuals is a bit of a ‘Holy Grail’ and quite a few clients are investing in their people this way. We will take on a delegate’s problem, help them solve it at the time or the next day. Basically, in these cases Adept gives a solution, a template or tool, that is quite useful and is seen to be equivalent to an onsite consultancy job, at no additional cost.
What are your ambitions for Adept over the next five to 10 year time horizon?
Most of Adept’s employees are quite a bit younger than me, and I want them to have successful careers, preferably at Adept, or elsewhere. I’d like to think the staff will be thriving and working successfully together. The company itself will be doing more in the way of services and training courses in the future. Over the last two years, Adept has developed two very useful adjuncts to training courses.
It is well known that it’s extremely difficult to take material and knowledge from a training course and directly apply it in practice. What Adept has done is develop a combination of training course, service, and tools which deliver what we call applied project management. Instead of completing a project management course, it’s a project management transformation, with teaching followed by knowledge applied directly to the company’s problem. Adept first tested this approach a little over a year ago, and has since developed, improved and refined the methods.
In practical terms, it is being delivered at some companies right now, and is proceeding very successfully. The approach is going to take them from not managing projects well, to having project management inside of three to five months. This is a process that normally takes a few years. Everyone who has tried to do it in a short timeframe has always come to grief, because these types of changes involve changing corporate culture: again, very difficult to do. Adept is achieving it with clients by involving their staff in training courses that become workshops and applying the knowledge continually.
This approach is not easy, and is quite hard on the facilitators, who aren’t delivering a training course, from Monday to Friday and finishing. It’s a big commitment to, and for clients, but is incredibly rewarding, especially for them to see it working and becoming incredibly successful. In five years’ time, Adept expects there to be imitators, because to our knowledge there is nobody else training this way at the moment.
The second innovation Adept has been involved in, is a technical project leadership workshop which combines project management knowledge with a simulation of project management scenarios. It’s a five day project management experience with knowledge and simulation, that is well-liked by UK and US clients, that we expect to become more popular.
What is your final message to OGFJ readers?
The message is about their own people. There is definitely a shortage of very good people, there’s no doubt about it. So all people really need to improve, and the only way you can develop people is by managing, training, and coaching them to be better. If this is done properly, alongside proper training and development, it’s as good as money. And sometimes it’s a better motivator, because if people really feel they are being well-trained and developed, they become more interested in developing themselves professionally. More companies will be successful, and achieve success through the development of their people, processes, and tools. But it will fundamentally be about achieving success through developing and coaching their people.
Companies need to find training companies they can work with. And it may not be Adept, but they will need to form relationships with some. Our clients have identified Adept as good at doing certain things, but for other topics they go to other training companies. If you use the best people to do what they’re best at, and you keep doing that, you’ll be OK. But for sure, the only way people will be successful is to be developed and trained, not just on training courses, but as part of their everyday working. Hence, developing, mentoring, and coaching, are all very important.
Looking through the companies that are successful, it is clear that is what the companies are doing. Early recognition of this, combined with appropriate development actions will contribute to profitable growth for all who do so.