Choosing a human resources consultant
Choosing a human resources consultant

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Choosing a human resources consultant

4 models and methodologies offered

One of the more visible parts of the service many consultants offer is the model or models on which they base their work. When consulting, activity always needs to be related to the local situation. The consultant will normally start by trying to understand the client perspective, but then seek to expand that perspective, using theory and experience from elsewhere.

So you will probably need information on the theoretical models used by any consultants you are considering. In addition to any model of the consultancy process, models may be used primarily as ‘ideals’ – models of a desired state towards which any intervention might hope to lead – or may form the basis for analytical tools, for questionnaires or for training. Some consultants will offer only one or two such models; others may profess to offer a range of models chosen to suit the situation.

Such models may look superb in publicity material and may impress the majority of ‘naïve’ purchasers. You should be able critically to assess both individual models used and the ‘package’ they comprise. Relevant questions include:

  • Is the model meaningful?

  • Does it make sense to you in the light of your own experience?

  • Is there relevant and adequate empirical evidence for the model/theory?

  • Does the proposed approach include an element of diagnosis?

  • Is the model or set of models likely to include all the key elements in the situation which are likely to need addressing?

  • Having started to discuss the situation with the consultant, have I already come to understand it better?

The significance of these questions should be fairly self-evident. If a model does not make sense to you or feels ‘wrong’, and questioning does not enable you to understand it, then it is unlikely to form a useful basis for working together. This applies both to the model of the consultancy process and to aspects of the organisation and its context.

The final question is important because all models are simplifications, highlighting only a few aspects in a situation. Even models which are familiar, relevant, based on solid research evidence and which have served you well in the past need to be assessed. Will this model constrain or enrich the planned initiative? If it excludes key elements in the situation, it may prevent these elements being addressed. Even if it includes the elements you consider important, remember the dangers of premature diagnosis. Does the proposed approach include a questioning of the initial diagnosis? Even if you are sure what the problem is, there are usually advantages in using a methodology which includes a thorough diagnostic and information-gathering stage.

The following case is a ‘horror story’, describing what was, even at the time, an extreme exercise in cynicism. I have included it because it shows the importance of choosing your consultant carefully, and demonstrates an extreme case of a model driving the outcome.

Box 1 Case: performance improvement

Craig (2005) has been a consultant for decades. His first consultancy job was with a consultancy he calls, for obvious reasons, ‘The Butchers’. Their product was cost savings by ‘improving management processes’ and ‘enhancing supervisor capability’ (p. 36) – an attractive offering. The reality was rather different. They offered an initial ‘free analysis’. This was a work study exercise carried out by extremely junior, unqualified and inexperienced ‘consultants’, who were instructed to find 30% over-staffing in each area of the organisation. It was made clear to these junior staff that their jobs depended on their findings showing this, even if it required falsification of their results. (The ‘model used by this consultancy was that a version of scientific management could reduce the labour needed in any organisation by 30%.)

Having shown the potential client just how much money they could save, ‘The Butchers’ were well placed to gain a highly lucrative contract to implement the necessary changes. Craig cites an assignment in a retail organisation, where first he timed a window dresser dressing a dummy, then calculated the time required to dress the number of dummies in all the windows in the 500 shops concerned. Calculations miraculously showed that this was 30% less than the time currently employed. Daily reports were completed on those employees who retained their jobs. If their efficiency failed to reach the desired level they were ‘coached’, and if this was ineffective they were fired.

Based on Craig (2005)

This combination of reducing headcount and exercising tight control over remaining staff was the standard method by which the consultants in the case above operated. Time and motion study and the implementation of tight controls by production targets, daily reports and extremely close supervision was all that their junior consultants knew how to do. The consultancy approach was simple and standard. First, they identified the number of surplus staff in each area (where possible they would replace staff by cheaper, part-time or temporary workers) and then they introduced very tight controls. If you hired this particular consultancy, this was what you got. Now if the problem was over-staffing because of loose control, this may well have been the appropriate action but, unless the client had correctly diagnosed this before contacting the consultants, this particular consultancy was unlikely to be helpful.

In general, if an in-depth diagnosis has already come up with a fairly clear idea of the problem, you can afford to use a well-defined model that makes sense to you, and offers a good framework for addressing that particular problem.

Conversely, if you know that a problem is fairly messy and you are not at all sure about the pattern of causal relationships, significant diagnostic investigation will be required. In this case you want to beware of any consultancy which bases its activities on only a few ‘tight’ models. An approach which looks at the broader context as well as at interactions between factors within the area of concern – that is, an approach incorporating systems thinking – is needed.

Models, and the methodologies derived from them, are one of the more visible parts of what a consultancy offers. Processes are another. A model may have been used as the basis for fairly systematised procedures by which the consultancy operates. It may drive particular methods of data generation, such as surveys, or particular ways of interacting with stakeholders, such as training days according to a fairly standard pattern. This allows obvious economies of scale for the consultancy. In exploring the ‘product’ you are being offered, you would need not only to consider the model itself, but also these derivatives, considering their compatibility with your particular context, and the extent to which you feel they are likely to contribute to, or constrain, the generation of a range of appropriate ways forward.

Activity 6

Review your last experiences of consultancy.

  1. What models were used to underpin the work?

  2. How explicit were they?

  3. Did they form part of the ‘product’ described when the consultant was bidding for business?

  4. How useful were they in that particular initiative?

In the light of this reflection, make notes on possible models that might underpin your own consultancy business, and any additional questions about models that you might ask when selecting consultants in future.

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