2 Identifying potential consultants
Once you have decided on the sort of consultancy needed, the first problem, mentioned by Clark (1995), is identifying potential consultants. I asked an associate with considerable experience in this how she went about identifying potential consultants. Her initial, and unhelpful, response was ‘you just know’. Tacit knowledge is clearly important here. Probing elicited the following:
Firstly my organisation was large and so has an extensive corporate memory. Each consultancy contract is evaluated at its completion and the performance of the consultants involved is recorded. When another project is considered there is already a list of known possible consultants. The solicitors maintained that list, and it is they who wrote the contracts.
In addition, there are Universities and other organisations who do consultancy work, and these are also known. The emergence of new potential consultants is monitored. In addition, consultants present their abilities in all sorts of situations, at international conferences or cosy seminars, or by sending books which they have just published or articles in the learned journals. They may offer hospitality, although that is often difficult for a public sector client to accept. Colleagues may have met useful contacts and pass on their details.
Consultancy work for Government is very transparent. Mistakes are visible and expensive disasters get onto the front pages of newspapers. I suspect that consultants’ mistakes in the private sector are often swept under the carpet.
(Senior civil servant)
Organisations are increasingly seeking to ‘rationalise’ provision of services, both in the interests of obtaining better ‘deals’ as major purchasers, and in the interests of ensuring consistency. Such rationalisation often includes keeping lists of ‘approved’ consultants from which choice must be made and standardising procurement procedures. You may well need to work closely with your organisation's procurement services. If so, it becomes critical to develop a good working relationship with them, and a clear mutual understanding of your requirements, and your respective roles in sourcing consultants.
List what you see as the potential advantages and disadvantages of such ‘approved lists’, from the perspective of both purchaser and provider.
Advantages for the purchaser may include: vetted suppliers; economies of scale, leading to potentially better deals; speedier provision of services as there are fewer stages in the tendering process for suppliers to go through; control over maverick managers who may otherwise employ their own unsuitable preferred suppliers; greater control over quality; and increased bargaining power over costs.
Advantages for the provider may include: less time/cost spent in the tendering process; less time wasting as the purchaser more likely to buy from you; the ability to build up knowledge of the client; greater likelihood of being paid if a formal agreement exists; improved forecasting/knowledge of where future business will come from.
Disadvantages for the purchaser may include: working from a list which features only the ‘big’ players – major names who tend to have a range of fairly standardised packages that may not fit your particular needs, and which they are reluctant to tailor them to your specific needs; being faced with different consultants each time, even though you are using the same consultancy, which makes it difficult to build a relationship and reduces the consultant's opportunity to gain tacit knowledge of the organisation.
For a consultant the disadvantages will depend on whether they are on or off the list! Traditionally, there have been few barriers to entry to offering consultancy. A move towards approved lists' constitutes a major barrier, which means that new entrants will need to focus on organisations not operating such a list or on open invitations to tender.
If your organisation does not have such a list, and has not used consultants for this sort of project before (or would not wish to use particular customers again), what sources of information are available? Consultants have a range of ways of making their services known to potential clients. Most will network highly effectively through professional and other organisations. Many will publish ‘success stories’ in the professional press. The larger consultancies often encourage their consultants to produce books, which serve, among other things, to impress clients.
List ways in which reading consultants' success stories may give a biased picture.
This question is not intended to suggest that failures are deliberately misrepresented as success, nor to detract from the success of many interventions. However, such successes might be only a tiny proportion of a particular consultant's interventions. Many may be less successful, but only the successes will be publicised. Furthermore, the perception of success may be that of the consultant and of the immediate client, whose own reputation in the organisation may depend on the success of the intervention. Both parties may therefore be more likely to perceive the positive outcomes than potential negative ones. The perceptions of different stakeholders may be less favourable. Finally, short-term benefits may have been succeeded by longer-term problems. I have interviewed many people working in organisations which have experienced ‘successful’ consultancy interventions, who would rate them very differently. It is important to treat evidence of any kind with caution, whether it relates to consultancy or other issues.
You may well have cited publications or networking as sources of information in your response to Activity 2. If so, you may or may not have seen bias as a hazard. However, you always need to think about the potential for bias when using information provided by a consultancy. Many potential clients seek recommendations from colleagues who have used consultants in the past, but you should bear in mind that past clients may have had different requirements from yours in terms both of the skills required of the consultant and their preferred ‘style’.
If the above methods of selecting a suitable consultant do not appeal, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) offers a consultancy service in all the main areas of HR, including change and organisational development (OD). It maintains a register of consultants – all CIPD members who meet certain criteria – on which it draws to deliver these services.