Tech & Work

Three guidelines for getting the most out of consultants

If you want to have a successful experience with a consultant, you need to define your expectations of him or her before the job starts.

Some organizations believe that there is never a reason to hire a consultant. After all, hiring a consultant allows that person to build up experience and then leave. Others see consultants as a way to leverage existing experience and bring it to their environments. Both factions, however, want to get better at how they utilize consultants. Here are three ways to achieve that goal.

What exactly is a consultant?

Dictionary definitions focus around two words: expert and advice. These two key words are important for understanding what a consultant is. First, a consultant should be an expert. Second, a consultant should provide advice.

One of the common mistakes is to hire contractors when an expert is called for. Contractors are people who agree to perform a job for a price usually for a shorter period of time. In other words, they are supplemental staff. They have no prerequisite knowledge and are expected to complete work.

Many contractors (and contracting companies) call themselves consultants (and consulting companies). But remember: Consultants are experts; contractors are labor.

When you hire a consultant be clear that you are hiring expertise, of which the primary goal is to provide advice. The advice may be in the form of an evaluation and recommendation. It may also be direct training of employees with recommendations. This is, in fact, the way most of my consulting engagements go. I'm there to educate IT management, technical staff, or both, on what they are doing well and what they can do better " or at least how to best utilize the technology they have.

Be clear about objectives

Have you ever been a part of a "rudderless" committee? They don't seem to have any clear direction and they seem to turn without purpose at the changing directions of the political winds within an organization. Most of us have had this kind of an experience " and it was not a good one. That's why it's important to be clear in your purpose when hiring consultants.

The key question you should be able to answer when hiring a consultant is, "What critical objective must we meet at the end of the consulting engagement?" The more details that you can provide in your answer, the clearer you will be about what you're trying to achieve.

Without a clear objective in your mind you'll find it difficult to select a consultant who can do what you want. Taking the time, no matter how precious, to discover your crystal clear objectives for a consulting engagement, is an absolute requirement for getting the most out of the consultants that you hire.

Hire only what you know and do not know

The paradox of hiring a consultant is that you have to be able to understand who you're hiring so that you can verify that that person is an expert in the field that you are hiring him or her for. You must be able to validate that the knowledge is there. However, if you can validate the knowledge, wouldn't you be able to do the work yourself?

The best advice is stick to what you know and make small progress. If you are hiring a consultant to evaluate some aspect of your organization, focus on the evaluation process. Ask how he will perform the process. Compare this against your experience with various evaluation processes that you have been involved with and decide whether you believe their process for performing the evaluation will work or not. If it will work, create a small engagement which requires that they deliver the process they have outlined " even if it does not completely solve the solution. Evaluate the results and look for the next engagement to get you closer to your goal.

Even if you don't have the expertise that the consultant has, you do have experience in the process and can focus your evaluation efforts there. Don't rely on someone you don't know to recommend the consultant. And don't rely on a resume just because it has a long list of projects. Use those things to validate your decision but use your own knowledge to make the decision.

Provide adequate support and supervision

A common problem that consultants have to deal with is getting the tools and environmental changes they need in order to complete their work. Most consultants realize the'll have to jump through a few hoops to get their work done. They'll have to fight for network access or they'll need to struggle to schedule an important meeting. This is sad because, as an outsider, the consultant will, necessarily, be less effective at getting these things done than an insider who knows the people and can leverage an existing relationship to get things done.

If you want to ensure that you're getting the most from the consultants that you hire, make sure that you are not asking them to do things that they won't be effective at—like scheduling an important meeting or getting a critical change made. Provide support for the consultant by taking these internal tasks off their plate so they can focus on the items that you need their expertise for.

On the other hand, appropriate supervision is required to ensure that they are remaining focused on the objectives that you have for the engagement. The supervision provides a context for discovering issues where additional support is needed as well. Appropriate levels of supervision are most often appreciated and recognized as a sign of strong leadership.

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