Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To Consult or Not To Consult?


Don't hire a consultant who doesn't look good in a suit (courtesy of consulta panel)

Are consultants a boon or a bane? Do they really help or hurt your organisation?

This is the question I've been asking myself lately. Tasked with improving things in the organisation, my mind reflected upon the pros and cons of hiring management consultants.

On the positive side, external advisors can help us to drill down to the real concerns surrounding an issue. Tapping on their years of experience, they can more easily diagnose the root causes of our problems.

Unhindered by organisational politics, consultants can speak their minds more freely.  This is especially important when dealing with loaded issues such as manpower rightsizing, business process re-engineering, and outsourcing.

With their breadth of knowledge in multiple fields, consultants are also able to mix and match the right strategies for one's corporate ills. They can widen our vistas and propose novel solutions - ones which we're too blinkered by our corporate lenses to consider.

Consultants can also equip us with the necessary skills through coaching, training and mentorship.

Having a third party examine your issues allows you to be one step removed from the action. As the saying does, a prophet often isn't welcomed in his hometown. Employees may also be more comfortable sharing sensitive views with an outsider relative to an insider.

However, it isn't all rosy.

Unlike the guys who have slaved away at the shopfront, consultants may not be domain experts in your field. They may not understand the intricacies and complexities unique to your trade.

While consultants can propose surveys, focus groups and ethnographic interviews to better splice and dice your customers, nothing beats having to deal with them on a daily basis at the frontline.

An over reliance on consultants also inhibits an organisation from developing its own point of view. Instead of looking towards their staff, executives end up seeking directions from an external advisor. This has two drawbacks:

1) The person may not understand the nuts and bolts of the business;

2) You end up alienating internal stakeholders who feel that their views are not valued.

Consultants are also not implementers. Hired more for their brains than their brawn, these wizards of flowcharts and spreadsheets do not have to live with the outcomes of their recommendations. Unlike employees, they do not have the burden of overhauling an archaic business process.

As a former boss of mine used to say, consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time.

How then should we engage consultants?

I believe that consultants are only useful if you're certain where you're going - at least in the broad sense. The clearer and more specific you can be, the better.

Organisations that are unsure of their own footing may want to first do a deep internal reflection. They need to ask themselves the difficult questions, ponder the possibilities in their heads, and arrive at some consensus of where they should be headed to before bringing in external experts.

One should also consider hiring consultants to augment rather than replace one's talent pool. Costing an arm and a leg (or more), consultants should only be leveraged on in circumstances where specialised expertise and skills are required.  

Consultants can only help you to draw the map and to chart the course. It is the leaders of an organisation and its crew that will land the ship safely onto the promised land.

What are your views on engaging consultants? Any stories to share?
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