I know many people, particularly in the public sector, are wary of engaging consultants. They see them as outsiders who charge exhorbitant fees and who don’t “understand” the organisation; they tend to deliver lengthy reports, based on superficial research, which call for change the institution isn’t ready for or can’t commit the resources to, and so just end up sitting on someone’s shelf, gathering dust. It’s the worst of all possible business sins – a waste of time and money.
I have certainly seen it happen, and I understand the skepticism. I have had every possible range of experience working with consultants, from the very good to the very bad to the simply mediocre and useless.
Why use consultants?
A recent (September 2010) CASE article by Andrea Jarrell called “Help Wanted: Making the most of consultant expertise” identifies the following factors to help universities (or any organisation, really) identify when they might need a consultant:
Four factors generally cause institutions to seek outside expertise: scope, know-how, objectivity, and politics. The first two are fairly obvious: Is the job simply too big for campus professionals to handle in addition to their regular responsibilities? Is the expertise required to accomplish your goals lacking on campus? If the answer is yes to one or both of these questions, you need help from a consultant. Even if you have the time and expertise on campus to handle the proposed project, you may need the objectivity of outside counsel to ensure success.
I recently helped co-ordinate the work of a branding agency to help Wales’ newest university re-name and re-brand, and despite expected complaints from some at how much was spent developing a “logo,” I know first-hand how much work was involved from the research and benchmarking stages through to the advocacy and lobbying and internal communications and then the part that everyone sees – the brand identity. It didn’t go perfectly, and everyone learned from the process, which is to be expected. But I also know for a fact there is absolutely no way either I or my team or even a working group of academic and administrative professionals could have achieved the necessary output without professional assistance, for all the reasons listed in the article above.
Working expectations – beyond the “brief”
And now I’ve moved from briefing and coordinating the work of consultants to being one myself. Reflecting on my experience, I think the key to a successful working relationship is to spent the time at the outset agreeing the terms of the arrangement. And by this I don’t simply mean the contract and what constitutes breaches, setting deadlines, etc. But rather a very frank discussion about working styles and expectations. As one of my favourite teachers used to say, “you can’t staple your head to the paper.” Meaning, it may all be “up there” but if you don’t spell it out, how can anyone possibly know what you mean?
So talk about preferences – email vs. phone vs. chat; experience managing these types of projects (on the client side) – do they need help and guidance?; pros and cons of being fully involved in each stage of the project; time commitments and availability; learning/thinking/feedback styles – do you go with your gut or do you like to digest and think about it first? And so on…this can take place before the contract is awarded even, so that both parties clearly understand what they’re getting into.
I find it strange that so much time is spent hiring permanent or even contract staff in terms of the application process and interviews, trying to figure out if the person is the right “fit” for the organisation, but the same types of consideration aren’t part of the equation in hiring a consultant. It’s understandable, but I think both the client and the consultant would benefit from similar discussions so that the decision isn’t simply based on previous experience/recommendations or cost/benefit but rather on the interpersonal relationship the partnership brings to the team.
The (near) future of consulting
It’s a tough time to try to work with universities – with massive budget cuts, it’s hard to imagine that financial resources will be made available for consultancy-based projects. However, with the increasing competitiveness and need to source and develop additional revenue streams, given the above criteria, hiring consultants and interim managers is a logical stop-gap measure when longer-term funding is unknown. The options are endless too – it’s no longer just a matter of having someone come in and do a bit of research and leave you with a 100+ page report for you to read and implement (although if that’s all you’re after…!) but rather consultants can be used in house where staffing gaps might exist or to implement particular projects or to train staff on new ways of working – or all of the above!
The right partner can be worth their weight in gold if used effectively, particularly if flexible and as committed to the success of your organisation as you are. In this way, you are not chained to them if it’s not working, but if it is – the link is solid, and they don’t just walk away at the end of the project with no concern for the effectiveness of the implementation of their recommendations and ideas.