So You Want to Hire a Consultant?

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - With an ever-growing need for information technology resources, consultants are hanging out their shingles in record numbers. In the 21 years I've been in IT, I've worked with different types of consultants and consulting companies, and have learned that consultants can either help make or break a project. So choose them wisely.

A consultant can usually be placed in one of the following five categories:

Bait-and-Switch Consultants

"Have I got the perfect consultant for you!" The consultant starts his work and turns out to be great. Before you know it, reinforcements arrive and the key consultant is pulled off your project to do the same thing to another client.

Recently, we hired some bait-and-switchers. A consultant came in and did a great job. All of a sudden, we had 10 consultants doing the work that was supposed to have been done by just one. And none of them had the experience to complete the task.

‘No Problem' Consultants

"Sure, I can do that. . ." These consultants are the "No problem" consultants.

How often have you gone for the low bid, only to have the consultants come in over budget? "No problem" consultants will promise you everything but ignore time and budget constraints, and find later that they can't deliver.

Lennon and McCartney

These are your partner consultants, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

They're willing to take joint ownership responsibilities for a project and can complement your work skills and experience. On one of my projects, I had a partner consultant, Laura Werner. While I had the strategic direction for the operations center, Laura was able to take those ideas and create a plan to implement them. We operated as a team, working off each other's strengths.

Nuts-and-Bolts Consultants

These are your technical specialists. Just set them on a specific task for which you don't have the in-house expertise. In many cases, these consultants begin to blend into your background and become a long-term "in-house" resource.

Napoleonic Consultants

These consultants always say they know how to do the job better. They come en masse to run a large project, protected by their employer, a large consulting firm. But the company leaves them to run the project, only to find it later in ruin.

I've seen complete projects outsourced to Napoleonic consultants who insist on being totally in charge. They get out of control because no one was watching them properly.

Lessons Learned

You can be successful using any type of consultant if you modify your management style and understand your objectives. To work successfully with a consultant, there are a few things you can do before beginning a project.

1. Understand that consultants don't have all the answers. They need to be managed carefully, but too often, companies think they can off-load a project to consultants and let them go. By actively managing their progress, you can ensure that a project is successfully completed. Consultants from large companies often have the knowledge and resources necessary to complete a project. They just need guidance to use those resources to your benefit.

2. Determine the scope of work that needs to be done before starting a project.

Make sure you understand the plan of action before the consultants begin work.

If you're hiring a consulting company based on a particular consultant, make sure you understand his involvement and what will happen if he's pulled off the job. This will help you succeed with a bait-and-switch consultancy.

3. Have a consulting firm give you an estimate of the time and budget necessary to do the job. While most consultants won't offer a fixed bid, they should be able to give you an estimate of the time required. Examine this to ensure that the scope of work can be done in that time. "No problem" consultants need to be managed carefully. Find out up front how they will handle change-management requirements. You also want to stop the urge to complete new requests "under the table." These will get done, but it will add to the time line and budget.

4. Interview consultants. Make sure there's compatibility between their workstyles and yours. Are you hiring a Lennon to complement your McCartney?

Just because you like a consulting company doesn't mean you'll like the assigned consultant.

Monteleone (fmonteleone@Pactiv.com) is executive director of IT at Pactiv Corp.

(formerly Tenneco Packaging) in Lincolnshire, Ill.

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