Cafe Witness

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What Good Are Consultants?

You have a company. You have a budget. You have employees.

Why do you need consultants?

I believe there are two specific cases when companies should look to outside consultants to help them solve problems. I also believe there are NUMEROUS times that companies squander consultancy cash when it could be better spent internally. (And, as a sometimes-consultant, I'm well aware that I "tie my own noose" as I write this.)

When You Need a Consultant

1) Your company wants to do something it doesn't know how to do, and the influence of an outside consultancy will be more likely to convince internal employees that the new direction is valid.

Example: You want to integrate social media solutions into your existing PR workflow. Your existing PR employee(s) believe the status quo is acceptable and don't want to innovate. Thus, turning to a third party consultancy and asking them to help establish the new mandate will create a sense of obligation among your existing PR staff, rather than laboring under the guise of an internal suggestion that can be sloughed off without repercussions.

(Note: By doing this, you also run the risk of alienating your existing staff, which is why it's often better to take this action AFTER internal discussion. See below.)

2) Your company needs to drastically overhaul its existing direction / workflow, and internal employees are part of the problem.

Example: Production and sales are down, and you need to upright the ship before you're dragged under. Relying upon the staff that's drilling holes in the stern isn't likely to solve the problem, so turning to an outside consultant will help provide you with a clearer, objective, picture of the problem and possible solutions.

When You MAY NOT Need a Consultant

1) Your company wants to try new things that are within the same sphere of expertise as existing, open-minded employees.

Example: As above, you want to integrate social media solutions into your existing workflow. If your internal PR staff is open to the idea, relying on them to lead the movement is usually far preferable to jettisoning them (and their loyalty) in favor of the expertise of strangers.

However, a consultant may still be very helpful in instructing your eager employees in how to do what they'd like to do extremely well.

2) Your company has problems in certain areas that could be repaired by improved communication.

Never underestimate the likelihood that the root cause of your company's problems lies in your employees inability to understand each other in the first place. (Note: You're an employee too.)

3) Your company is outmoded in some areas, but the existing employees could be more useful if their skills and time were applied in new directions.

Why keep wasting your employees' time at a soul-crushing aspect of their jobs when they could be better deployed on new tasks that will help your company gain traction / market share / momentum by charting a new direction?

Even worse: why bring in outsiders' opinions to make your already-frustrated employees feel even MORE marginalized?

Again, consultants can be valuable here in helping guide reassigned employees, but that's a solution that presumes you value your employees (and their loyalty) enough to want to help them improve their current situations (and, therefore, the company as a whole). Assigning them a taskmaster without explaining WHY this change is for the better only breeds resentment and crushes morale.

What Does This Mean for Consultants?

Technically, nothing. Consultants are entitled to gain work anywhere they can find it, and if a company is soulless enough to turn to you for assistance at the expense of the existing employees who are already providing worthwhile feedback, that paycheck is yours to cash.

But consider this:

Why would you want to consult for a company that ignores the advice of the people it already employs? Do you really need your expertise to be validated by the clueless?

Wouldn't you rather work with a company that understands the humane way to integrate your ideas within its existing culture?

So my advice to discerning consultants is: Feel free to take any job offer that comes down the pike, but you're well within your rights to inquire as to whether your potential "partner" has already harvested the insight of its his / her available (and, likely, willing) workforce.

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  • This maybe the first post of yours that I completely agree with. Although I think consultants should take the money and run if they can get away with it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 PM  

  • More times when you might bring in a consultant/outside firm:

    1. You have a one-off project -- something you won't need to do again, so there's no need to develop the skills and capabilities in-house. There may still need to be training so your in-house folks can maintain things once the set-up is done.

    This is most of what we do: building websites, showing people how to use them, standing by to help later if we're needed. Why should a company develop in-depth web design skills when in the long run they'd get more benefit in developing content? They need to focus on what they do best, and hire outsiders for the other stuff.

    2. Your staff has no capacity for some project. If your schedule is heavily booked and something new comes up, you may need to outsource.

    If you're smart, you'll make sure the folks in-house get to do the interesting, expanding projects, and you'll assign less interesting, less important projects to the consultants.

    The big question is what's your company's core differentiator -- or what should it be -- and which capabilities do you need to develop and nurture in-house to ensure that the company retains its edge in future.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:28 PM  

  • 2) Your company has problems in certain areas that could be repaired by improved communication.

    Heh. I once worked there. In this case the consultant got stuff done and served as a scapegoat for deadweight employees' whining.

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