How to Hire an Effective Consultant

Everyone has a consultant story that would make a good ''Dilbert" cartoon. And every consultant has a customer story that would make the next day's ''Dilbert." But if we scan our memories, most of us can recall a time when a consultant provided the expertise we needed at just the right moment. Expertise is probably the most valuable product a consultant can offer. Specialized knowledge transferred to in-house staff members is of the highest value. Nevertheless, in some cases, whole projects are being turned over to consulting companies to take advantage of their knowledgeable staff and their experience in project management.

Unfortunately, engaging consultants is not as simple as recognizing the need for help. Consulting companies come with as many negatives and positives as other companies. As always, buyer beware. The problem is that the buyer has to be aware in an area of self-confessed ignorance. Having decided that you don't know enough about technology planning, Year 2000 or fiber telecommunications, you must now engage a consultant without really understanding what the consultant should be offering you.

A Few Recommendations

If you have a natural negotiator on your staff, assign that person to coordinate all the contracts. Your project objectives must be stated clearly and concisely. Because you might lack knowledge in the technical area under consideration, balance this by developing relevant knowledge of proposal and contract language. I gain confidence when working with a colleague who is experienced in evaluating sales pitches, editing project descriptions and reading legal clauses. Obviously, lawyers also are critical players, and most would be happy to join a team that included someone familiar with the information technology language in the contract.

If possible, get to know the culture and specializations of consulting companies. It takes some backbone to attract sales attention before you are ready to buy. The companies you approach will be looking for an immediate or early decision as they try to sell you on their services. Once informed, however, reputable companies I have contacted have respected my determination to be a knowledgeable buyer. Having identified a need, you must articulate it. This may be difficult. To me, the need for consulting feels like standing in the doorway of a dark room. Shapes are undefined; boundaries fade into the unknown. A brief discussion, however, usually reveals that in-house staff members often know something about the problem to be solved. Perhaps the colleagues you meet at breakfast meetings have engaged consultants for similar work and can readily give you good ideas. Even the process of completing a documented decision tree or matrix analysis can help a project team identify specific details about what work or expertise is needed.

Once you start on the time-consuming process of selecting a consulting company, be sure to recognize the critical difference between talking to the marketing staff and talking to the technical staff. Generally, the larger the firm, the more likely you will talk only to the marketing staff. (The good technical staff members are working on other projects.) The marketers have access to the resumes of the technical staff members, and they may even know each other. But their performance-evaluation criteria differ. Enthusiasm on the part of marketing staff may oversell the expertise of the technicians who are available when your project starts. Check critical points on the resumes of consultants so you will know if their work on "Project X" included exercising the exact skills you want.

Many consulting companies use custom methodologies. For large companies this is almost essential to their productivity. If you can, find a company that has a methodology that fits with the practices of your own organization. In my experience, most companies will sell their own flexibility as a customer service. However, if the individual consultants have been thoroughly trained by their employers, they will see no point in changing "a proven approach." Try not to waste time fighting this. Finding a match of cultures means cost savings for you.

With the incredible work pressures of this decade, all managers want someone to take problems away and handle them. Consultants can be valuable in reducing work pressures, but their perspectives on important decisions, project expansion and relevant activities are certain to be different from the clients'. In the end, simple good project management will maximize the contribution consultants can make to the effective completion of work.

-- Judith Umbach is the executive director for the Year 2000 at the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She can be reached at jumbach@shaw.wave.ca.

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