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Consultants: Love Them AND Leave Them! Part 1

Published
  • March 01 2002, 1:00am EST

I am a consultant and am guilty of most of the better sins associated with the profession. This column will explore the vagaries of the profession and some of the emerging best practices for managing people like me. I am advocating a relationship cycle for your use of consultants similar to the patterns we all employ as consumers. We are constantly refreshing and updating our tastes, even as our life events alter our primary needs and resource levels. Consulting services should be subject to both your preferences and requirements. All consulting firms employ some form of "partnership" in their marketing. Fine, just don’t mistake that for exclusivity and price control. The focus of this column is the articulation of criteria for selecting and managing various types of consulting relationships.

Some broad categories of consulting services must be identified to accurately assess your needs and issues. The level of consulting assistance you are seeking is the best way to categorize potential consulting partners. We can think of these levels of service along two dimensions, responsibility and scope. Responsibility is measured based upon the commitment of the consultant to the final outcomes. Limited responsibility is usually associated with design, conceptual review and project justification work. The scope of involvement tracks closely with the level of responsibility. Little or no interaction with your systems can be expected at this level. Design and assurance services require specific knowledge about your systems and requirements but stop short of actually implementing designs or recommendations. Increasing responsibility generally requires an increased scope of involvement. The commitment level of your consultant to actual project deliverables determines the level of their direct involvement with your systems, processes and people.

Figure 1: Consulting Roles and Scope: Basic Criteria for Selection and Management

ROLE

Specialist

Contract Manager

General Contractor

SCOPE

Hands-Off Design

Industry-standing body of work

Limited applicability

Often subcontracted to industry experts

Hands-On Design and Testing (QA)

Subject matter expertise, skill sets

Handled by internal or external experts

Combination of internal and external consultants

Hands-On Development

Tools/application specific skills

Often the primary focus of the project

Consultant teams

Hands-On Implementation

Project mgt. and subject matter expertise, systemic skill sets

Blended roles and responsibilities include contractor, subs and customer resources

Consultant teams

Specialists

High-level design and quality assurance services are the simplest, or cleanest, examples of consulting services. This simplicity is the result of the distance these services maintain between the consultant and your systems. Design and quality assurance services rarely require direct or prolonged involvement with your systems and infrastructure.

Contract Managers

Mid-level services often include a broader mix of functions and require more prolonged involvement. Definition, design, selection and vendor management services all fall under this category, although not usually in the form of a general contractor.

General Contractors

The general contractor (GC) or prime contractor is willing to take responsibility for all of the tasks and resources needed to attain a specific outcome. This commitment is the result of exhaustive statement of work and related scope documents.

Business Versus Technology (Attack of the Management Consultants)

Despite all appearances to the contrary, there is no (formal) agreement between technology and business consulting providers to ensure one another’s perpetual employment. I understand that as much as half of my technology consulting activity is spurred by either the advice of management consultants or its effects. I also understand that clients are tired of paying twice for one effect (once to hear about it; once to get it done). I am doing my part by limiting my presumptive business consulting activity. Technology consultants love to engage in management consulting. We feel so empowered by our ability to consume huge IT/IS budgets on grand enterprise scale projects that we feel duty bound to provide board-level insights. WRONG! We must confine our roles to the areas that we can measurably improve. We must also respectfully ask that management consultants do the same. Perhaps a "no wake zone" could be established around sensitive areas such as enterprise budgets and resource utilization.

Key Resource Questions and Answers

Another area of concern to clients is the composition of consulting service teams. The exposure clients must manage is both physical and logical. Physical access to facilities, systems and people makes the nature of the external resources critically important in the consideration of consulting providers. The logical exposure is the result of information provided to and generated by consultants. No amount of legal documentation can provide protection against poor judgment or indiscretion. Legal remedies, even when available, are poor replacements for lost competitive advantage. How can clients identify the level of exposure they may face due to the use of third-party resources by a consulting provider? Questions and disclosures must be formed around the key issues of contracting and subcontracting. Our goal here is to allow for the appropriate use of the best possible subject matter experts while protecting against the inclusion of substandard or unwanted service providers. The stories about consulting firms thrown out for incompetence or over-priced services, only to return to the scene of the crime as subcontractors to the new prime contractor are plentiful.

Sample Dialog

Q: Who is actually going to do the work?
A: Well, our partner in charge coordinates the delivery of various elements of the project with task- oriented teams.
Q: Who is on those teams?
A: Our people are among the best-in-class service providers and subject matter experts.
Q: I’d like to see their biographies or summary resumes in the project specification as well as details on your use of external subcontract (especially offshore) resources.
A: We will document the composition and skill sets of all of our teams.

The point of the conversation is to determine whether you are getting predominantly direct or indirect resources and what level of localized expertise is included. It is important to bear in mind the importance of external resources to large projects. Many enterprise-wide projects require the use of customized components (data models, ETL script libraries, report design templates, connection and extension packages). External experts with experience in specific tools and techniques are very valuable to these projects. Our goal is to establish a clear understanding about the composition of the consulting teams and their origins.

There is a role in many enterprises for a trusted advisor. A Big Five or other large firm with multiple specialties typically fills this role. The only firms capable of fulfilling this promise are those with broad capabilities and a large does of humility. The broadness of their offerings makes it possible to craft solutions for multiple problems and provide enhanced coordination of disparate projects. There is a shared meta data quality that materializes under these circumstances. The dose of humility is necessary to allow the firm to engage external subject matter experts whenever it provides superior value for the client. No firm can hope to employ all of the best and the brightest, if only because certain of them are determined not to work in a large firm. This combination of breadth and openness to external expertise can prove extremely valuable to clients in need of such trusted advisors.

Summary

Consulting services are an invaluable part of the process of building and managing information assets. Consulting services provide the skills and direction needed to bring competitive advantage to the enterprise. They can also cause serious disruptions and dislocations in the enterprise when their work is not aligned with the needs of the enterprise. We have considered, at a summary level, some of the more important criteria for the consideration of consulting services.

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