Confessions of a Consultant with Rachel Harnott

Our third and final consultant to leak their trade secrets is the fabulous Rachel Harnott.

I remember when I first met Rachel, I was a little intimidated. She exudes confidence, and quite frankly – knows her stuff. Rachel is well respected internally (and externally) at Engage for her knowledge, being a thought leader in the IT industry, and because she is one of the coolest people you will ever meet!

Rachel currently leads our digital workplace and employee experience practice area.


Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background

I thought I was going to be a superstar. I thought I was going to be a singer and then a friend of mine suggested I take a job at Gateway Computers in their admin team. Their marketing guy needed some help with their intranet so he started teaching me some very basic HTML and CSS and I created the worst intranet site with lots of really bad GIFs. Off the back of that, I got an admin support role at King & Wood Mallesons (known back then as Mallesons Stephen Jacques).

Over time I was helping their web development team and eventually moved into an intranet role. I had a really great mentor (shout out to Dan Morley), and he taught me front end dev, as well as advanced cold fusion and XML and that was really my first introduction to SharePoint 2010. At the same time, I was also supporting legal teams with their external blog sites using WordPress. This was my first experience into consulting because I was receiving requirements, making recommendations, as well as building blogs, supporting blogs, reporting, and providing feedback on how they could improve their material. I was there for 13 years (within that time I also started a family) and took the opportunity to study user experience design. From there I move to Cloud Consultancy as a SharePoint consultant and that was my first foray into SharePoint Online. While working as a consultant, I could see a real gap in my delivery skills around managing the people side of change, and how that directly would affect adoption. This led me to undertake study to become a Prosci Change Practitioner. Just as I was leaving that role, SharePoint Online Modern was becoming a thing, so I had to learn very quickly when I moved into my role at Engage Squared.

I’ve been at Engage Squared for three years and I’m driving value internally for our other consultants by passing on the things that I have learned. But, also driving value for our clients by making sure that we really listen to what they need.

What do you enjoy about your role?

Having impact and solving puzzles. There’s also an element of performance to consulting when you’re doing a workshop, particularly one that’s more knowledge transfer or informative workshops – you get to perform a little bit. I like when clients say things like “Oh my God, I had no idea it could do that, that’s going to make such a difference”. And that’s when you know, ‘I’m totally going to rock your world’, not me personally, but Microsoft 365 sure is.

What are some common pitfalls you see in your work?

One of the biggest pitfalls, is making assumptions about the clients technical and conceptual understanding. You can’t get somebody’s requirements at a detailed level, especially for custom solutions, if they’re not able to understand and visualize the concepts that we’re talking about. You can often spend a lot of time spinning your wheels if you’ve not come prepared to explain a concept.

The other pitfall is assuming what the client needs rather than checking with them. Checking in with the client and making sure that they feel like they were part of that conversation is so important. They need to feel they made the decisions with you because it’s as much about the people in the project teams as it is about the technical solution.

Lastly, the one thing that trips up every project is when people aren’t prepared to participate to the level we need. For example, their perception of ‘participating’ is merely turning up to a two-hour workshop and that’s it. We need them to represent their colleagues and be prepared to talk through the agenda points. We also need them to double check when we summarise everything that we’ve heard them correctly, and that what we were are recommending is what they asked for.

What at the key things that make a project successful?

Senior stakeholder buy-in, early on, and if possible, consistently through requirements and then testing. Somebody who’s actually in there and really part of the process attributes to a much more successful project. Also, giving the right amount of time, that’s not just in requirements but in testing and content load – particularly for intranets. Content load takes effort and time. I see a lot of clients under prepared for the task of content load and the time it takes. The more you can be prepared with your content, the quicker the load will be, and the richer the messaging.

Internally, strong communication and trust within the project team. Quality checks are also important, so I recommend you have a colleague review your documentation before you send it to a client. They don’t necessarily have to be senior, they just have to be another pair of eyes with a view for quality. I think that little pause before you send it to a client makes a big difference.

How do you measure success?

There’s a couple of different ways, if we’re talking about quantitative measurements. For all projects that I oversee, we do benchmarking tests to try and ascertain how long key tasks take before we implement the solution. Then we rerun those post implementation to try and see where organisations might have seen some productivity gains or expense reduction. I think it’s pretty cool when you are talking about saving 5 minutes a week for 10,000 users, that’s like a squillion dollars.

Also – a project team that is delighted come launch day. There’s a real vibe when a project team is excited by the solution that they’ve been part of building. I feel like that’s how you know as a consultant that you did a good job on the people side or the stakeholder management side and the team, is like, ‘Oh my god, we did it!’

Have you seen any big updates within your industry?

The cloud has changed everything. When I used to support the intranet at King & Wood Mallesons, I had to fix code, play with servers, we had to do backups and it was a real labour heavy thing to do. SharePoint Online has taken all of that away and fundamentally changed an intranet support person’s role, it makes them consultants by proxy.

Organisations in general are becoming more sophisticated in the ways that they are communicating with users, and users expect that level of sophistication now. It’s a really interesting dynamic to see, particularly in relation to the pandemic. The rate of change and digital transformation over the past two years has been a wild ride! And the focus that we’ve seen in the last few years around making life better for frontline workers. That’s a pleasant change, because previously sometimes that group was afterthought.

What does a digital workplace mean?

A digital workplace for me supports connection. Connection to tools. Connections to the organisation, the vision and the values. Connection to colleagues. A really great digital workplace should feel natural to me – it should be intuitive and give what I need easily. It should consider who I am and what I need to be the best employee I can be – at every stage in the employee lifecycle. It should be evolving and evergreen such that, as the business changes or as my role changes, so too does the digital workplace. It should be clever – technology is such an enabler when used correctly.

It is as much about people as it is the technology. A technological solution as fancy as it may be, is useless if the people don’t want to or can’t use it.

Thanks for the interview, Rachel!

If you enjoyed our interview with Rachel and are interested in the types of projects she has managed, take a look at our this case study for one of Australia’s largest councils.

If you missed our two previous ‘Confessions of a Consultant’ interview, you can read Gorica Mitrovic, and Emily McPherson’s experiences.

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